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Alter-global Narratives


A work by the Argentinian artist Jorge Macchi, Seascape (2006), could offer an eloquent visual metaphor of our present conumdrum. Among the many cataclysms depicted in his many maps, Seascape seems, at first sight, to be the most definitive:  on a severed planisphere the Northern Hemisphere has disappeared, and suddenly, as if by magic, without a North there is no Southern Hemisphere. The performative aspect of the gesture is reminiscent of the inverted map of America by the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres García, who, on his return to Montevideo after forty years in Europe and the United States, proclaimed the autonomy of Latin American art with a simple inversion. A cry of independence for Latin American art, Inverted America was a symbolic affirmation of a local culture in dialog with the world and a visual manifesto for the Southern School.Mapa invertido_484x500

Eighty years later, the ambition of Seascape is more reticent and modest. Macchi cuts an already made planisphere in half, an intervention that does not encourage cultural and geopolitical interpretations, but neither does it reject them. From the Southern Hemisphere in 2006, the blank space invites us to imagine a world that is no longer centered on the radial hegemony of the North, but just a few years later, after the economic crisis in the United States of America and Europe, it can be seen as a premonition of the new prominence of the South. Seen from the North, in contrast, the white space must make one shiver, as though after centuries of walking on firm foundations, the first world had lost its grip and its maps needed reconfiguring to recalibrate the distances between East and West, North and South.

        This is what Seascape suggests at first sight. But art never speaks definitively and astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again. On a closer look we discover that  the Northern Hemisphere has not disappeared from Macchi’s map, but seems to have melted into the South. The lands of America, Southern Africa, and Oceana are now swimming in the seas and oceans of the North, in a superimposition that transfigures the familiar geography, or put literally, dissolves it: the North Pacific swamps South America, the Sea of Japan flows over the Brazilian coast, and the Sargasso Sea has flooded Central America.

Jorge Macchi, Seascape, (2006), 70 x 100 cm (detail)

Macchi had already flooded the globe in Blue Planet (2002) with an oceanic overflow that covered the entire planet, but with Seascape, for some reason, the cataclysm is limited to the Southern Hemisphere in a division that invites us to reflect on the topological effects of a new liquid territoriality in art and culture, from a geopolitical standpoint. The world has undoubtedly become more navigable in the 21st Century, not just from South to North but also North to South, now that globalized culture and art no longer coincide with precisely defined borders and continents, but are open to every current that ripples the waters, spreading in new directions and causing exchanges between local cultures. But what could this invasion of the Northern seas mean? An overlapping intrusion? A periphery “bleached” by the expanding wave of globalized culture? Or perhaps the post-apocalyptic nightmare of a planet submerged by a great, climate-change induced flood? Seascape unleashes dynamic maritime currents on the tension between the center and the periphery, illuminating the weave of contradictory forces that operate within contemporary culture. The visual parabola invites a series of associations that expand the metaphor.  Like oceanic movements caused by the interaction of different factors  -the earth’s rotation, winds, the undersea landscape and the coasts- cultural interaction in a globalized world is a process of complex configurations that affects patterns of circulation and the course of movements. I would go further: like the masses of water moving across the globe driven by different natural forces -currents from the surface and the depths, warm and cold, constant and periodic- globalized art and culture are also defined by a variable fluid dynamic that blur blunt territorial oppositions -North/South, local/global, international/national- and subvert the misleading perspective of globalization as a platform for a peaceful dialog between reconciled cultures or a new universalism that operates through a simple juxtaposition. Macchi’s flooded map suggests that we are kidding ourselves -just as we were fooled by our first look at Seascape- if we cling to thought rooted in fixed identities and fail to appreciate the overlapping erosion of established boundaries that art forces upon us as it advances and spreads. But we are also kidding ourselves if we do not see that the fluidity of exchange could be a covert form of condescending inclusion, a new kind of exoticism that fetishizes the Other. In Seascape’s most complex dynamic, the superficial current of multiculturalism, for example, which drags the minority in a single direction and channels the subordinate into the international mainstream, is countered by undersea currents trafficking traditions, genealogies and aesthetic forms.

This more complex dynamics can be seen at work, for instance, in an unpredictable dialog between two writers from different cultures, backgrounds, languages and uneven encyclopedias: the Dane Peter Adolphsen, who was born in 1972 in Aarhus, but lived in Vienna, Wisconsin and, seeking warmer climes, eventually settled in Andalucia in the 90s, and the Argentinian Patricio Pron (1975), who emigrated to Germany from his native Rosario in 2000 without even stopping off in Buenos Aires, lived in Gottingen for eight years and since 2008 has lived in Madrid. Rootless, cosmopolitan, bi-or trilingual, neither of them fit into the ranks of “international writers” that break down possible obstacles to the universal reader with ecumenical narratives and exportable variants of their respective languages, or the new contingents of “exotic writers,” who over-emphasize national or regional peculiarities to earn themselves a place in theme parks for global culture. Both have managed, however, to convey the contemporary experience of a large world, with conceptual narrative experiments that expand generic limits, time arcs and the geography of fiction, with topological reconfigurations that transform the very subject of the stories. They share, at first sight, the seminal mark of the great “extra-territorial” writers —Frank Kafka, José Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Julio Cortázar— and the proto-conceptualists from Oulipo —Raymond Queneau, Georges Peréc—, spiced up with the knowledge of their time and more recent models from their respective traditions. But the differences that become clear in their dialog are even more eloquent.             

A “hyper-Olympian” narrator (to use the author’s own description[2]) ties together the portentous narrative machinery of Machine (2006) by Peter Adolphsen, which begins with the Big Bang and goes all the way to the 21st Century, tying the story of the cosmos to the destinies of two lives in our time. The causal chain that provides the backbone to the nouvelle owes plenty to chaos theory and quantum uncertainty principle. It follows the random path of a particle of matter -the real, non-human, protagonist of the plot-  from its origins in space and time to when it achieves its most refined structure in the heart of a primitive horse, only to become a drop of gasoline fifty five million years later, dissipate in smoke from an accidental explosion years later and then cause the chaotic, complex structure of cancer. The cycle of the particle’s metamorphosis and its random effects link the heart of a horse from the Eocene era to an Azerbaijani worker who escapes the USSR on a bicycle in 1970 and soon loses his forearm in an oil well in Utah, and a biology student from Austin who meets the Azerbaijani on the road to San Antonio in 1975 and dies of cancer thirty years later. The narrator tries to bring order to this unpredictable succession of events, listing everything he can with taxonomic rationality (types of bacteria, villages in the USSR, the contents of the backpack with which the Azerbaijani leaves Russia or the bits and pieces that the biology student keeps in the glove compartment of her Ford Pinto), but disorder wins out and drives the narrative in an open, multi-linear direction, crossing geological eras, continents and frontiers. The fates of the characters also refer to complex, random cultural phenomena, subject, like the particle, to the “butterfly effect”:  the interminable chronicle of villages in the USSR by a census worker leaves its mark on the Azerbaijani in childhood and causes a decisive moment of revelation that the child records in his notebook, the seed of his future wanderings and, one might say, the framework for the story: “The world is large” (111). This early revelation spurs his desire to go to the west, to emigrate to the USA, his slow transformation into Jimmy Nash, his coast to coast journey punctuated by improvised doses of jazz in New Orleans, gambling in Las Vegas and hippies and drugs in California, crowned by the casual discovery of the infinitely varied world of literature  -from Emily Dickinson and Gregory Korso to Seymour Glass and Basho- which inspires him to compose two haikus in English, to wake up one day certain that he has dreamed in his adoptive language and to later conclude, still bearing the vestiges of libertarian communism, that his new homeland, like all empires, is heading for destruction. But the story leaves him behind after his meeting with the biology student and instead tracks the fate of the girl, which is fatally sealed by their random encounter. The anecdote empowers the complex structure of the story and vice-versa: Adolphsen conceives of a narrative form that can topologically reconfigure time and space to recalibrate the importance of man in the cosmos and his relationship with matter, illuminate the random patterns that link events together and record the complexity of exchanges between cultures that only the pragmatism of realpolitik makes irreconcilable.

The world of the Argentinian Patricio Pron is also large, and seven years later he would write  “Como una cabeza enloquecida vaciada de su contenido” (Like an Insane Head Emptied of its Contents) in Madrid and dedicate it to his contemporary from Aarhus, Peter Adolphsen, implicitly acknowledging the influence of Machine on his own short story. Here, a super-omniscient narrator maps a path from the Great Garbage Patch in the Atlantic to an unidentifiable location in the Eocene period, via Amsterdam, Noordwijk aan Zee, Dover, Beijing and Maracaibo. But the “absurd combinations” (50), as the author describes them, are here joined by an inversion in the course of time, a compositional challenge that contradicts the natural flow of language and complicates the fitting together of the different fragments. The retrospective fiction follows the peripatetic path of a blond wig from a mass of plastic hairs, tangled with shell fragments pecked at by an albatross on the garbage island in the Atlantic, to the little primitive horse —perhaps the same as Adolphsen’s— which fifty million years later, according to linear time, would become oil, a synthetic textile, a sweater, plastic packaging and a blond wig. Here too, great planetary transformations interweave with tiny lives, but the concentration of the short story, the choice of a vulgar object as the central thread, and the selection of sequences lend the global fresco a far more desolate and somber tone. The journey of a blond wig connects micro-scenes from remote and nearby places that are invariably shaped by some form of violence, addiction, solitude or madness: a Dutch junkie who loses an eye by scratching it with cocaine encrusted fingers, an English doctor turned bum who lives off hospital waste, a Chinese worker who rapes a young girl in a textile factory, a Venezuelan oil worker with a brain tumor who stabs a good Samaritan for no reason. The inversion of the flow of time, which places the effects before the causes, gives the random structure a cosmopolitical density. The Great Garbage Patch with which the story opens functions as dramatic irony for the human misery that abounds in the retrospective fiction, and the wig as a metonym for the insane heads emptied of their contents that each fragment zooms in to focus on. The perspective is more frankly socio-political than in Adolphsen’s nouvelle, although the social and individual experiences are plotted with complex logic that scatter the linear dynamic polarity of cause and effect. “I wanted to contribute to the search for alternatives to the two dominant forms of narrating the social experience in literature,” Pron explains. “The presentation of individual cases (which lack the social nature of the overall experience) and statistics, which forget that what we call ‘society’ is simply a set of individuals that includes us.” (…) “I wanted to tell a story that (like consumption) is social but also individual, and to try to talk about all the politics (i.e: all the individual decisions, consensuses, and inequalities) involved in the use of a puerile object such as a wig." Denmark never appears in Adolphsen’s fictional “machine” and Pron only approaches his homeland with the Atlantic Garbage Patch, which is fed equally by Europe, Africa and America, and even so the patterns of “disordered order” that make up their alter-global tales harbor different, subtly placed oppositions in the shadow of the geographical arc: East/West (USSR - USA) in the case of the Dane: North - South (Amsterdam - Maracaibo) for the South American.

        The currents with complex and unpredictable headings, the Great Garbage Patch, the global paths of these tales and their cosmopolitical bent (a framework, I would venture, for much art in the new century) could finally lead us to a recent installation by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, Asterisms, exhibited at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, in 2012 and in New York in 2013. Installation view of Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, July 6–Oct. 21, 2012. Foreground and left: Astroturf Constellations (2012); background and right: Sandstars (2012).  © Gabriel Orozco, 2012

The term "asterism"  -a hint at the works's cosmic ambition- refers toclusters of stars that form detectable arrangements in the night sky and include but also exceed specific constellations, and thus invite considerations of orders that exceed more conventional taxonomies. The work comprised thousands of items of detritus that Orozco gathered at two sites: a playing field near his home in New York and a protected coastal biosphere in Baja California Sur, Mexico, which is also the repository for flows of industrial and commercial waste from across the Pacific Ocean.

Objects being collected for Gabriel Orozco, Sandstars (2012) on Isla Arena, Baja California Sur, Mexico © 2012 Gabriel Orozco. Photo by Gabriel Orozco

In one of the components of the work, Sandstars, Orozco created a large installation from the refuse he collected at Isla Arena, Mexico, a wildlife reserve and a whale mating ground, where he had previously found the whale skeleton that formed the sculpture Mobile Matrix (2006). With an arbitrary taxonomy, Orozco placed more than 1200 objects he found on the island on the floor of the gallery -light bulbs, wooden oars, glass bottles, plastic buoys, ossified rolls of toilet paper, plastic ducks, seashells, stones- giving a sculptural arrangement to the objects according to their form, volume and color.

Gabriel Orozco  Sandstars, 2012  Approximately 1,200 found objects, including wood, metal, glass, paper, plastic, Styrofoam, rock, rope, rubber, and other materials, and 13 photographic grids, each comprising 99 chromogenic prints. Found objects: overall dimensions vary with installation; photographs: each print 10.2 x 15.2 cm; each grid 123.2 x 147.3 x 5.1 cm.  Installation view: Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, July 6–Oct. 21, 2012 © 2012 Gabriel Orozco. Photo by Mathias Schormann

In the other component, Astroturf Constellation, significantly varying the scale, he presented a collection of tiny pieces of waste found on a sports field on Pier 40 in New York, which Orozco often visits to practice throwing boomerangs. Coins, sneaker logos, cigarette butts, bits of soccer balls, candy wrappers, wads of chewing gum, and tangles of thread, again numbering nearly 1,200, are arranged according to their form and color and other more capricious captions on a platform covered by a glass case, lending them a dignity befitting precious objects of the post-industrial age.

Gabriel Orozco Astroturf Constellation (detail), 2012  1,188 found objects, including plastic, glass, paper, metal, and other materials, and 13 photographic grids, framed, each comprising 99 chromogenic prints. Found objects: overall dimensions vary with installation; photographs: each print 10.2 x 15.2 cm, each grid 123.2 x 147.3 x 5.1 cm  © 2012 Gabriel Orozco. Photo by Gabriel Orozco

Each asterism, on its own scale, works with the tension between order and chaos, economy and excess, composition and decomposition, stasis and movement, culture and nature. The dual constellation of selected, observed and classified objects indicates a genuine “aesthetic of erosion” (Spector 68), involving paying loving attention to things, the long lives of objects, their movements and transformations in space and time. But Asterisms is also, in its own way, an alter-global narrative that embodies a cultural paradox. On the coasts of Mexico, his own cultural space made exotic by an uninhabited nature reserve, Orozco collects global detritus on a grand scale, transported for thousands of miles by a clockwise-churning spiral of ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre (some of the objects are originally from Japan), while on a sports field close to his apartment in New York, a cosmopolitan center of the world par excellence, he collects tiny, hyper-local detritus, synecdoches of North American culture. The contrast between the spaces, journeys and scales of the objects is eloquent: the world can be very large on a Mexican beach and very small on a sports field in New York.  The neglected debris of the global world is rearranged into new grammatical constellations, composing a different story through strategic poetic montage. Walter Benjamin's "rag-picker", scavenger of history, comes to mind.

        We could thus read these narratives as symbolic models for contemporary art and culture. The confusing liquidity of the world portrayed in Seascape, the fictional transatlantic “machines” of Pron and Adolphsen, and the paradoxical constellations of Orozco lead one to think that it is not a case of exalting or rejecting the fluidity of the globalized world, or celebrating or condemning cultural hybridization, but understanding that art does not allow itself to be carried along by seasonal currents flowing in just one direction, but is rather born, as the Brazilian critic Suely Rolnik proposes , of the turbulence of marches and counter-marches, the tensions and frictions, that are present in the globalized world in each geographic location and situation. It could be that today "Latin American Art" is too narrow a term for the art created by artists and writers born in Latin America. Their world is larger than their homeland.  





Adolphsen, Peter. Brummstein/Machine. Madrid: Ediciones Lengua de trapo, 2010.

Benjamin, Walter. El libro de los pasajes. Madrid:  Akal, 2005.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "El escritor argentino y la tradición". Obras completas. Buenos Aires:  Emecé, 1974.

Pron, Patricio. La vida interior de las plantas de interior. Buenos Aires: Random House Mondadori, 2013.

Spector, Nancy. "Mapping the Universe". Gabriel Orozco. Asterisms. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012.

Speranza, Graciela. Atlas portátil de América Latina. Arte y ficciones errantes. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2012. 

Rolnik , Suely.  "Avoiding False Problems: Politics of the Fluid, Hybrid, And Flexible. ” e-flux 25 (May 2011): <>

[1] See presentation of  the Colloquium "Critique and the Contemporary: Latin American Art History since the 1960s," organized by Karen Benezra at Columbia University on 21 November, 2014, where a version of this article was first presented. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.  <>

[2] Peter Adolphsen characterizes his narrator as "hyper-Olympian" in an public presentation in Casa América, Madrid, "Literaturas Nórdicas y Latinoamericanas", 28 October  2010. Web. 6 Feb. 2014. <>

Graciela Speranza
Author: Graciela SperanzaWebsite: http://www.revistaotraparte.comCountry:
Graciela Speranza is a professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and coeditor of the journal Otra parte. She is the author of “Atlas portátil de América Latina. Arte y ficciones errantes” (2012), among other essays.

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