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Challenge of communicating

By Jacob Proctor

The promise—as well as the uncertainty—of communication is a recurring concern in the work of London-based, Argentinian-born artist Amalia Pica. Investigations into perception, time, memory, and a desire to explore how particular gestures read in different cultural contexts are pursued across a diverse body of work in sculpture, photography, film, and installation, as well as temporary interventions on buildings, monuments, or objects.

One recent work—Babble, Blabber, Chatter, Gibber, Jabber, Patter, Prattle, Rattle, Yammer, Yada yada yada (2010)—consists of a series of eighty slides, projected in sequence, showing the artist spelling the work’s title using semaphore flags, one letter or space per slide. Transmitted via two forms of defunct or outmoded visual communications technology (semaphore having been superseded by the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, 35mm slides by digital projection in the early twenty-first), Pica’s work visually encodes the “babble, blabber, chatter…” of the title—idiomatic English-language terms for unintelligible language, and words that are themselves notoriously difficult to translate. A similar disjunction between form and function, between sending and receiving, is evident in a recent series of sculptures based on the kinds of homemade television antennae found across the developing world, objects that are themselves rapidly losing their utility in the era of digital television.

In Sorry for the Metaphor (2005) and Sorry for the Metaphor #2 (2010), two examples from an ongoing series of large-scale works composed of photocopies pasted directly onto the wall, assemblages of individual photocopied sheets coalesce into larger images of a woman, her back to the viewer and a megaphone at her side, facing into the landscape. In Dialogue (Paper and Mountain) (2010), the same female figure holds aloft a large blank sheet of paper. In their composition and iconography, these works evoke art historical precedents such as nineteenth-century German Romanticism (in particular the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, with their solitary figures turned away from the viewer as they face into the landscape). But they also recall the contemporary visual culture of social and political activism, referencing the sort of handmade posters that cover the surfaces of public kiosks and walls. Powerful manifestations of Pica’s desire for communication and civic engagement, these works attest both to the promise and the challenge of communicating. In Pica’s work, megaphone and paper stand as modes of communication in potentia, carriers of a message that remains hypothetical.

Shot on location in Montevideo, Uruguay, Pica’s 2008 film On Education documents the artist—dressed in the white, lab coat-like uniform worn by both teachers and students in Argentina’s public schools—in the act of whitewashing the horse of an equestrian monument, a reference both to mythical images of heroes on valiant white steeds and to the South American adaptation of a famous joke asking “What color is the white horse of Napoleon Bonaparte?” in which any number of famous generals are substituted for the French emperor. In the film, fragments of the preface to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eponymous treatise on the nature of man’s education appear as subtitles, while the soundtrack plays the white noise known as “room tone,” used in the film industry to replicate the ambient sound of an empty space. Through these juxtapositions, a more serious subtext emerges, raising questions about the ongoing political and intellectual repercussions of European imperialism in South America, and in particular the willful distortion of history and the active suppression of civic participation, a powerful legacy of colonialism and military control, even in the post-colonial present. The white horse appears again in Pica’s slide projection piece Escapees (2008), a sequence of eighty photographic slides depicting equestrian monuments all over the world. In a precise yet poetic act of vandalism, Pica has excised the horse from each image with a knife, allowing the white light of the projector’s bulb to shine through the hole in the film in its place. Escapees replaces an emblem of military prowess with a gleaming, but ultimately blank, light released by the artist’s hand—a gesture at once assertive and quite literally open to new possibilities.

Jacob Proctor is associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost and CEW Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund.