Lazarus

by Dora Garcia

An Epilogue, to Oscar Masotta: Segunda Vez (How Masotta Was Repeated)

 

The second “meeting” happened some months later during that same year, 1973. On a cool spring night I was walking out of a bookshop at 2700 Santa Fé Street. Just as I stepped out, a long black car pulled to a stop by the curb, right in front of me. I froze—the brutal Ezeiza massacre was still fresh in the air. Sindicalists, political leaders, militants, ex-militants, and “ideological suspects” were being assassinated or executed on an almost daily basis. On September 6, the ERP had mounted an assault on the Sanidad Military Post in order to take rifles. They failed, were wounded and detained—but not before killing the commander of the military forces; on September 26, José Ignacio Rucci had been summarily assassinated. Playing dead as I stood might perhaps help me. I saw that there were five people in the car. The back door closest to me opened and one of the passengers stepped out, leaving the door open behind him. This person, a little fellow dressed in dark tones, walked by me and into the bookstore. I looked into the back seat, and there, deep in the middle seat, also dressed in dark hues and wearing a necktie, was Masotta. There was someone else to his left, and two people in the front seats, all dressed in black or similar. Masotta and I looked at each other: we started sizing each other up, but we exchanged no greetings, gave no sign of recognition. I stood and the sizing up continued, since I was not going to leave until there was some sign of approach, or until Masotta had disappeared. And yet, I wasn’t sure that Masotta had recognized me: a sort of fog seemed to float before his eyes and his very pale face—more of a dull grimace or an effigy of boredom. At last, a sort of slow and cumulative sadness seemed to flash across that face and give it expressivity. Sadness for himself? For me? For both of us? I’ll never know, and I don’t care. The little fellow who had gone into the bookstore returned and got back into the car. The door closed and the car left, taking Masotta and his four companions, or guards.[1]

 

With these words, Carlos Correas recalls the last time he saw Masotta. Correas and Masotta met at university, were close friends for years, but they eventually became estranged, partly as a result of Masotta’s widening intellectual interests and pursuits, notably contemporary art and psychoanalysis. 1973, when the “meeting” happened, was one of the darkest years in Argentina’s history, the year of the Ezeiza massacre and of the formation of the far-right death squads, the Triple A. If Correas decided to “play dead,” it is because he recognized what had quickly become a typical situation: a car pulling to a stop in front of you could mean the end. But, to his surprise, he discovered that one of people in the car is his old friend, a man Correas had once even been in love with.

Masotta’s family insists that professional ambition is what prompted him to leave Buenos Aires in 1974: he wanted to pursue his career as a Lacanian reader, translator, and teacher. But some of his friends also insist that he had been “squeezed” (apretado) by the Triple A, and had left out of fear of further prosecution. It is possible, then, that what Correas describes is that moment; that might explain the absence of expressivity in Masotta’s pale and dull face, the fact that he doesn’t recognize, or pretends not to recognize, his old friend, the sadness that flashes across his face. Correas himself is unsure: are the people Masotta is with his “companions,” or his “guards”? In the end, Correas decides he does not care. The car leaves.

However one reads the scene, the fact is that Masotta is both a formidable intellectual and a wonderful protagonist in the political thriller that Correas’ episode describes. Violence, or the image of violence, is a fundamental ingredient of the artistic production of those years. Indeed, artistic production itself, and the happening in particular, had something of the criminal about it, as Masotta suggests:

All of this created a certain semblance between the happening and some Mafia operations, like a bank holdup, for example. With a goal in mind—getting hold of the money—one must trace a strategy of schedules and timetables: one must know what time the employee with the key to the safe arrives; one must find a way to distract a cop, in other words, to create a “gap” in the cop’s constant vigilance; one must orchestrate the coincidence of this “gap” with the hour when the bank has the fewest number of clients.[2]

The analogy between the happening and the Mafia, Masotta tells us, was first suggested by Allan Kaprow, who writes, in the text that must have been in Masotta’s mind:

But the importance given to purposive action also suggest the Happenings’ affinities with practices marginal to the fine arts, such as parades, carnivals, games, expeditions, guided tours, orgies, religious ceremonies, and such secular rituals as the elaborate operations of the Mafia.[3]

Purposive action, carefully coordinated and planned: very few happenings in the history of the genre could have been harder to coordinate and synchronize as Masotta’s El helicóptero (The Helicopter), which took place in Buenos Aires on July 16, 1967. One possible exception is Calling, an almost contemporary happening by Kaprow that took place in New York and South Brunswick on August 21 and 22, 1965.

Calling was, perhaps, even closer to a Mafia operation, both in its cruelty and iconography, than El helicóptero. Participants fell into two groups: victims and perpetrators. Throughout the first half, and day, of Calling, Kaprow’s “victims” were abducted several times; wrapped in silver foil and white laundry bags; relocated to landmarks around New York City by car; and, lastly, abandoned at the information booth at Grand Central Station. When they managed to liberate themselves from their silver and white shrouds, these “human packages” had to call a predetermined phone number: someone would answer but immediately hang up, without saying a word (haven’t we seen this in a thousand Mafia films?). The following day, the victims became the perpetrators: it was their turn to be stripped naked by their former victims and abandoned in the woods, hanging upside down from trees (again, haven’t we seen this in a thousand Mafia films?).

Kaprow’s description of the situation in the score for Calling couldn’t be more forensic:

In the woods, the persons call out names and hear hidden answers.

 

Here and there, they come upon people dangling upside down from ropes. They rip the people’s clothes off and go away. The naked figures call to each other in the woods for a long time until they are tired. Silence.[4]

Kaprow’s Happenings effect the transition that turns the audience from beholders into participants, and it is the audience/participants who are compelled to adopt the role of victim or of perpetrator.[5]

Kaprow’s two-part happening, A Service for the Dead (March and August 1962) has the audience being led to a cave-like space, the foyer of the Maidman Playhouse in New York, and this first part of the happening ends with a woman, supine and naked, being covered by a white sheet. The same audience, in the second part of the happening in August, is taken outdoors, to the Atlantic shore of Long Island, to a neighborhood famous for being home to many psychiatrists: a symbolic passage from land to sea, from reason to the unconscious. The open Atlantic shoreline stands in dramatic contrast to the theatre’s claustrophobic and crowded basement. We hear echoes of El helicóptero, where part of the audience is taken to a basement theater, and another to the abandoned train station of an upscale suburb overlooking the water.

While the audience in the second part of A Service for the Dead was particularly active, carrying all sorts of props, Calling was the first of Kaprow’s Happenings to do without an audience altogether. Every person involved in the Happening had a role, and Kaprow indicates that communication is the main subject of Calling. That said, it is clear that the form of communication in question is not a neutral exchange between two equal partners, but an irreversible, unilateral, and one-directional demonstration of power. There was no audience: the happeners were performing, for themselves and for one another. The representation of violence directed against the spectators in previous happenings is now focused instead on the performers’ bodies. The passive performers (victims) were entirely at the mercy of their active counterparts (perpetrators), who slashed and tore the clothes of the “victims” and left them helplessly dangling upside down, naked. The relation here is one of trust and dependence, with clear sadomasochistic associations.

 

Discussing El helicóptero, Masotta describes an image that might owe something to Kaprow:

On one of the walls was projected an eight-minute film that accentuated the expressionist image: a figure, completely bound in bandages, twisted and turned violently in an effort to free itself from the ties that bound it (it was a replica, a “citation,” of a film by Claes Oldenburg). Louis Moholo accompanied the figure’s movements with his drum kit. A live figure—similar to the one in the film—cleared a path through the audience, enveloped in darkness, to reach the wall upon which the film was being projected, and once there she started to mirror the contortions of the figure in the film.[6]

Masotta does not tells us which Oldenburg film he is talking about, but it is hard to understand why he doesn’t mention Calling, since that is the most obvious reference. Structural similarities between different happenings aside, Masotta wanted to highlight the reference to ritual and darkness that was characteristic of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Happenings. Among other things, El helicóptero is a critique of what Masotta calls Lebel’s “shit aesthetics.”[7]

The association between the shrouded body and a corpse was likewise the central idea of a seminal piece by Artur Barrio, Trouxas Ensanguentadas (Bloody Bundles), produced in 1969-70. During that period, Brazil, like Argentina, was under siege from the state terrorism of a military dictatorship. Trouxas Ensanguentadas happened in three different contexts: the first time was at the MAM (the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, 1969), and there the bundles consisted of newspapers, aluminum foam, cement, meat, and blood, all bundled together with white cloth. It didn’t take long for the police to show up, and a mere forty-three hours after being inaugurated, the work had been removed. The second time, Barrio scattered his “bloody bundles” through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The third time was at the Municipal Park in Belo Horizonte, in 1970, as part of the demonstration Do Corpo à Terra (From Body to Earth). There, the bundles attracted a huge audience—as well as the fire brigade and, finally and inevitably, the police, who confiscated the work. This time, however, the whole procedure was secretly recorded and shown in the exhibition Information at MoMA. The curator, Kynaston McShine, says a propos of Barrio’s work: “If you are an artist in Brazil, you know at least one friend who is being tortured; if you are one in Argentina, you probably have had a neighbor who has been in jail for having long hair or for not being “dressed” properly; and if you are living in the United States, you may fear that you will be shot at, either in the universities, in your bed, or more formally in Indochina. It may seem too inappropriate, if not absurd, to get up in the morning, walk into a room and apply dabs of paint from a little tube to a square of canvas. What can you as a young artist do that seems relevant and meaningful?”[8]

There was of course a world of difference between undertaking these types of action in the US, a democracy, and in Argentina and Brazil, both of which were dictatorships at the time. Lucy Lippard refers to this difference in an interview with curator Nina Möntmann:

I’ve often pondered why artists in more volatile or totalitarian societies (Chile in 1973, or Central America around 1980, are among the chilling examples) were perceived by their rightwing governments as real threats, whereas we who were analyzing activism, making art by “desecrating” American flags, or yelling and wheatpasting on the streets of New York with similar politics were just nuisances to the US government, a dispiriting sign of art’s direct ineffectiveness.[9]

Ana Longoni suggests that when the collectively authored counter-information piece, Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning), was closed down by the police on November 25, 1968, within hours of opening at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, it was as if a garden of forking paths opened up for Argentinean artists and, more broadly, for intellectuals and thinkers of all stripes. The dilemma was this: either go into exile, or renounce artistic (or intellectual) practice altogether.[10] Some chose the latter route; Masotta, in due course, was to choose the former.

 

***

 

Roberto Bolaño spent his childhood in Chile and Mexico. In 1973, when he was twenty years old, he returned to Chile to support Salvador Allende’s government. According to Bolaño, after Pinochet’s putsch, he was arrested and spent some time in prison; he returned to Mexico after his release. In 1977, he moved to Spain, to a town not far from Barcelona.

In 1996, Bolaño published Nazi Literature in the Americas, a completely fictional encyclopedia of rightwing writers in the American continent. Ultra-right Fascists, Nazis, with all the load of horror, class hate, caciquism, irrationality, racism, and brutality. The last of the characters portrayed, Carlos Ramírez Hoffman, will become the protagonist of Bolaño’s next novel, Distant Star, also published in 1996. The same episode is described in both books, though what they emphasize and focus on differs. Bolaño says that the episode was narrated to him by his alter ego, Arturo Belano, and it is quite thrilling to compare some of the events described in one and the other.

In the Carlos Ramírez Hoffman section of Nazi Literature in the Americas, we read:

 

At that stage he was calling himself Emilio Stevens and writing poems of which Cherniakovski did not disapprove, although the stars of the workshop were the twins Maria and Magdalena Venegas, seventeen or perhaps eighteen-year-old poets from Nacimiento (…). He was at the height of his fame. He was called upon to undertake something grand in the capital, something spectacular to show that the new regime was interested in avant-garde art. Ramírez Hoffman was only too pleased to oblige. (…) That was where he wrote the first line: Death is Friendship. (…) Death is Chile. (…) Death is responsibility. (…) Death is love and Death is growth. (…) Death is communion. (…) Death is cleansing. (…) Death is my heart. And then: Take my heart. (…) Our change, our advantage. (…) Death is resurrection. (…) They understood the pilot’s will and knew that although they couldn’t make head or tail of it, they were witnessing an event of great significance for the art of the future. (…) … he called for silence and said (these are his actual words, according to Zabaleta) that it was time to plunge into the art of the future. He opened the bedroom door and began to let the guests in one by one. One at a time, gentlemen: the art of Chile is nor for the herd. (…) According to some rumors, he was expelled from the air force (…). He changed his name. He was associated with various ephemeral literary magazines, to which he contributed proposals for happenings that never happened, unless (and it hardly bears thinking about) he organized them in secret.[11]

In Distant Star, Ramírez Hoffman goes by two names: Alberto Ruiz-Tagle is the young poet who reappears as Carlos Wieder (Wieder means “again” in German), the fascist hero, aviator, and artist. We read:

But let us return to the beginning, to Carlos Wieder and the year of grace 1974. At that time Wieder was at the height of his fame. After his triumphant journey to Antarctica and aerial displays over numerous Chilean cities, he was called upon to undertake something grand in the capital, something spectacular to show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art were not at odds, quite the contrary. (…) He said that after writing in the sky it would be appropriate—as well as charmingly paradoxical—to circumscribe the epilogue to his aerial poem within the bounds of the poet’s den. As to the nature of the photos (…) he would only say that it was visual poetry—experimental, quintessential, art for art’s sake— and that everyone would find it amusing. (…) Wieder’s plane emerged far from the airstrip, over an outlying suburb of Santiago. There he wrote the first line: Death is friendship. (…) Death is Chile. (…) Death is responsibility. (…) Death is love and Death is growth. (…) Death is communion. (…) Death is cleansing. (…) Death is my heart. Then: Take my heart. And then his name: Carlos Wieder. (…) Death is resurrection. (…) … and they knew that although they couldn’t make head or tail of it, they were witnessing a unique event, of great significance for the art of the future. (…) Finally, on the stroke of midnight, he climbed onto a chair in the living room, called for silence and said (these are his actual words according to Muñoz Cano) that it was time to plunge into the art of the future. (…) There is, of course, no truth to the story that there were colored lights or drum beats coming from a cassette player hidden under the bed. (…) Muñoz Cano claims to have recognized the Garmendia sisters and other missing persons in some of the photos. Most of them were women. The background hardly varied from one photo to another, so it seemed they had all been taken in the same place. The women looked like mannequins, broken, dismembered mannequins in some pictures, although Muñoz Cano could not rule out the possibility that up to thirty per cent of the subjects had been alive when the snapshots were taken. (…) A photo of a young blonde woman who seemed to be dissolving into the air. A photo of a severed finger, thrown onto a floor of porous, grey cement.[12]

 

In both novels, there’s a character who is a poet, a fascist hero, and a visual artist who organizes an exhibition of photographs that he bills as “the art of the future” and “avant-garde art,” and who is suspected of having organized some Happenings, which either didn’t take place, or took place in secret. He is also a murderer, a torturer, an agent of terror, and an accomplice of the new regime’s desire to show interest in avant-garde art. The sky as palimpsest for poetry, the “poet’s den”—his own room, dark and confined—as the “paradoxical epilogue”[13] to the aerial poem. We hear, again, echoes of El helicóptero, where a part of the happening consists of the helicopter that flies over the abandoned train station.

Written by a leftist Latino American poet—Bolaño himself—who was evidently well informed about the last steps of South American avant-garde before dictatorship silenced it, what is chilling in these two almost identical scenes is the way it couples state terror and avant-garde art.

There is a line of thought that imagines artists and poets to be prophets, as beings endowed with special subjectivities that allow them to foretell the catastrophes to come. Ricardo Piglia mentions Kafka’s prophetical qualities in the novel Artificial Respiration: “The word Ungeziefer,” meaning insect or vermin, “which the Nazis would use to designate prisoners in the concentration camps, is the same word that Kafka uses to describe what Gregor Samsa has turned into one morning.”[14]

Similarly, Joyce famously predicted the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Finnegans Wake:

He’d left his stickup in his hand to show them none ill feeling. Whatthough for all appentices it had a mushroom on it. While he faced them front to back, Then paraseuls round, quite taken atack, sclaiming, Howe cools Eavybrolly!

—Good marrams, sagd he, freshwatties and boasterdes all, as he put into bierhiven, nogeysokey first, cabootle segund, jilling to windwards, as he made straks for that oerasound the snarsty weg for Publin, so was his horenpipe lug in the lee off their mouths organs, with his tilt too taut for his tammy all a slaunter and his wigger on a wagger with its tag tucked.[15]

Masotta likewise toyed with the archetype of the sinister self-fulfilling prophecy with his anti-happening or mass media work El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message, 1967). A poster that read, “This poster will be broadcast on TV Channel 11 on July 20,” was pasted to the walls of the city center in Buenos Aires. And on the appointed date the poster was broadcast. It’s hard to imagine a more literal articulation of the proverbial “writing on the wall.”

There was an undeniably prophetic quality to it, as there was to his two Happenings, Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image, 1966), and El helicóptero. It wasn’t long after the latter that the Argentinean government started throwing dissidents—and what counted as dissidence could be as trivial as owning a red book—out of airplanes. And it wasn’t long after El mensaje fantasma that the Triple A took to the media, and Triple A groups, sent by the government’s Press Secretary, occupied channels 9 and 11, and later channels 7 and 13 as well, and used these channels to announce the names of future victims and to justify abductions and assassinations already carried out.

Carlos Correas had reason to “play dead” as the black car pulled to a stop in front of him, unexpectedly giving him a last, melancholy glimpse of his erstwhile friend.

[1] Carlos Correas, La operación Masotta: cuando la muerte también fracasa (Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 1991), p. 178. The ERP is the Ejército Revolucionário del Pueblo, or People’s Revolutionary Army.

[2] See Oscar Masotta, “After Pop, We Dematerialize,” p. XX.

[3] Allan Kaprow, “Happenings are Dead: Long Live the Happening!,” in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 64.

[4] Allan Kaprow, “Calling,” in Tulane Drama Review 10:2 (Winter, 1965), pp. 203-04.

[5] Susan Sontag writes: “Perhaps the most striking feature of the Happening is its treatment (this is the only word for it) of the audience. The event seems designed to tease and abuse the audience. The performers may sprinkle water on the audience, or fling pennies or sneeze-producing detergent powder at it. Someone may be making near-deafening noises on an oil drum, or waving an acetylene torch in the direction of the spectators. Several radios may be playing simultaneously; the audience may be made to stand uncomfortably in a crowded room, or fight for space to stand on boards laid in a few inches of water. There is no attempt to cater to the audience’s desire to see everything. In fact, this is often deliberately frustrated, by performing some of the events in semi-darkness or by having events going on in different rooms simultaneously. In Allan Kaprow’s A Spring Happening, presented in March 1961 at the Reuben Gallery, the spectators were confined inside a long box-like structure resembling a cattle car; peep-holes had been bored in the wooden walls of this enclosure through which the spectators could strain to see the events taking place outside; when the Happening was over, the walls collapsed and the spectators were driven out by someone operating a power lawnmower.  (…) The people in the Happenings are often made to look like objects, by enclosing them in burlap sacks, elaborate paper wrappings, shrouds and masks. (…) Much of the action, violent and otherwise, of Happenings involves this use of the person as a material object. There is a great deal of violent using of the physical persons of the performers by the person himself (jumping, falling) and by each other (lifting, chasing throwing, pushing, hitting, wrestling); and sometimes a slower, more sensuous use of the person (caressing, menacing, gazing) by others or by the person himself.” See “Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London and New York: Picador, 1990 [1966]), pp. 265-67.

[6] Masotta, “After Pop, We Dematerialize,” p. XX.

[7] “Besides, all Lebel does in his Happenings is to arrange, in sealed-off premises (the theater of the Instituto, with its cube shape, chairs, and stage at the front, in sum, the traditional architectonic box of the traditional theater), a cluttered, disorderly, and simultaneous group of messages (slides, films, live performers, his own talk), to produce a sought-for result: a dark and expressionist image. We could describe Lebel’s Happening as follows: a ”collage,” neo-naturalist and expressionist. But this iconoclast, who favors a shit aesthetic12 and who thinks simultaneity as disorder, does not for all that abandon the traditional coordinates of the traditional theater.” Masotta, “After Pop, We Dematerialize,” p. XX.

[8] Kynaston McShine, Information, ex. catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), p. 138.

[9] Nina Möntmann is currently at work on gathering and producing material for a projected anthology on the question of dematerialization in art. This still unpublished interview was conducted as part of that project.

[10] See Ana Longoni, “Greco and Masotta: Heterotopic Trajectories,” p. XX.

[11] Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Christ Andrews (London: Picador, 2010), pp. 197-214 (italics mine).

[12] Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star (New York: New Directions, 2004), pp. 77-89 (italics mine).

[13] Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star, New Directions Books, 2004, pp. 78

[14] Ricardo Piglia, Artificial Respiration, trans. Daniel Balderston (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 206

[15] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Penguin, 1976 [1939]), p. 315 (italics added).