María José Herrera.
Contact with different cultures broadens our horizons and provides us with evidence that other practices, beliefs and customs exist which are different to ours, thus allowing us to consider whether to adopt and adapt them—or not. But what does contact with the cultural other mean in times of globalization? Perhaps it means recognizing that identity processes are extremely dynamic and take their inspiration from sources that are as widespread as they are hard to recognize. These issues are present in the work of María Silvia Corcuera, who has, since the end of the 1980s, been working to cast a diverse range of symbolic repertoires which she subjects to the rhyme and meter of her own uniquely personal poetry. Curious and inquiring ever since she was a young child, she was brought up abroad, as her father was a diplomat, spending most of her time in two cities which have always had a special meaning for the Argentines: Lima, the colonial capital of the Hispanic south, with its native Indian past and present, and Rome, the cradle of Western civilization. Her mother, an anthropologist, was instrumental in fanning María Silvia’s natural curiosity, for the child was also an avid reader and daydreamer. In fact, Corcuera’s work takes us on a tour through different areas of subject matter which reflect aspects of historic or personal current affairs from a cold and subjective perspective, free of expressive excesses and distanced by humor, a typical characteristic of the 1990s. A particular vision of things, such as that of an artist who never sought to avoid criticism and who revealed how art can also be a political fact.
Corcuera is an “objectualist” in all senses of the word: she makes objects and also collects them. She lives surrounded by an infinite number of them, some her own and others that she has found on her travels around the world. Imbued with the passion of the true traveller, these objects are at the same time the vehicle for her memories and emotions as well as evidence of the traditions and symbolic worlds within which she recognizes the elements of her own internal life.
The artist fashions constructions assembled with different materials, using the collage principle, the modern art technique developed by Cubism which endows the prefabricated object or fragment with the status of an art work.1
¬On the basis of this premise, Corcuera has developed series inspired by the functions of objects themselves, or the meanings that such functions can trigger. Los juguetes (The toys) is such a work.
Arrastrando las raíces del corazón (Dragging the roots of my heart) and Ciudad de mis afectos (City of my affections) refer to her roving childhood. These toys, arrayed with an abundance of wheels, are inspired by hand-made and ever-popular creations; they transport buildings and hearts, respectively external and internal homes. Inscribed in the tradition of Russian constructivism and the heritage of Torres García, these toys are temptations,2 utensils with their own rules which distract us from the cares of the world with their inherent invitation to play.
Little carts overflowing with hearts, hair combs and other items we are sometimes unable to recognize, they tell us about a world where ideas flow in free association. This is the way the creative principle works with Corcuera: an object refers back to a meaning, and this meaning in turn points to material in some form or another object. In turn, during a subsequent process of synthesis, this material or object casts off its iconic aspects to become a purely abstract symbol. The abstract symbol is then immediately charged with the symbolic significance of that which gave origin to it in the first place. Thus, the hair combs imbued with legend and history found their place in the present as their sharp teeth became the pointed towers of the threatened cities inhabiting our contemporary civilization.
The hair comb series is in fact a reflection on a typical porteño character trait which fascinates Corcuera: excess. Although the artist is showcasing the hair comb and its historical relevance, it is clear that what most interests her is its role as a fashion accessory, and in particular what it says about women and their place in early 19th -century society. The hair comb —a small hairdressing accessory of Spanish origin— was introduced into River Plate society, where it quickly metamorphosized into a towering and ornate structure, the beacon of porteño coquetry. César Hipólito Bacle, a travel painter and the first lithographist to set up shop in the River Plate, immortalized with great humor in his book Costumbres de 1834 (Customs in 1834) the daily inconveniences related to the use of this impractical piece of hairwear. Corcuera, for her part, emphasized the communicative aspect intrinsic to all fashion in Peina tus ideas (Comb your ideas). Be it with words or pictures, the artist used the shape of the comb, with its elegant organic form not unlike a fan, to spell out the things that women have in their heads today.
As indicated earlier, the skyline of the cities emerges from the teeth of these hair combs. The tall towers are clustered in groups which allude to the different rituals of the city’s culture, such as the tango. In 1999 or thereabouts, La ciudad de los días contados (The city whose days were numbered) or La señalada (Singled out) made reference to the imminent crisis also by the use of the collage technique: the shiny little brass label tags discarded by the Argentine railways as they gradually fell into disuse. Corcuera worked with these brightly-colored pennants of the indispensable to fashion a path leading, inexorably, to Volquete (Skip) in 2001. This is where all the illusions of a city plunged into delinquency and social decay finally came to rest.
“I like to be direct,” says María Silvia. Efficient communications is one of the skills to which she aspires. Her cities look like boats, intentionally made this way so as to be associated with ships set adrift at high tide. Objects, collages or works in relief, her cities pay tribute to many different Constructivism artists, such as Alfredo Hlito and Roberto Aizenberg, reminiscent of the Russian and German expressionist drawing-board architecture whose legacy is currently in the hands of another woman, the Iraki architect Zaha Habib.
Bandages, muzzles and cuffs are the predominant themes during the crisis years. Wounded and bound cities precede the sinister black and red birds which one imagines divebombing the urban islets. Las protegidas (The protected ones) is another series of cities in which large moon-eyes tell stories with the aid of the symbology provided by the different materials used in the collage; a play between words and images. Slips of paper, like votive offerings, allude to the headscarves worn by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo like other mothers, referring to their protection and control. Hundreds of angel wings wheeling over the city, laid low by the blow of tragedy caused by negligence, the terrible fire at the Cromañón nightclub which killed 194 young people and left several hundred more injured. City of tears, city of corruption. Reality filters through the ordinary everyday materials that Corcuera wields with aesthetic and critical deliberation.
Woman, or women, is always the central figure in María Silvia’s work. Protective or protected, curious, observant or viper-tongued, female psychology is present as much in the actions of her characters as in her fulsome capacity to incorporate the variety and multiplicity which so characterize this artist. In 2003, the female garment par excellence, the dress, mutated into the container of Corcuera’s plastic toys. Metaphors for the body, they suffer, enjoy and receive all the fashions nurtured by the history of art over time. In Las comadres (The neighbourhood women), “an army of ladies united by their complicity,” María Silvia comments ironically on the natural esprit de corps which draws women together when it comes to scheming.
Her series Memorias de una extraviada global (Memories of a global wanderer) is once again centered on the female figure, but this time in the first person. A recent trip to China convinced Corcuera of something she had always sensed intuitively: human archetypes can be attired differently in different places: life, death, love, hate are all expressed in their own way according to each culture. The artist opened her eyes only to discover that she was looking at something she already knew. She deciphered each symbol in order to incorporate it into her work from her own perspective. In Noche de la muralla (Night of the wall) an obsessive concentric pattern is at once the synthesis of a rose—Chinese red—and the roar of the freezing whirlwinds in the Manchurian desert.
Tatuajes (Tattoos) is the name of her most recent work, in which Corcuera uses brushstrokes to draw a series of figurative designs which at first sight seem to be some sort of textile pattern. Playing on the idea of seeing at a distance and invoking the concentration of the viewer, the tattoos disclose an entire hidden world of images, symbols and sentences.
In one of these paintings, the mburucuyá, or passion flower, lives alongside the Coca-Cola logo, the rose of Santa Rosa de Lima, the first New World saint—another key female figure—and phrases such as the ironic “we are condemned to be successful,” so often uttered by the porteños. Just as in the mimetized world of the visual hide-and-seek game Where’s Wally, Corcuera shows how difficult it is to recognize objects and their primary intentions. It is as if she were trying to tell us that in the context of this unstoppable drive for globalization, reality can only be read in one register, as if it were flat. Her tattoos are visual indicators of reflection. They seduce us with their arabesques, reminiscent of the happy world of flowery Liberty print, only to announce the imminence of the apocalypse in which we will have to “listen in silence,” to make an effort to focus on our interior and make out differences in hue. Nonetheless, the vision of this artist is not pessimistic; rather, she is cautious, mistrustful, and watchful of the future. With direct humor, often drawn from the popular wisdom of old sayings, so dear to the Spanish tradition, María Silvia Corcuera works in a global world in which she never, not even for an instant, ceases to discover beauty.
1 See: Marchán Fiz, Simón, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid, Alberto Corazón Editor, 2nd ed., 1974.
2 According to Cirlot, this is the symbolism of toys within the Greek tradition. Cirlot, Juan Eduardo, Diccionario de símbolos, Barcelona, Editorial Labor, 1985.