Magazine article Art Monthly

Pablo Helguera: The School of Panamerican Unrest

Magazine article Art Monthly

Pablo Helguera: The School of Panamerican Unrest

Article excerpt

Pablo Helguera: The School of Panamerican Unrest

Stanley Picker Gallery Kingston-upon-Thames May 7 to June 21

If a concept germinates in Pablo Helguera's brain, it is usually a weighty one. In 2007 the Mexico City-born, New York-based artist published a warmly received English edition of The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style, a humour-spiked primer to everything they don't tell you in art school about negotiating the artworld. The year before, however, he had embarked on a rather different inquiry into how art is threaded through and reshapes societies. 'The School of Panamerican Unrest' is an ongoing project that seeks, according to Helguera's blog, 'to generate connections between the different regions of the Americas through discussions, performances, screenings, and short-term and long-term collaborations between organizations and individuals.' For 120 days between May and September 2006, the artist and his crew travelled southward across the Americas-from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego--stopping 27 times, erecting a yellow tent and holding seminars in it, delivering addresses and interviewing local individuals. The expedition, memorialised within this show in 22 framed image-text works, each featuring a photograph and a diary-like journal entry, is bookended by two mirroring encounters: first, in Alaska, with the last living speaker of Eyak, a native American language; and finally, in Chile's Villa Ukika, the world's southernmost village (population 51), with the last speaker of Yaghan--an Indian woman whose daughter has killed herself and who survives on a fragile religious faith.

Implicit here are Helguera's key questions: what happened to Panamerican culture, that patchwork of traditions, and can its authenticity and strength possibly be revived? His trip took him, among other places, through the Yukon ('miles of complete devastation', he writes), Oklahoma and the heartbreaking aftermaths of its infamous bombings, and the ghostly remains of the now defunct Route 66, through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the 'true multicultural society' of Panama. The texts bristle with jittery detail: Helguera hands over bribes in Cartagena, has his laptop cunningly stolen in Bogota, gets stranded on the Venezuelan border for two days. Similarly vivid is a documentary video, playing in the gallery within what appears to be a replica of the project's trademark yellow tent. Here, between dismal testimonies of gang violence and rape by a Honduran interviewee, and the countering comedy of Helguera erecting his tent in Paraguay and being repeatedly mistaken for an optician offering eye tests, we find evidence that the artist did not meet with a great deal of sympathy in South America. …

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