Horacio Zabalas’s production during the early 1970s follows two principal lines: the Cartographies, and the Prison Architectures. The first is based on school maps that show some of the problems unfolding across Latin American geography; the second stems from architectural plans and sketches that capture the persecutory and oppressive policies of the authoritarian governments invading this region.
During his activities for the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC) at the dawn of the 1970s, Horacio Zabala developed a body of works with unmistakable political connotations. The director of this institution, the art critic and curator Jorge Glusberg (1932–2012), followed a process he called ideological conceptualism to promote the production of works that reflected on the singular situation of a Latin America marked by profound social crises, military dictatorships, and civil uprisings.
Without a doubt Zabala is one of the most outstanding practitioners of this conceptual trend. Using school maps, stamps, literary citations, and the design skills he learned in his architectural studies, he employs simple materials with astounding effects to construct a symbolic poetics that meditates on violence, power, censorship, political conflicts, and social instability as the results of a time of a troubled climate throughout the entire region.
The Argentine artist’s production during these years follows two principal lines: the Cartographies, and the Prison Architectures. The first is based on school maps that show some of the problems unfolding across Latin American geography; the second stems from architectural plans and sketches that capture the persecutory and oppressive policies of the authoritarian governments invading this region.
The photograph Este papel es una cárcel (1972, This Paper is a Prison) is a kind of premonitory work. Zabala calls into question the supposed liberating character of artistic practice, and at the same time he signals its material and symbolic limitations. But if in this piece prison is, above all, a metaphor for the condition of the artist in an aesthetic system increasingly institutionalized, after 1973, with the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and the growing persecution of artists and intellectuals, the work becomes a signifier of this particular politico-social situation.
With a mix of sarcasm and irony, the Anteproyectos de cárceles para artistas (1973–75, Draft Projects for Jails for Artists) show the space assigned to the creator in totalitarian regimes. Using his precise architectural language and unique method of visualizing, Zabala presents various repressive cells destined to confine artists in the most absolute isolation. The prison cells are individual and adapt to different geographical situations; some have been designed for specific places like Rio de la Plata and the sierras of Córdoba (in the interior of the Argentine Republic). “Prison is a totality and a unity that limits freedom, separating, excluding and negating, that is, depriving the being of its wholeness and unity,” the artist states in a text published some years later.1 1 Horacio Zabala, “Oggi, l’arte è un carcere,” in: Russo, Luigi (ed.), Oggi l’arte è un carcere? Bolonia, Il Mulino, 1981. It is also interesting to note that these works appeared immediately before the publication of Michel Foucault’s book Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison (1975, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison), in which the French philosopher explains his theory of disciplinary systems as fundamental to modern societies.
The Cartographies show the existing tensions among a territory’s geographical particularities, its vital circumstances, and its visual translation. While the maps tend to represent stable entities—nations, borders, accidents of nature, etc.—the sociopolitical realities that develop in their interiors are very far from being constant.
Horacio Zabala’s interventions seek to call attention to this discrepancy. Through simple actions that alter the official topographies, the artist presents the Latin American region as a place of conflict. In Revisar/Censurar (1974, Revise/Censor), for example, the repetition of these words rubber stamped on large maps of South America culminate in the obturation of the territory, a clear allusion to the consequences of surveillance and censorship. In other works he uses fire to signify political violence, modifying the outlines of continents and countries, and so demonstrating the instability of the images that make up our vision of the world. School maps remind us that we construct our ideas of geopolitical identity, territory, and nation in school. The artist’s operations upon the maps question their merely descriptive character and transform them into analytical and critical instruments.
Finally, we must note some works in which these issues are interwoven with philosophical and literary references. For example, this is the case with Seis imágenes del fragmento 30 (1973, Six Images of Fragment 30), in which Zabala refers to a quote by Heraclitus as he uses fire to alter a set of maps of South America, or Anteproyecto para Tzinacán (1975, Draft Project for Tzinacán), which exhibits the architectural project of a prison inspired by the story La escritura del Dios (1949, The God’s Script) by Jorge Luis Borges.
These works account for the intellectual development of the artist, who has also published many books, including El arte o el mundo por segunda vez (1998, Art or the World for a Second Time), El arte en cuestión. Conversaciones (2000, Art in Question: Conversations), and Marcel Duchamp y los restos del ready-made (2008, Marcel Duchamp and the Remnants of the Ready-Made), among others.
Rodrigo Alonso, 2017 Rodrigo Alonso is a freelance Curator and Professor of Contemporary Art at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
(Translated by Noel Smith)