Recipe for Revolution: Take 11,000 Photos
By JORI FINKEL
Published: January 29, 2006
THE next time you're stuck in traffic in downtown Los Angeles, you could find yourself in the perfect position to view Ruben Ochoa's newest work of art. A San Diego native who made his name locally by turning his family's beat-up van into a mobile art gallery, Mr. Ochoa has just completed a billboard celebrating the legacy of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. It features a photograph of Siqueiros, who was a Communist Party leader as well as a painter, making a fist, his face streaked with paint, as two characters in the corner whitewash his image - a clear allusion to the censorship of Siqueiros's social realist murals in the past. Across the top runs the phrase "Ain't that revolutionary?"
Mr. Ochoa's billboard is one of many overtly political pieces created for "An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life," a group show that opens at the Redcat gallery in Los Angeles on Thursday. For the exhibition, 17 artists were asked to respond to Siqueiros's photographic archive, some 11,000 pictures that served as source material for his murals or as documentation of his finished artwork.
[orig. Siqueiros mural]
Most of the artists lifted images from the archive to make pieces like photomontages for installation in the gallery. Three artists based in Los Angeles - Mr. Ochoa, Mark Bradford and Daniel Martinez - also signed on to make billboards. They are scheduled to be installed downtown by the end of the week.
Lauri Firstenberg, one of the show's two curators, says she views the billboards as an essential part of the show. "Siqueiros was above all a populist artist - making art for the public and positioning it in the public sphere," she said. "We always wanted to have a component of the exhibition that was not bound to the gallery but would interact with L.A.'s urban landscape."
Born in 1896, Siqueiros at one point interacted with the Los Angeles landscape himself. Driven into exile for political reasons in 1932, he took a job teaching at the Chouinard School of Art and painted "Street Meeting," the first of three California murals, on the campus. During that period he experimented with new materials (automobile paints, for example, a more durable alternative to traditional fresco materials) and new equipment (like spray guns, a faster way of applying paint than brushwork). He also seized on photography as a tool for painting, using photographs of a work in progress to help guide its composition. (Those pictures recently led to the Chouinard Foundation's rediscovery of "Street Meeting," a vision of black and white workers joining forces, which had long been presumed destroyed but in fact was buried under layers of paint and plaster in what is now a Korean church.)
Beginning in the 1930's, Siqueiros saved many of the photographs that he gathered and commissioned from friends, professionals, newspapers and news agencies. There were photographs of the murals and photographs that fed the murals, ranging from staged shots of models to documentary photographs showing class and race struggles like labor union protests in Mexico City and the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Other pictures - animals, landscapes and buildings - seem more neutral.
When Siqueiros died in 1974, there were more than 11,000 images. He specified in his will that his archive, housed at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City, be made available free for public use, something like a Communist version of Corbis or Getty Images.
About half the archive can now also be viewed at the Web site e-flux.com, an arts portal based in New York. Its director, Anton Vidokle, the other curator of the Redcat show, says he thought of putting the archive online when he visited it three years ago. "I was blown away by the material," he said. "I haven't seen a group of pictures this ideological since my childhood in Moscow. Even a humble image like a drill bit is celebrated - it's seen as beautiful, glamorous, a tool for revolution."
About two years ago, Mr. Vidokle and Ms. Firstenberg began drawing up a list of international artists to approach for the show. Many were Mexican or Chicano. "It was important to work with artists who have a connection to Siqueiros," Mr. Vidokle said. "But it's not like I went into their studios and asked to check their passports."
And, as it happened, they did not so much choose the artists as the artists chose them. To line up the 17 artists in the show, more than half of Mexican descent, the curators approached a few dozen. The Los Angeles conceptual artist John Baldessari and the Cuban installation artist Carlos Garaicoa were among those who proved unavailable. "It's a sign of how busy our leading international artists are these days," Ms. Firstenberg said. "But it's also a sign, I think, of how contested Siqueiros's legacy is."
Even some artists who chose to participate expressed ambivalence. Many say they are attracted by Siqueiros's political engagement, but repelled by his particular brand of politics and his link to a failed assassination attempt on Trotsky. As the Los Angeles-based artist Rubén Ortiz Torres put it: "He's a very dogmatic character, a Stalinist who believed that power should be centralized. But my relationship to Siqueiros is like my relationship to my father, or to Mexico in general. It's not a choice between rejecting them or following them mindlessly." [read on...]
Read more about An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life.
Read more about The Siqueiros Photographic Archive.
AN IMAGE BANK FOR EVERYDAY REVOLUTIONARY LIFE
Guest curators: Lauri Firstenberg and Anton Vidokle
February 3-April 3, 2006
Admission to the gallery is always free
Tickets & Information: 213 237-2800
Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater
631 West 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life is a multi-phase project that begins as an online photographic archive, making available to the public over ten thousand 20th century images for the first time. The source for this material is the collection of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who compiled the photographs over the course of his own extraordinary life. This archive can now be viewed at http://www.e-flux.com/siqueiros
As Siqueiros wrote, "Nothing can give the [artist] of today the essential feeling of the modern era's dynamic and subversive elements more than the photographic document." The archive -- unique in structure, content and intention -- was meant for the use of fellow artists as a means of inspiration and a source of found imagery. The contents of the archive, images from the 1930s to the early 1970s, offer cultural and social portraits of different eras and nations. The collection contains photographic documents that capture a range of events from political protest to film and theatre performances, from anti-fascist demonstrations in New York and riots in Los Angeles to moments in the Russian stage and Mexican cinema. As the title of the project suggests, the archive offers a politicized vision developed in the context of revolutionary struggles in Mexico and abroad.
The original archive from which An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life is drawn, is housed at Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS) in Mexico City. In the 1960s, while Siqueiros was engaged in both art and activism, he converted his house in the Polanco district of the city into a public art space. The house now functions both as a museum for Siqueiros' work and a contemporary art venue. The SAPS archive will serve as the point of departure for the second phase of the project, in which an international group of artists and writers will be invited to work with the archive's material to extend the useful life of its photographs.
The traveling exhibition begins at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in Los Angeles. As a venue for experimental curatorial practice, REDCAT supports provocative new projects that showcase the work of artists practicing around the globe and down the street. In keeping with this engagement with the life of the city, artists have been invited to make proposals for new works that will be presented in the gallery as well as public interventions to be presented billboards across the city. The original archive project and its reuse by contemporary artists will thus be integrated with the dynamism of Los Angeles in a fulfillment of Siqueiros' goal to combine the historical, social and artistic.
An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life is a collaboration with Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros and is made possible in part by the generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Etant Donnés, the French-American Fund for Contemporary Art, e-flux, and The Puffin Foundation.