Alejandro Cesarco, A memory palace
Uruguayan artist Alejandro Cesarco uses the prism of memory to reflect on the past and the future. In the decade since his mentorship, his emotionally affecting work has been exhibited all over the world.
By Amei Wallach

There is no sound in Allegory, or, The Perils of the Present Tense, one of the videos in Alejandro Cesarco’s most recent exhibition at the Murray Guy gallery in New York this spring. There are only intervals of commentary in white titles on black, as in a silent movie, interspersed with slowly unfolding images, as expressive and enigmatic as a poem. There’s the recurrent sight of a bouquet of blush-white, blown roses; water submerging and revealing a stone; blue-jeaned legs and sneakers descending a white staircase, and later ascending; a woman’s face turned as in a painting by Vermeer or full face like a deadpan Warhol film portrait.

Like so much of the work that Cesarco makes, the video itself was only one element in the installation titled Loyalties and Betrayals. This time the combined photographs, texts and ink jet prints by the artist meditated on time passing and choices made or missed. Nearly a decade has passed since the Uruguayan artist spent 2006–2007 as protégé to the towering conceptual artist John Baldessari, under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. “Many prizes give artists the wrong kind of push, but what is remarkable about the Rolex programme is that it recognizes talent early on and puts the artist in another place and allows him to mature,” says Pablo Léon de la Barr a, Guggenheim Museum UBS MAP curator. “Alejandro is at an interesting point in mid-career and his latest exhibition at Murray Guy shows what he is capable of.”

Opening doors

Cesarco was already achieving recognition as a conceptual artist when he began collaborating with his mentor. Baldessari is a pioneer of the conceptual art proposition that art is first of all an idea, its form expressed through any material or method capable of upending expectations or undermining assumptions. “John has been at the forefront of opening very important doors that allow the coming generation to do what we do,” Cesarco says. “In some ways, interacting with him was like the privilege of interacting with history.”

Cesarco likes to say that art is a form of art history. In his videos, photographs, text panels, actions and installations he mashes up visual and literary references to artists, writers, film-makers, performers and thinkers of past and present, including himself. 
The flowers in the Allegory, or, The Perils of the Present Tense video recollect an artwork as performance that Cesarco created in 2003 (he called it a sculpture), when he sent bouquets of flowers to 10 women artists of diverse disciplines and generations, including the singer and conceptual artist Yoko Ono and the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer. The video itself, like many of his videos, was originally shot on 16 mm film, the classic early medium of such influential antecedents as Jean-Luc Godard. Like Cesarco, these forebears probe how literature, film, photography and culture seep into the way that memory morphs and the present is experienced.

Since his mentoring year, Cesarco has exhibited in galleries and museums in New York, Paris, Zürich, Vienna and Berlin, as well as the Tate Modern in London (2010), and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2010). He represented Uruguay at the Venice Biennale (2011), was awarded the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel (2011) and served as the Teiger Mentor in the Arts at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning (2014). The Murray Guy exhibition is one in a trilogy this spring – the others were at the Midway Contemporary Art gallery in Minneapolis and Kiria Koula in San Francisco – that “have to do with using memory to think about the past and the future. Memory is a way of telling us what we desire,” Cesarco says.

“In a way you can think of his entire production as a memory palace,” says curator and art critic Lilly Wei. “His images are very evocative, very poetic, like the poetics of silence. There is this idea of paying homage to literary high modernism, but he shifts the text. In another way he is shifting the story to what might once have been called the margins. I think he’s a terrific artist.”

Sense of play

Cesarco remixes, reimagines, reinterprets and references not only the films and fictions that arrest him, but also the techniques of their making. There’s a sly sense of play in his explorations of the mechanisms of narration, particularly through what is secret and withheld. In many ways, play is at the heart of his enterprise, though perhaps not as obviously as in the work of Baldessari. “I was fascinated by the sense that John was someone who loves what he’s doing. He’s enjoying himself, and you can see how that translates in the work,” Cesarco says. In the photos from their mentoring year, the two artists are often laughing together.

“John is so much fun, and that was probably good for Alejandro Cesarco,” says Barbara London, who founded the video exhibition and collection programmes at the Museum of Modern Art. “His approach is very different, though, from an American like John, who cuts to the chase and doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. To me, Cesarco works in a more European way, through this prism of the intellectual. It’s more framed, more hidden.” 

Unique work

“I’ve always found Alejandro to be one of the most interesting artists of my generation,” says Léon de la Barra. “It’s interesting how he produces art, independent of his influences, which in one way is very rational and in another way is full of poetics. The rational and intellectual together with the poetic makes for very unique work.”

In the Guggenheim exhibition Under The Same Sun (2014), Léon de la Barra included the first from the Index series that Cesarco has been making since 2000. “All the works in the exhibition of artists from Latin America were meant to enter the Guggenheim collection and I wanted to choose art that was very significant in the artist’s body of work,” says Léon de la Barra.

Index consists of panels on which are printed what appear to be blow-ups of the kinds of indexes found at the end of scholarly books. In the case of Cesarco, however, the indexes are of books that were never written, in effect an autobiography of the emotions, experiences, concepts, authors and artists that inhabit his art and his mind. 

The space between

Cesarco’s art, like the Japanese concept ma, concerns itself with the space between – in his case words and images, what is said and what is withheld. As with so much of conceptual art, he intends that the viewer fill in the blanks and complete the work by creating, in a sense, a personal narrative of memories, influences and desires. For Cesarco, “one of the principal characteristics of my work is its slow tempo, its pacing. This places specific demands on the viewer. The work requires time and attention, which result in a particular way of reading and looking.” 

For the past 10 years, he has been a director of Art Resources Transfer, publishing books promoting conversation between artists, including John Baldessari and Barbara Bloom. The organization also distributes contemporary art books free to underserved public libraries and schools. “Alejandro is the kind of artist who makes us keep our hope in art which transmits meaning and is in dialogue with history,” says Léon de la Barra. “Now that he just turned 40, I am interested in seeing another 40 years of his work.” 

Amei Wallach is a New-York based arts writer and film-maker. She is president emeritus of the U.S. chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art).

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