Luis Camnitzer, the creative challenge-confronter
80 stacked blocks wrapped in blood-stained gauze, each bearing the imprint, “LEFTOVER.” 18 glass bottles bearing remnants of substances, from lightbulbs to sand, affixed with antique labels of scripted words, from wind to rain. 12 empty seats staring blankly at carefully-calculated sentences on blackboards ahead…
These abrasive, politically-charged objects and more trace the evolution of a conceptual artist whose multi-faceted proposal over the past sixty years has been to reflect upon and confront controversy with creativity. Following chronology, the pieces at first singularly concerned with dematerializing the art object emerge increasingly significative, challenging, and imploratory. Together, they comprise the retrospective exhibition, Hospicio de utopías fallidas (Hospice for Failed Utopias), of Luis Camnitzer that is currently on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. Even more, together they comprise the work of a man who ought to be an inspiration for us all.
Just as his art carries that special quality that irresistibly draws us in, his stories, too, are evocative. Despite the notoriety that shrouds him, being the artist behind the idea of “art thinking” and the discourse of a revolution in arts education, Luis has encountered and subsequently overcome challenges just like us. And this, I argue, makes him a certain Superstar of Culture, an underdog working at the intersection of the arts, culture, and education. Though Luis has many misgivings about self-historization, listening to his lived experiences – be they challenges or triumphs – is powerful, inspirational, and thought-provoking.
A prolific writer on all things art and education, Luis has recounted in various publications that he was not always so skilled and fascinated by writing. In fact, when the German-born, Uruguay-raised, and later New York-based artist was learning to write he “was forced to fill pages with the same letter, repeating it over and over again,” until eventually he “was given words [that expressed] other people’s ideas.” Understandably, he became disgusted by the educational system, and that pen which he was forced to use while copying letter after letter began to “synthesize everything [he] hated about [his] education: the fragmentation of knowledge into airtight compartments, the confusion between how-to-do and what-to-do, the development of communication without first establishing the need for it.” Confronting the disdain he held for education and the difficultly of navigating a childhood that crossed borders and languages (as the son of Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany when he was just one year old) required time and space. When I asked Luis, in our correspondences this February, about the role language and art played in his childhood, he reflected:
“I think that knowing more than one language helps establishing critical distance. One can observe and adjust thoughts expressed in one language when standing in another one. Bilingualism (and preferable polylingualism) should be required education if one wants to avoid dangerous provincialism. In that sense art is only one more language… It’s not that art helps cross language borders better than other languages. The different status of art, if well used beyond a language as a cognitive meta-discipline, is that it allows explore one’s ignorance with totally free imagination and unconstrained by conventions.”
Just as the challenges we face never cease, Luis later encountered another noteworthy obstacle and formative experience when working as a pedagogical curator in 2009. After presenting a pioneering pedagogical presentation to his then director, only to be made disheartened and demoralized by his director’s response that they were working in a “a museum, not a school,” Luis hit a breaking point. While he found creativity remained absent his own education, this time he found education remained absent the sphere of art. The combative individual he was, he not only immediately resigned, but also sought revenge. That revenge ultimately became his A Museum Is A School touring site-specific installation that can now be found adorning the entrance to museums across the world (including the museum at my alma mater, Colby College). When I asked Luis, again in our correspondences this February, about how he feels seeing this piece so prominently displayed just a few years after that difficult encounter, he contemplated:
“It gives me hope that the institution showing the text understands that it is publicizing a commitment and a contract with the public, and that the public holds the institution accountable and sues the institution if it feels it is performing fraudulent advertising.”
In the same way that Luis sees hope in his A Museum Is A School affirmation being adopted by museums across the world, we can find hope in his stories and efforts. Hardships affect us all, however unique their contexts, and in listening to Luis’ we realize not only how interconnected our journeys may be, but also how crucial maintaining creativity when confronted by challenges will always be. Interestingly, in our correspondences this February, Luis did not consider himself a Superstar of Culture, but with the intention of offering rejuvenation to all individuals overcoming obstacles, especially those working at the intersection of the arts, culture, and education, I share this feature post. Please take from it what you will, and for more on Luis, please consider visiting his retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum, on view until March 4, 2019.
Superstar snapshot: Luis Camnitzer
*Luis did not wish to engage in any self-aggrandizement, however trivially-intentioned the following snapshot is meant to be, so the strength, talent, and quote chosen reflect only an outsider’s perspective.
Superstar strength: creatively confronting challenges
Superstar secret talent: being humble
Superstar noteworthy quote: “education is art and art is education”
(photo credits: Saskia Metten)