Ethical and curatorial debates as from the finding of a diptych by the Argentine artist Santiago García Sáenz.
María Lightowler - María Amor Ferrón. Agosto 2018.
The present work intends to trace a course that articulates the considerations which emerged from the finding of a diptych painted by the Argentine artist Santiago García Sáenz (1955-2006). On one hand, and at a macro level, it aims at highlighting the importance of the research and constant documentation of the work of a deceased artist, avoiding, at least temporarily, those certainties which might invalidate new perspectives on his production. On the other hand, it seeks to tell a micro story about the work of this artist, which could be the prelude to a significant discovery in connection to two of his works (or one of his works) and the questions derived from this circumstance.
The archive as the substratum of investigation: the power of what is to be discovered.
The work done by the researcher and the professional in charge of the documentation of works of art, is often built on the assumptions of History, which many times arise from premises that base on established and even encrypted beliefs. When such analysis is focused on the work of a deceased artist, to advance becomes difficult and the range of circumstances with which one must deal, adopts a different nature. Thus, the archive becomes the axis on which most of the work must be done, and this depends, to a great extent, on its previous condition, since it may have been made with a higher or a lower degree of exhaustiveness. The other variable is the possibility of having or not having access to the works; finally, to be able or not, to count on a family who are interested and willing to cooperate in the research work. This condition is crucial since it makes it possible to get in touch with the private aspects of a deceased artist in a direct way.
Daniel Moquay, who is in charge of Yves Klein’s Archive and the curator of the retrospective exhibition held in Fundación Proa in 2017, tells Adriana Rosenberg in an interview, how his first task of documentation of this artist’s work began: his widow, Rotraut, gave him some boxes which nobody had read or analyzed before. All of Klein’s writings were there; Moquay spends several months in the same room where the artist had worked, re reading and classifying all the material, including those pages which seemed to say the same once and again. (He finds, for instance, eight pages which look identical but have subtle differences, as Klein used to write and rewrite his texts). This archive, which has existed for over 25 years is what enables the researcher and curator not only to hold the retrospective but also to propose new approaches to his production, basing on first hand documentation.
Nevertheless, the findings of archives present ethical problems and curatorial instances of hesitation, which the curator is to define, substantiating a stance which takes into consideration both: the results of the analysis of documents and the artist’s vision. Taking Moquay’s account as a test case, there is no doubt of the importance that this material acquires: it makes it possible to declassify an artist’s work, to make it known in other fields forbidden so far, and opens the debate to issues that have been left aside by history of Art.
Part of such a task is the purpose of the archive work done on Santiago Garcia Saenz’s work, as it intends to provide, in a first stage, a more inclusive and updated vision of his production. In the last years of his life, Santiago developed an interest in religious themes, and, although this is not the only conceptual axis of his artistic corpus, the approach of his paintings seems to have petrified on this univocal approach. In parallel, the process leads to an important finding: a diptych by this artist, which has been considered individually for many years, that is, as if they were two single pieces. This discovery leads to a series of questions that the researcher must solve basing on both ethical and curatorial criteria.
Santiago García Sáenz: archive and investigation as canals of revitalization y declassification.
The theoretical - historical investigation on the work and career of Argentine artist Santiago García Sáenz (SGS) is in progress. It started in 2013 with the support of the family who inherited his legacy. Although SGS was already an active artist in the 80’s, it was in the 90’s and 2000 that he was given greatest acknowledgement. SGS was an active member of a paradigmatic generation of artists, crossed at the same time by the return to democracy and the drama of HIV-AIDS; two elements which determine and accelerate his working processes, thus generating a conscience of time-space work that results in a concentrated and intense production in a brief period of time.
After the artist’s untimely death in 2006, his work comes to a standstill in two different ways: on one hand, it remains univocally associated to the religious art, while his production is much broader and includes colonial issues as well as social and civil conflicts both contemporary and historic ones. Those conflicts are the reflection of very stressing moments in the socio-political arena, not only of the present Argentine history but also of the Latin American region. In parallel, series like “Cristo en los enfermos” approach, from both, a personal and a collective angle, the HIV-AIDS drama, since in the 80’s it started to be experienced as a more and more urgent problem. On the other hand, his work stops circulating gradually in the market and in the world of exhibitions and the interest is reduced to a group of collectors, of artists that follow him and of theorists and curators who get to know him as a cult artist.
The aim of this research is to dust off and submit SGS’s production to a rereading and updating process basing on the perspective that Art and Curatorship have adopted in the latest decades. This new view is interested in those works by local artists which have not been studied and spread very much, this way opening a path towards a more comprehensive, plural and inclusive vision of present art. As a consequence, the research work on SGS intends to revitalize his production but also calls into debate topics of discussion about the art in the region. The underlying macro aim is to promote approaches that allow updated views and discussions.
SGS’s work is disruptive; while in the 2000 decade, he supports classic values of figuration and oil painting, the choice of his themes and his approach place him in the most contemporary scene. In his last works he paints religious themes , but also deals with homo-erotic issues in the context of the 80’s, with ideas associated with the colonial history and the conquest of America, the attack on the AMIA ( Israeli Argentine Mutual Association), the economic crisis, and the conflicts and civil tensions in Argentina in 2001.
At a technical level, he not only devotes to the painting on paper and canvas, but also carries out installations and performances. He dies at the very moment his work is at its most. The undertaken research, which takes Archive as a substratum, intends to activate the debate around the issues that SGS proposed.
“El mate”: a work which is two, or a work that is one, or two works that are two
In 2013, SGS’s family decides to open his archive and the research work starts. The first analysis shows that most of the works painted in the 80’s were made on paper. The artist counts on few resources in those years so paper appears to be most accessible material. Most of the pieces that belong to this time remain rolled up, that is, just as he himself stored them in his workshop. On his death, the whole corpus of his work is carried to the present archive and for years, it has remained in the same conditions it was found when the artist died. In other cases, and for exhibition purposes, the pieces were mounted on various kinds of wood or wooden perimeter sticks. At present many of these pieces are being submitted to restoration, with the help of funds and private subsidies.
It is in the first stage of the work that the “El mate” is discovered. “El mate”, “Te estoy buscando América” series, (acrylic, chalk pastel, and charcoal on paper, 158 x220.6cm, 1984) and it prevails as the central piece of the analysis, being still unknown that it was part of a diptych not yet identified. The most important cause of this initial interest is the fact that the work is included in the exhibition that SGS holds in 1985 in the emblematic Ruth Benzacar Gallery, after which he starts to be regarded as one of the revelation artists.
The different ways in which the artist keeps his production will later become one of the reasons why this work, segmented, has been considered as two individual pieces for years: one of the parts of the diptych is rolled up while the other is mounted on wood. Another circumstance that leads to the idea of not considering the work as an individual piece is that in 2005, when the artist publishes his book “Ángel de la Guarda. 50 años de dulce compañía” (1) (Guardian Angel, 50 Years in Sweet Company) in which he covers his production; he includes only one segment of the work, as an individual piece. In this way, while the inventory is updated, the pieces lead individual unconnected lives for years.
This situation extends until 2016 when the photographic file starts to be organized and the compilation includes not only photos of works, but also those of events, exhibitions, openings and the artist’s private life. In a photo contact sheet showing black and white photographs, an image calls the attention.
It is of the opening of the “Pinturas” exhibition, which took place between December 1984 and January 1985 in Ruth Benzacar gallery in Buenos Aires, where SGS shows paintings on paper. Behind the photographed scene – a greeting between the artist and one of the guests – on the background, the complete work can be seen: both parts of “El mate” put together, as one, silently expressing that they constitute only one and not two separate works, as vicissitudes of life had made us think.
Using the multiple resources that technology offers today such as the zoom, the hypothesis can be confirmed; it is the work “El mate” and it is a diptych. As a consequence of having led separate lives, the state of conservation of each sheet is different. The lack of homogeneity of the stand also contributes to the fact that the two pieces have not been visually connected as members of the same work for many years.
The finding, unpredictable for the work team, means a challenge and at the same time, sets several questions that strain the curatorial work and are linked the problems which arise when one is dealing with the work done by a late artist. Questions such as: Would the artist like the piece to keep on being regarded individually? Or: Is it valid to reconsider the idea of the diptych? What is the artist’s motivation to publish the piece as an individual work, only one panel in his book “Ángel de la Guarda”? Why does he omit the other one? Was it oblivion, bias of the Arts market or artistic strategy? And why is the panel on the right included and not the one on the left?
In the case that the curatorial decision were to present the work as a diptych, how should it be shown? Should each sheet be exhibited in its present state or should the stands be unified? Should both parts of the diptych be made to have the same visual appearance through restoration processes thus leaving aside the single history that each of them has had? Or would it be more suitable to respect the individuality of its tracks that conveys the autonomy of their lives?
Approaches: interruptions and continuities in the exegesis of the work.
The discovery of the diptych gives rise to new dimensions of the work, making it possible to think the piece from perspectives which had not been considered before. As from the connection of both panels, the scenes - which are linked to certain themes the artist had started to deal with - are re-contextualized, producing a polysemy that proposes multiple views of the work.
The left panel, which is smaller, presents a male figure hanging on a harness. The central image, a naked figure, is accompanied by two other characters at the right bottom; the attention tends to be first drawn to this nude and from there, the work suggests a series of associations linked to homo-erotic issues. The characters who accompany the main figure slide subtly to the edges of the composition – at least when the work is thought as a single panel – and convey a feeling that may be seen as modesty.
The right panel also shows naked male figures, but the focus is laid on the “mate” which, on a lower plane, appears repeatedly as a symbol of identity. When both panels are put together, the landscape on the background constitutes a clear and conclusive appearance which contextualizes both scenes in new scenery. A brick wall, which seems to be fed by a stream of overflowing water, is preceded – in the upper layers of the painting – by inhabited hills, where the houses depicted suggest it could be a small village. The whole scene takes place in the open air, for which reason, when the two pieces are put together, the themes linked to erotic or sensuous situations are particularly forced.
The instances of transference: a binding task.
All these questions regarding the work “El mate” are intended to be answered whiles several activities are carried out in order to put the artist’s production into circulation : the diagnosis of works performed by experts in conservation and restoration; an exhibition of small-scale paintings at HACHE Gallery, which – through an agreement in 2013 - becomes the representative and the institution in charge of the commercialization of the work; the presentation of the artist’s work in the Contemporary Art Fair arteBA (2016, 2017 and 2018) , a joint effort with the said gallery; a publication containing unpublished works and details of the project; a catalogue raisonne and the permanent application for funds and support to continue the documentary work.
In 2017 his work is selected by Curator Sonia Becce and included in the Argentine sending to ARCOMadrid, event in which our country was a guest of honor; a successful exhibition of unpublished drawings, which is the result of the finding of two folders containing over 500 works on paper in the archive, is held at HACHE Gallery. This event becomes emblematic as it exhibits unknown works.
The activities above were performed both, simultaneously and successively and all of them had the aim of contributing to a new visibilization of SGS’s work that could also include a broader approach of his production. Their brief enumeration intends to focus on the importance of the intervention of different agents in the process, professionals who contribute to the collective purpose, from the specificity of their areas.
Research, restoration, dissemination and commercialization should be coordinated actions that strengthen one another. This joint effort that seeks to give new visibility to SGS, a contemporary artist who was left aside by the recent official historiography, offers new generations the possibility of getting to know his work but also doing so from a wide range of perspectives which respond to the multiple readings his production offers. At the same time, this operation, which has Curatorial work and archive work as fundamental pillars, offers tools to do research on other artists who, like him , have not been sufficiently studied and analyzed.
A curatorial approach always presupposes a sphere of subjectivity which is to be complemented by objective statements resulting from previous exhaustive research work. In the case of SGS’s work, this process led to the finding of a diptych - considered two individual pieces for years – and gave rise to a series of ethic debates, inquiries and questions that became important on the sole ground that they were put beyond the possible answers and the stances taken.
Not being able to ask the artist, the professional seeks to substantiate their decisions and conclusions through what the archive contents offers, a fact that highlights the importance of documentation as an argumentative resource. The subjective and objective spheres have to intertwine in order to try to respond to the needs of exhibition and reproduction of the word, creating a real that multiplies rather than limits its possible approaches.
The discovery of “El mate” as a diptych, also warns living artists as to how important it is to document all information concerning their production and career, presupposing that they are interested in generating a work corpus whose transcendence may crystallize their formal and conceptual interests as faithfully as possible.
Finally, and in connection with this point, the finding deepens the debate about the autonomy that the production acquires once the artist has died. The work of art is a living being which continues its journey: it is not static and it is enriched as it goes across different contexts. The challenge of curatorial work is to find that point of balance at which – basing on subjectivity and objectivity - the intentions and desires that the artist had in life meet satisfactorily, without leaving aside the organic and dynamic character of all works of art.
(1) GARCÍA SÁENZ, Santiago (2005). Ángel de la Guarda. 50 años de dulce compañía. Buenos Aires: Argentina Publishers.
Published in VADB - Colaborative investigation networking. 2019
Espigas Foundation - Womens Invetigators Repository. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2021
Santiago García Sáenz. El mate (Dyptich. I´m looking you America Series. 1984. Acrylic, charcoal, an
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