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Guillermo Kuitca: Labyrinths of Departures or the Impermanence of Self

Guillermo Kuitca, Untitled, 1992, acrylic on mattress with wood and bronze legs, 20 beds: each 15 ¾” x 23 5/8” x 47 ¼”. Courtesy Miami Art Museum

Guillermo Kuitca, Untitled, 1992, acrylic on mattress with wood and bronze legs, 20 beds: each 15 ¾” x 23 5/8” x 47 ¼”. Courtesy Miami Art Museum

By Janet Batet

One of the most interesting polarities that governs the contemporary urban story is duality –an area not devoid of tremendous tension- comprised of public space and private space. This opposing notion, inherited from the Greek polis and consolidated by the Roman Empire, signifies for the West the founding and modeling –at a symbolic level- of societal behavior. In the midst of this ponderous urban physiognomy, access networks start ranking structures of belonging, responsibility and law. Very concrete behavioral boundaries thus correspond to spatial boundaries, just as private space pits itself against public space.

Translated on a macro level, the tension that imposes new viewpoints on traditional divisions between frontiers and nationalities, today conveys permeability and transitoriness as constants, which mold the contemporary individual.

It is precisely in this controversial counterpoint that we find the universe of Guillermo Kuitca (Buenos Aires, 1961), whose work gives expression to man’s ontological conflicts, which today have become pressing in a world shaken by dislocation and anxiety. It is a world in which clear borders framed by an obsolete modern era are found to be inoperative and the self –that egocentric desire encased by romanticism- no longer belongs to us as a unique parcel, an egocentric state of supreme liberty. The self now becomes permeated -undoubtedly by others- in a constant flux that defines the new era to which we are condemned: that continual tide that Bauman so masterfully defined as Liquid Modernity.

It is no surprise then that Kuitca bases his creation, in which two very personal icons – map and bed – are established as an essential metaphor, on the polarity public space-private space. Thus, the labyrinthine urban framework -the incomprehensible network that both suffocates and contains us- is set against the intimate niche, the quasi womb, that brings us peace. However, –and as the logical result of a new era in which frontiers blur their obsolete and rigid outlines–, these polar spaces in Kuitca’s oeuvre become infected and contaminated, superimposing themselves on each other in a kind of polyphony that dismisses beforehand any presumed purity.

In this sense, of note are Kuitca’s beds that exhibit –like tattoos on skin- the unfathomable maps of that ever-present public space, already established forever in the private space where interdependence is imposed as the key stone and imminent logic of our contemporaneity.

“Everything, Paintings and Works on Paper, 1982-2008,” is the title of the retrospective exhibition of Kuitca’s prodigious career that, organized in collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo, New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) presents to us until January 17, 2010. The show occupies the second floor of MAM and, for the display of large-format works, it takes advantage of the suitable premises of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.

Untitled, 1992, is the show’s main installation, as well as the icon that summarizes Kuitca’s career. Comprised of twenty childrens beds, which are joined like an island or continent, this eloquent installation incarnates the symbiosis between divergent territories. The reserved intimate space and distant geographies are integrated into one collective unit, which appears to reveal to us without subterfuge its singular internal cartography. The veins of unknown or nearby paths appear like the arteries of a new being, a kind of labyrinth or jigsaw puzzle that contains innumerable possibilities. Another obvious essential element is the absence of the human being, which is suggested by the empty object, turning his absence into a pressing lament and an appeal.

Another of the icons appropriated by Kuitca, in his insatiable investigation of the gaps between the public and the private, is the recurrence of the architectural plan. This exercise, which starts out as an exploration of essential personal space (towards the end of the 1980s, Kuitca began by re-creating his own room), is soon extended to areas of collective confluence with very concrete functionality.

The artist pauses at very specific structures, such as, prisons, cemeteries, theaters, stadiums, etc. In every case, we witness edifices, destined to receive great throngs of people, whose modalities and architectural structures share an entropic sense, predetermining and conditioning the behavior of individuals contained therein.

If one constant stands out within this group of works, it is the emplacement of the architectural structure as a conceptual abstraction that reaffirms the idea of alienation and emptiness. In this regard, reference is made to his series of operatic theaters, where thanks to synesthesia, music is made omnipresent: Kuitca masterfully translates the sonorous vibration to the visual sphere. The display of plans, which enumerate the seats reserved for each individual, once again speaks to the gaps between self and others, now invaded by a noise that dislocates the image, making it incomprehensible at times.

In this series, we find his polished and meticulous collages in red and black, notable for their level of synthesis and poetry, or the bucolic versions in watercolor, such as, his 32-teatro-alla-scala-I, 32 Seating Plans, 2007, where the plan appears to free itself from its rigid structure, turning into a kind of living organism: a capricious sea anemone that appears to dance animatedly through who knows what dreams and deliria.

His imposing blueprints present another area of interest. The artist now pauses in transit areas, waiting rooms where highly agitated traffic does not leave the slightest trace of passers-by. The only element that persists is once again the impersonal architectural structure, which imposes itself as the only memory and true remembrance of our passage, which leaves no tracks, impermanent, ephemeral.

Following the logic of this series initiated by the blueprints, we arrive at the central piece that greets visitors upon arrival at the current exhibition. I refer to Trauerspiel, 2001, chosen by the artist to this effect and considered by him to be a kind of self-portrait. The title, which in German means tragedy, contains a double meaning. In the first instance, personal tragedy, symbolized by perpetual wandering, carries with it the notion of being uprooted. However, a second level of reading is required. This term, in German, also implies an obvious allusion to the music genre –knowing the career of Kuitca and his passion for music and theater, it could be no other way.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the bourgeois tragedy unfolded in Europe. This new mode of tragedy spread rapidly throughout Europe and was especially strong in Germany. Said form of tragedy, a reaction to the appearance of the bourgeoisie, proposed the emplacement of the common man as the central protagonist in its themes. The idea of the virtuous citizen, previously incarnated by the romantic hero, made way for the simple businessman, centered on his family and his private life. It is only that in Kuitca’s oeuvre, this simple execution is no longer possible. The path is then cleared for a new tragic subject, marked by the misfortune of an environment that contains him and excludes him at the same time: a kind of state of limbo from which not even the artist himself is exempt.

Trauerspiel reaffirms the idea of the fateful cycle in which man lies trapped. The cold baggage carrousel, typical of all airports, turns into a propitious simile for a new theme; in some form, it is present in Guillermo Kuitca’s entire repertoire. I refer to transitoriness and impermanence as essential conditions of our era. Once again, music reaches our ears as an unavoidable recurrence within the work of this artist. It now makes itself felt through a kind of ritournelle effect, referring to the idea of cycle or litany – a never-ending procession emphasized by the crucial notions of displacement, flux and interdependence.

In the final room, Kuitca delights us with his most recent production. It would appear that the same ritournelle effect magnified over time has led the artist to a reunion with crucial moments in the history of art. In this new series, which –according to him- the artist arrived at without intending to, the abstract sentiment dominates: a taste for the pictorial plane and the structural composition per se.

At times concrete references are imposed. Some of the paintings appear to be a clin d’oeil at the work of Lucio Fontana through an illusionism that touches on trompe-l-oeil, while others permit glimpses of futuristic impressions. Above all, a cubist vocation, the univocal desire to unravel structure and a homage to Cézanne dominate; this in a way becomes the new symbol of decantation between the public and the private, now taken to the auto-referential plane of the history of art.

It is that Guillermo Kuitca’s oeuvre, at once profuse, intimate, grandiloquent and delicate is a kind of via crucis of our errant passage, which always tries to leave support here and there, but of which there remains –and it is just as well- the mere direction of a path.

At Freedom Tower, we are startled by the monumental dimensions of works that reaffirm our nullity. Of note, in this sense, is Everything, 2004. In it Kuitca appears to establish an ellipsis that has as a point of departure his series Nadie olvida nada (Nobody forgets anything), from 1982, in which the isolated image of the bed was the obvious central focal point. Instead, now, from the summit, we witness a view of complicated maps of the American territory that break and become distorted, and are whimsically recomposed in a new fragmented geography, annulling the notion of being one cartography.

Kuitca’s maps contain so much information that far from orienting us, they lose us definitively, this time forever, in that fateful –and fascinating at the same time- abstraction that is the urban story. It is an tangled skein –so designated by Moiras- that shakes our limited existence of brotois in which, perhaps –with a lot of luck- we will meet again on the next stop of our perpetual and ephemeral journey.

Janet Batet: Independent curator, art critic and essayist.

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