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Interview with Ivo Mesquita

With the exhibition El Regresso de los Gigantes/The Return of the Giants in Latin America, the collection of the Deutsche Bank is currently presenting a comprehensive view of German painting from 1975 to1985. Following its initial station in Monterrey, which was enthusiastically received by the public, the show will be travelling to Mexico City (where it can be seen beginning on February 27, 2003) and to São Paulo (from 6/18/2003). The Brazilian curator and art critic Ivo Mesquita was the director of the São Paulo Biennale in Brazil from 1980 to 1988. Since that time, he has curated numerous exhibitions addressing the theme of cultural identity in Latin American art and has presented them on an international scale. For the collection of the Deutsche Bank, Mesquita has overseen the catalogue to Return of the Giants, including the essays it contains. In an interview, has asked him about the relationship of Latin American artists to German painting from the eighties.

Mr. Mesquita, you were present at the opening of the exhibition The Return of the Giants in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Monterrey. The MARCO assumes a prominent position as the only institution for contemporary art in this city of four million inhabitants. What was your personal impression of the reactions to the exhibition among press and public?

The first reactions to the exhibition were extremely positive. The show has set a signal, both for the museum and the city. The public in Monterrey has a thing for painting, and the exceptional quality of the presentation practically guaranteed its success. MARCO was founded as a museum by a group of collectors that had heavily supported painting during the eighties. For this reason, of course, a very special relationship exists between the exhibition location and the "Giants."

In 1996, the PREMIO MARCO, which is endowed with $250,000, was awarded to the German painter Jörg Immendorf. Does a special relationship exist between Mexico and the generation of painters presented in The Return of the Giants?

What connects this generation of painters in both countries is the international style of painting that strongly prevailed during the eighties, both in Europe and Latin America, and that resulted in a fundamental involvement with the great traditions of western painting. Taking this development as their point of departure, however, the art scene here focussed its attention on the traditions and cultural values of this continent and dedicated itself to the investigation of its own history and culture. In Latin America, the artistic involvement with the colonial past also meant a critical involvement with the all-embracing model of modernism, which in many cases also brought about a return to the "Giants" of Europe.

The contribution this movement made to the deconstruction of modernism is enormous. The only country that can present its own giants to the Europeans is Mexico, with its great tradition of mural painting constituting an avant-garde that developed there during the first decades of the 20th century. This painting lies at the heart of what is considered "Mexican," and has permeated the entirety of the country's art since that time. The generation of painters in Mexico during the eighties radically questioned these aesthetic and cultural models. In this respect, they were very different from the same generation of artists in other Latin American countries. The so-called "Neo-Mexicanism" voiced considerable criticism of the local pictorial traditions and thus paved the way for a new and original generation of artists in the nineties.

Heftige Malerei understood itself as a radical break from conceptual and minimal art, which it perceived as being excessively intellectualized. Are there parallels between the art movements of the 70s and 80s in Germany and those in Latin America?

Yes, the return to painting in Latin America at that time turned just as much against the norms of conceptual art and the dematerialization of art that went along with it. At the same time, we were seeing an act of liberation on the part of a new generation of artists, precisely at a time when the military governments and regimes in South America were nearing their end. This was an essential difference to Germany. In contrast to Europe and North America, conceptual art was heavily politicized in Latin America and became an important instrument of criticism against the ruling authoritarian system. The new generation of painters never called this into question. They turned, however, against the "cerebralization" of artistic work and demanded a return to sensuosity, to the body, and to the imaginary. One shouldn't forget that the worldwide art establishment back then had harked back to painting and developed an international style out of it that became widely supported by the media, the market, and the institutions. And all of this occurred while the new communication media seemed capable of doing away with distances and differences in time around the world.

How relevant is the reception of contemporary German art for the artists of Latin America? Does a dialogue exist?

I believe that Latin American artists, just like German artists or artists from other countries who feel bound to western art traditions, should develop a mutual curiosity for each other's work: painters should be interested in other painters, video artists in other video artists, and so on. At the same time, it seems to me that artists today often refer to the work of other artists without taking their traditions and cultural values into consideration. It's problematic to argue today using concepts such as "nationality" – Latin American, German, etc. – because this has nothing to do with cultural identity.

At the opening of the exhibition in Monterrey, you referred to the relevance of the art being shown for the current discourse over painting's position regarding developments in the field of media art. Do you see any possibility that painting and media art might combine to create new forms of expression?

No, never. I was referring to certain contemporary works that use other media such as photography, video, and film and reflect upon them in painting. Here, it's not a matter of a connection between painting and media art, but rather of the discussion over painting and its forms of representation.

In documenta 11, Okwui Enwezor addressed the close exchange among cities and cultures in the globalized world. His particular interest was focussed on what this meant for art. Here, too, the media played an important role, which could be seen particularly in the numerous video and film works by artists from the so-called "South" or Third World. Painting was only represented at the fringes. What role does an exhibition like Return of the Giants play in this context?

I don't see any relationship at all between these two exhibitions. documenta 11 belongs to a certain circle of exhibitions dedicated to the contemporary discourse on art production, and it was brilliant: Okwui Enwezor and his team of curators did an immense job in presenting a well-observed panorama of contemporary artistic and cultural practices. The Return of the Giants is a museum exhibition with extremely precise curatorial aims. Here, it's a matter of German painting between 1975 and 1985 and a bank collection. I think it can contribute to a better understanding and to a critical evaluation of that time, as well as to a deeper involvement with the works of the artists shown. The view that documenta 11 only showed painting at its periphery is one I consider to be one-sided. There, was, in fact, some very good painting in the exhibition, and along with this there were many works referring to painting or involved with painting on a more conceptual and critical level.