Reading List: Dorota Biczel

Dorota Biczel is an art historian, writer, and curator, as well as an artist in hiatus. Born in Warsaw, Poland, she has been pursuing what philosopher Vilém Flusser called “the freedom of a migrant,” which has led to experiments in life and work in various US states, Spain, and Peru, among other places.

Biczel is currently a PhD candidate at the Center for Latin American Visual Studies in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the contemporary art of Latin America in the global context and focuses on the construction of political subjectivities, public sphere, and art historiographies in the so-called “new democracies” under neoliberal policies. Her dissertation, funded in part by the Social Science Research Council, examines experimental artistic and architectural practices in Lima as the means of creating new publics during the tumultuous period of an urban migration, transition to democracy, and onset of the civil war in 1980.

Biczel has published numerous catalog essays, journal articles, and criticism internationally. Her texts appeared in the publications by the Museo de Arte de Lima, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, among many others. Her new exhibition project, Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru, featuring Edi Hirose and Nancy La Rosa opens at UT Austin’s Visual Arts Center on September 23, 2016.

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Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Few books touched me as much as Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely with its incessant presence of the chilling noise of TV screens as they fill in our often lonely, isolated contemporary dwellings. On the heels of the recent cases of police killings of black men, I reached again for Rankine’s Citizen (2014). Here too, between matter-of-factly, first-person accounts of the everyday, racist micro-aggressions, free-verse poetry, sections that she calls “scripts for situation videos,” and images taken from such prominent black artist as David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, and Wangechi Mutu, the author conveys the particular kind of violence that different media relentlessly exert on black bodies. They vacillate from Rankine’s observations on the televised images of Serena Williams’s as an “angry black woman,” to her take on Hennessy Youngman’s Art Thoughtz on how to become a successful black artist, to J.M.W. Turner’s iconic Romantic painting The Slave Ship, which silently culminates the volume. And so, systematically, methodically, and with a surgical precision, Rankine exposes the concept of citizenship as provisional, conditional, and — ultimately — exclusionary. More, she shows that “in America, the killing of black people is an unending spectacle.”

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Daniel Alarcón, At Night We Walk in Circles

The rumor has it that one of the major characters of this thrilling and dark novel is based on one of the protagonists of my dissertation (and, by now, a dear friend). About one-third into it, I am still not convinced that’s really the case, but I am absolutely captivated by the story. I’d describe it as a sort of political fiction growing out of deeply personal alternative history. Though the country in turmoil where the action unfolds remains unnamed, those familiar with contemporary Latin American history will quickly recognize it as a war-torn Peru of the 1980s, if only because the avant-garde theater troupe Diciembre (December) at the heart of the narrative tours “small Andean towns.” (And politically engaged, revolutionary theater has a very strong and particular history in Peru with Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed” having been tested there in practice in the late 1960s and early 70s, among many other experiments.) The book’s main protagonist, Nelson, adds a layer of extra interest to the already juicy story, which often collapses the distinctions between the ways in which “art” and “politics” act or operate. Alarcón left Peru as a young child (and, by the way, wrote the novel in English) and was mostly spared the first-hand experience of the internal conflict or the dilemmas of an emerging artist working in the situation of a political upheaval and oppression. In turn, in the novel, Nelson’s older brother emigrates to the United States, thanks to having been born on the American soil. Meanwhile, his younger (and somewhat resentful) brother becomes entangled in the web of personal and political intrigue when he’s cast in the play of the legendary troupe and, together with it, delves into the proverbial “depths” of the countryside torn by violent political conflicts.

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José Carlos Agüero, Los rendidos: Sobre el don de perdonar (Confessed: About the gist of forgiveness—in loose translation)

When I was in Lima recently I was going to pick up Agüero’s newest poetry volume Enemigo (Enemy), but my trip was so busy that I did note even manage to run into a bookstore to purchase it! Instead, I returned to an unusual little book that laid its groundwork, Los rendidos, which Agüerohistorian and human-rights activist—published in 2015. Written in a highly poetic prose, Los rendidos is in part political philosophy, part an ethical treatise, and part a memoir. Through a series of non-chronological vignettes, the author explores his coming to terms with the contentious (if not problematic) legacy of his late parents and the particular place or mode of belonging in the Peruvian society it has rendered for him. Both his parents were militants of the Marxist-Maoist guerilla group The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) that for nearly twenty years waged a brutal war against the Peruvian government (1980–2000). Both were extrajudicially executed (that is, they were killed by the forces of the state without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process): his father in 1986, his mother in 1992, when Agüero was still a teenager. Starting with his own inability to publicly mourn the loss of his parents or seek “justice” for them, he meditates on such highly politicized notions as “victimhood,” “innocence,” “guilt,” “forgiveness,” and “reconciliation.”

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Irene Small, Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame

If the late Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) has become an almost universal, beloved poster boy for the so-called “participatory art,” Small’s book delivers the first full-fledged and wonderfully nuanced analysis of his multifarious practice, from his mid-1950s multi-faceted geometric constructions to the famous late-1960s parangolés (that is, elaborate, multi-layered capes meant to be “activated” by the people who wear them). I love the fact that through her careful study, which prioritizes a careful interpretation of the work over a faithful adherence to the artist’s own statements, Small implicitly dismantles many authorial myths that have grown around Oiticica’s admittedly larger-than-life figure. What is even more exciting, through the model and method of “folding the frame,” she offers us a new way to theorize and think about participation. To Small, participation has little to do with “an a priori end”; rather, it is always experiential and contingent, “an epistemological event” as she calls it. What do I like about this formulation? Recast in such a manner, “participants” are not just docile followers of the instructions provided or behaviors enforced by the “artist,” but actually exert at least some dose of agency in the art-marking endeavor.

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Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds

I have barely started reading de la Cadena’s book, but I am already extremely excited about her takedown of the dominant concept of “hybridity” in postcolonial discourse. Finally someone is doing it! This, however, is much more than a lofty theory book. De la Cadena approximates indigenous worlds and knowledge through lucid, heart-felt stories woven out of her long friendship with two “Andean peasants and much more,” Mariano and Nazario Turpo. Two, I am looking forward to the prospect of being exposed to other realities that I will never really fully comprehend or grasp. De la Cadena has already written persuasively about the inability of the “Western” concepts and worldview to even approximate lived and experienced realities of indigenous people (and non-people). I am curious to see how she further flushes these issues out in this book.

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Andrzej Szczerski, Cztery nowoczesności: teksty o sztuce i architekturze polskiej XX wieku (Four modernities: essays about Polish 20th-century art and architecture)

This represents my effort to keep up with the art history of the motherland. Fortunately, the essays in this collection are short since they had been published before in various journals and exhibition catalogues. It’s easy to put them away and return later. In a gist, the essays discuss the changing notions and forms of “modernity” under radically distinct political systems and ideologies in the twentieth-century Poland—from the search for a “national style” at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century based on the architectural vernacular of the so-called Highlanders, through the defanged and politically blind “avant-garde” (specifically, gestural abstraction) under communism, to the modernity in ruins that the “postmodern” artists after 1989 seem to indulge in (all this according to the author). Overall, Szczerski’s quest is productive as it effectively divorces the concepts of “modernity,” “progress,” and development from the forms or styles of so-called “advanced art.” It’s not that this argument hasn’t been made before but I think it’s worth repeating ad infinitum, at least in the foreseeable future. The book has its definite ups and downs, but I found two gems: the essay on colonialism and social-realist painting or, to put more bluntly, the representation of non-European cultures in Polish art of the 1950s (also available in English!) and another, on the “luxury” hotels under “real socialism” of the 1970s. Can you believe they actually existed?

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