Magazine article In These Times

Portrait of the Awkward Artist

Magazine article In These Times

Portrait of the Awkward Artist

Article excerpt


Portrait of the Awkward Artist

If Pablo Helguera's The Boy Inside the Letter (Jorge Pinto Books, 2007) had adopted a subtitle, it would have to be "Longing: The Making of an Artist." As it stands, the title is enigmatic, never hinting at the great waves of yearning inside. It suggests youth and writing-but there's something vaguely uncomfortable about it. Is the "letter" a correspondence, a nod to a young man whose true self is hidden in some sort of written exchange? Or is the boy inside an alphabetic letter, a mysterious glyph to be deciphered?

As it turns out, it's bom. It's a correspondence that Helguera writes as a young man to his older self-a symbolic universe itself to be decoded and appreciated by both the writer and his readers. And what they reveal is a coming-of-age story, a kunstlerroman, an artistic emergence.

The arc of The Boy Inside the Letter is novelistic, witii its action almost entirely internal. But what is most striking about Helguera's story is its savage vulnerability. It is as much about dislocation, unrequited love and die pursuit of identity as it is about the formation of a creative soul.

Helguera, a Mexican-born visual and performance artist, is director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His own work ranges from experimental symposiums, recordings, exhibition audio-guides, publications to ambulatory museums, and it takes on subjects as varied as the Shakers, dead languages, Latin American soap operas and unrest.

In interviews, Helguera has suggested The Boy Inside the Letter is nonaction. Much-though not all-of the manuscript consists of diary entries, translated from Spanish, from his years in art school (both high school and college), from when he was 17 to 22. These entries document his journey from Mexico City to Chicago to Barcelona, back to Chicago and, at least briefly, to Mexico City again.

His story begins in Mexico, when as an adolescent in his comfortable middle-class home, he explores his family's myths, learns to love classical music, and finds himself as comfortable with writer Octavio Paz as with Spider-Man:

As He grows up, (his brother) Nacho starts to teach him chess and they make up imaginary tournaments using Ken action figures as imaginary contestants that they rename Chejov and Igor (as in Igor Stravinsky). Every now and men, national figures emerge in the tournaments, including Juan Rulfo, Alfonso Reyes and El Poeta. All these writers, composers and artists are larger-thanlife characters, and like superheroes, they never die. He ends up naming them Los Inmortales.

Eventually, he enrolls in an art school, surrounded by other young art aspirants, and falls madly, irrevocably in love. But his efforts are futile. No matter what he does, Fuensanta rejects him, each time more harshly. …

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