As artists Fernando Bryce and Armando Andrade Tudela reap the fruits of international success, little is known about Lima, the city where they grew up. Jorge Villacorta, the driving force behind its local art, sheds light on developments in Lima.
Rodrigo Quijano: In 2008, you established the independent experimental gallery [e]star in Lima. Can you tell something about how it came to exist?
Jorge Villacorta: ‘For me, [e]star is a dream come true. I was looking for a space for cultural activities and was invited to look at a building in which El Woni, a Chinese restaurant that had been very well known in the 1970s and ’80s, was located.1 I thought it had disappeared, but it was still there and looked exactly the way it had back then. That same day, I was shown an empty space in the building’s third floor. I did not immediately think of a gallery, but the fantastic space made an impression on me. The owners wanted to turn it into a gallery, and the first thing I did was try to convince them otherwise. They imagined a commercial art gallery, like the ones in Miraflores, San Isidro and Barranco.2 To do that, you would have to invest an enormous amount of money. So I tried to convince them to leave the space just as it was, or at least keep the alterations to a minimum.
I had been in Berlin in 2003, where I realized that any space could be an excellent showcase for art with only minimal modifications. Because I was so pleased with the original space, I decided to let go the idea of a white cube. I was crazy about the windows and how anything within the room would have a direct relationship what was on the outside, with the façade and the back door. From there you can see the roofs of Lima, and they say a lot about the city. The fact, when looking through the back door, everything seems decrepit and precarious was an important factor. This decision also had to do with the proposal you sent me in 2000. You were concerned about the need to create new priorities for the use of the Sala Miró Quesada 3 and to assess what the real priorities for an art space should be. That was related to the idea that the ‘materials’ available to an artist can determine the nature of an art piece. If you don’t have a lot, then you make do with what you have.'
What were the criteria you had when you began making plans for the space? What kind of things did you want to show and what activities did you have in mind?
'Since the space is quite big, it seemed appropriate for sculptures, so I invited the sculptors from the Art Department of Catholic University. I have taught there and have a personal interest in their work. The space struck me as very appropriate for performances, installations and sculptures. I wanted to recover the experimental side of art, so I told the students to experiment and create in absolute freedom.
The name [e]star is from a song by Rayovac, a band from Lima. For them, it was about star, which when pronounced in Spanish, acquires an ‘e’ at the beginning. But it is also a play on the verb estar, which means to be. I came up with the square brackets because visually, they reinforce the idea of an enclosed space. In everyday usage, we also talk about an estar when we refer to a sala de estar, or living room.’
Perhaps there was also the idea of a kind of stardom.
‘Yes, it’s a play with the word star.’
You mentioned the relationship between inside and outside. Can you say something about the context in which a space such as [e]star was able to appear? What were conditions like in downtown Lima?
‘In the 1990s, Mayor Alberto Andrade began to develop a plan for urban renewal that, in my opinion, lacked enough private initiatives. But I remember that many people were enthusiastic about it and were talking about buying apartments in the city centre. This was in 1996-1997. By now, the failure of this project is clear to everyone. I would even dare to say that the Lima Biennial, although it’s continuity would have been desirable, did not contribute to the improvement of the city. 4 That Biennial took place during Fujimori’s second term as President of Peru [Fujimori was President from 1990-1994 and 1995-2000. – ed.] and because of the market-oriented thinking that surrounded it, it fostered a climate in which egotism ran rampant. It was extremely difficult to get anything off the ground.’
Those were the worst years of the dictatorship and the centre of Lima was under strict control. But you indicated that when [e]star was started, there were a lot of bars in the area and rock bands that performed in the Lima centre.
‘You are touching an important point, because I forgot to mention something that was crucial. For me, the centre of Lima is the Plaza San Martín, not the Plaza de Armas [considered throughout South America to be Lima’s most important main square. – ed.]. Everything that led to using the city differently during the dictatorship began in the neighbourhood of the Plaza de Armas. Even the Wash the Flag 6 action [in which the Peruvian flag was washed with soap and water as a symbolic cleanup of a regime soiled by corruption and crime. – ed.] could not win me over to the Plaza de Armas. Plaza San Martín was the place to be. In the 1970s, it was a podium for Juan Acuña, the clown, or people proclaiming the message of Maoism, and later, in the 1980s, it was the place were political demonstrations were held. It was a public space where a lot happened, while at the Plaza de Armas, there was no room for spontaneity. It was simply not tolerated.’
What needs to happen in Lima so that [e]star can find a place in the art world and become a thriving showcase in the local scene?
‘I think we all need to rediscover what the independent spirit is.’
What has happened then to that independence in the Peruvian art scene?
‘I think we have slowly let it slip out of our hands. The institutionalization that we all wanted so fervently in the 1990s, and which took shape in the MALI (Lima’s Museum of Art), was truly praiseworthy. I believe, however, that we are quite inclined to contradict ourselves… [laughs]. As soon as an institution exists, we want it to organize everything and to do everything for us.’
So now we have the institutions, but what have we gained in exchange? What have we given away? I agree that we have actually lost a lot of ground in exchange for very little.
‘I often think of what artist Juan Javier Salazar said at the beginning of the 1990s, when I interviewed him for Página Libre. He said that in Lima, where there is not a single street that is in decent condition or even complete, all the painting in the galleries look as if they came straight from the laundry. And I believe that this has been taken to an extreme. Contemporary art in Lima insists that everything that you come across gleams with mathematical and mechanical perfection and polish. The institutionalization of art hasn’t forced us only to hi-fi, but to Deluxe even. I feel we have to go from there back to low-fi, even farther back, to thrash. What is hard about it is that there are no guidebooks to teach us how to do that. Perhaps this is a romanticized image of Lima, coloured by the nostalgia for the anarchistic punk scene of the 1980s but it seems to be that Lima in the 80’s was more liberated.
You can still feel that atmosphere in the way the younger generations of artists attempt to offer a political answer to the public space. One example of this is Lalo Quiroz, and his project For Sale or Rent.6 Conceptually, it represents a very clear statement, discreet but clear: go to a public building, stand in front of it with signs reading For Sale or Rent, have yourself photographed and move on to the next building. It is a way of working with the space, a new form in public space with which to criticize politics. Such an artistic expression that is now possible in Lima, without leaving a permanent mark. I find that much of today's art tries to hard to achieve a magnificent final product; the perfectly finished final product has become the ultimate goal.'
Is that because of the pressure from the institutes, which insist that works of art need look perfect, in order for them to be able to put them on the market and make them attractive to buyers, collectors and the media? Is that how we’ve compromised?
‘Yes, I believe that on this particular point, we have given in, and in doing so, we’ve also lost our capacity to respond to life itself. I am not saying, unlike the avant-garde did, that there is a continuity between art and life, but the gap between art and life seems to have become a justification for certain attitudes and behaviours, for the way people produce. It is as if the artist no longer assumes that his work will end up in a space where people will be able to go see it. You sometimes get the feeling that the work makes a beeline from the studio straight to a collector or gallery, or overseas, to be traded in the marketplace, without it first being shown locally. It is as if the local public does not even exist, as if it was just secondary. That is too idiotic for words.’
Can you suggest any voices of protest in the local context?
‘The first rebellion against this circuit that I came across, was Arte sin argollas (art without chains) a couple of years ago, an independent and multidisciplinary art festival that began in 2002 and that was held for the third time in 2009 [In everyday usage, argolla (ring) also refers to the power circuit. – ed.]. A more recent voice of defiance comes from your La Culpable [an exhibition space open from 2002 to 2008, led by an artists’ collective that included Rodrigo Quijano. – ed.]. While it was not a hotbed of revolt, if I may put it that way, it was a place that was open to new ideas, where all kinds of relationships were possible. I still regret that La Culpable no longer exists, but I think it would be extremely interesting if new initiatives arise form its ashes.’
People often claim that Peruvian art is booming. What is your response to that?
‘In all honesty, I do not really understand what they mean by it, by the ‘boom’ in Peruvian art. Criticism should always go hand in hand with whatever is booming. I do not see that in Peru, although it does still happen in other places. Artists who make a name for themselves and are considered important are immediately the subject of scrutiny, and essays are written about their work, but not here, because criticism was strangled at least 15 years ago.’
‘Generally speaking, it was a result of the fact that the Fujimori dictatorship tolerated no criticism whatsoever, and every form of opposition to the government was dismantled and eventually crushed. Many of us had to resign ourselves to it and that also led to the smothering of criticism in creative circuits. Art criticism vanished along with the disappearance of political criticism. It was unavoidable, although at the time, we were perhaps not so aware of it.’
You more or less regularly published articles in newspapers and magazines, but in the last fifteen years you have not written any more art criticism.
‘Yes, I stopped writing when El Mundo closed down. And Oiga, the other magazine I worked for, also ceased to exist, but I was not so conscious of the fact that I had stopped writing critical articles.’
Is there any platform from where you could do that now?
‘Not really, and it is true even though I do not have the intention of undermining everything. I’m talking about being able to talk and write about things one is truly interested in. Unfortunately, you know that now even a brief announcement in the newspaper is considered critical commentary. I find that totally insane. Moreover, the recent stardom of curators has resulted in criticism not being very fashionable. People no longer want to be art critics. They want to be curators. Because criticism no longer gets to have a say before the art pieces are bought, works that sell well that are unjustly considered representative of contemporary art in Peru.’
You just said that partly as a result of the absence of criticism, the actual state of affairs in art is marked by commercialism. How many musicians, artists and writers are overvalued and able to present themselves falsely, because they are not put in their place by criticism?
‘I am going to refer specifically to the current situation in Lima. I would say that that around 85% of them fall into that category. Do you remember Debord’s definition? He says that it is as if the capital became the image to such a degree that it almost exceeds its. Even worse, however, is how we sometimes get dragged along by defeatism and become depressed by our situation, losing all power to act and our desire for enterprise. I believe that we tend to compromise and give in even more at times like those. If at least we could discuss whether that 85% that I just mentioned is real or not, that would be interesting. I would like someone to prove me wrong.
But it is as if everything could be reduced to specific names that, when cleverly gambled, fill our field of vision and give us the false impression that we are not doing so badly because, for example, NASA is headed by a Peruvian (laughs) – that sort of thing.'
Rodrigo Quijano is an art critic and curator in Lima.
This text is an edited translation of an interview with Jorge Villacorta by the author and Eliana Otta, published in www.ramona.org.ar/ramona89
Translation: Mari Shields (translated from Spanish to Dutch by Adri Boon)
- A Chinese restaurant and bar whose regular clientele – including numerous poets and writers – made up part of the thriving underground scene in Lima at the time.
- Lima neighbourhoods where most of the mainstream galleries are located.
- The Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima, where modern Peruvian art was shown in an international setting, was held only twice (1998 and 2000) and was discontinued as soon as Mayor Alberto Andrade (1995-2002) stepped down.
- Wash the Flag (Lava la bandera) was an initiative of the Colectivo Sociedad Civil. The first flag washings took place in front of the presidential palace, followed by actions in other locations in Peru.
- For Sale or Rent (Se Vende o Alquila Este Local) was a ludicrous action in public space, conceived and led by artist Lalo Quiroz and collectively carried out in 2006 as a derisive commentary on corruption in government circles. It took place in front of the Palace of Justice, Parliament and the Presidential Palace in Lima.