In a controversial piece that would come to influence artists to this day, Oscar Bony displayed a working-class family as art. ‘Familia Obrera’ was exhibited in 1968, amidst mobilisations against the military dictatorship, in the gallery of the Instituto Di Tella, a hub of the Argentine avant-garde art movement.
Luis Ricardo Rodríguez, a pattern cutter, and his wife and son, were hired by Bony to sit on show on a museum platform, whilst a recording of the sounds of their everyday household life was playing in the background.
As the noose of political repression was beginning to tighten, the work signified a vibrant communication between art and life, and a defiant break with traditions. Being neither performance nor sculpture, it resisted classification, and brought into play questions of class and exploitation which were provocative and difficult to resolve.
Almost 40 years later, this controversial, boundary-breaking event is politely represented in Malba by a six-foot square black and white photograph. Safely contained within the museum, and history, it is difficult to imagine the energy that the original work generated, and the power of confronting a live family in the gallery at the time when the experimental artistic movement was heading for clashes with the authorities.
The show is the first ever retrospective of the important artist, who was born in 1941 in Misiones province, and died in 2002, whilst still producing art. Showing work from throughout the course of his career, it is difficult not to become dazed by his eclecticism: as well as the relics from his happenings and events, there are flickery short films in which time becomes confusing and any sense of the linear disappears; installations in which different modes of perception such as touch and sight are explored simultaneously.
Further on, are photos of bodies in motion, which refer to Francis Bacon’s angst-ridden existential paintings. There are giant flower and sky canvases, and later, photographs including landscapes and self portraits which the artist has shot with a gun.
This variety makes Bony difficult to categorise. He said himself in 1976; “I believe there is a constant in my work: discontinuity.” Art, to Bony, was a state of investigation: “My works are made to emit a point of reflection, which I believe is where the point of art is situated.”
Bony emerged in the Buenos Aires art scene of the 1960s, an explosively creative moment in the city’s history. The removal of Perón from power in the previous decade had meant that a state of censorship in the arts gave way to a more vibrant sense of freedom and possibility among the Argentine intelligentsia.
The Instituto Di Tella, a key player in the legitimisation of the emerging Argentine avant-garde, began awarding prizes to artists, bringing them to the public eye. Some of the jury members were foreign critics and artists, creating an international dialogue which enriched the art scene. Added to this, the giving of grants meant that more Argentine artists could travel abroad.
Bony formed part of the emerging group of art rebels connected to the institute, and began to make installations and happenings influenced by conceptualism, pop and minimalism. This art posed existential questions: How do we break habits of thinking and seeing?
Following the military coup of 1966, led by General Juan Carlos Onganía, in which President Arturo Illia was overthrown, the Argentine political climate changed. The contemporary art scene is said to have been ‘jolted by a creative effervescence so powerful that journalists would also refer to 1966 as “the year of the avant garde”’.
Bony and others began a process of more overt politicisation which came to a dramatic head in 1968. A confrontation is said to have begun that year, when artist Eduardo Ruano smashed a picture of John F Kennedy, shouting ‘Yankees out of Vietnam!’
The most notorious manifestations of unrest were to happen when the Instituto Di Tella put on a show, ‘Experiences’ in the May of that year, in which Oscar Bony exhibited ‘Familia Obrera’, the working class family.
Although controversial, this was not the work that began the conflict. The show became the scene of a clash between the artists, the institute, and the government, when the police closed down an installation by Roberto Plate entitled ‘Baño’ or ‘Bathroom’, which had included provocative statements and anti-government graffiti.
On 23rd May, in public protest of this act of censorship, the artists involved in the show removed their works and smashed up the remains on calle Florida. Some were arrested at the scene.
The event signified the end of an era, and effectively constituted an act of artistic suicide. Many refused to make art again until seven or eight years later.
In 1971 Bony declined to send artwork to a group show in London, saying “I am against the idea of any kind of art exhibit, that is why I am not sending any work to Camden. In addition I am in favour of non-participation as being the avant-garde.”
During the time of his self-imposed exile from ‘high art’, Bony began a new career as a rock photographer, gaining notoriety for his portraits of bands such as ‘Los Gatos’, ‘Almendra’ and ‘La Joven Guardia’. For almost six years he worked in the music industry, helping to form the visual identity of Argentine rock bands at a crucial time when the music was gaining access to mass media.
He returned to the world of ‘high art’ in 1974, with a series of photos and paintings. Looking back on his decision to leave the art world, he proclaimed his seven year retirement from the sphere to have been a mistake: “At that time we believed in a utopia that finally proved to be impossible: the possibility of obviating galleries and museums.”
“I had decided to quit, to never again show in a gallery or museum,” he stated. “I felt that I had come into contact with a deathly cold. It made me very afraid and I lived more than five years thinking that my life had ended. We undertook a fantastic utopia: unable to change society, we committed suicide.”
Despite the closing of the original work, ‘Familia Obrera’ remains one of Bony’s most influential works, and one of the most controversial. This work was later re-created in 1998 in the Fundacion Proa, Buenos Aires, and in 2004 in galleries in Slovenia and Houston, with similar families being hired to become live exhibits.
Bony commented on the reconstruction of the work: “For me La Familia Obrera implied many things that demand commitment. One was the relationship to politics, another was the intention to dematerialise the work of art.”
“I’m extremely interested in a certain condition of being on the border,” he explained. “And a certain tendency of meaning that has not been modified. Showing the work again seems to me to open up the analysis.”
This piece is also seen as the precursor to Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s contemporary installations in which he pays workers and powerless groups of the community to appear in a gallery. He packed one space with Mexican immigrant workers, confronting a mainly privileged audience with the exploitative capitalist system from which they benefit, and attracting fierce debate.
Sierra’s work has been criticised for entering into the very exploitation that it seems to expose: Where Bony paid twice the breadwinner’s normal wages for his family to be on display, Sierra purportedly did not match their usual daily rate.
There will be no such accusations of exploitation in the Malba. Not because Bony wanted to avoid such a risk, but because their decision to display ‘Familia Obrera’ as a photo rather than a living family circumvents any of its confrontational power.
Despite haphazardly edited video clips in the Malba giving a clue as to the sense of energy and purpose that there must have been at the Di Tella in the 1960s, the show does not communicate the disruptive potential of the work, as though its energy can no longer touch or change us. The viewer does not feel themselves to be a participant as they would if they had been faced with real people, and therefore does not have to question the dynamics of power of which they are a currently a part.
Is the place for politics these days outside the Plaza de Mayo, not in the art gallery? Is the capitalist structure that Bony critiqued not still at-large? It seems as though Bony’s work has become confined to the safe bourgeois distance of the museum – one of the very things that he set out to rupture.
El Mago shows at the Malba, Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, until 18th February 2008. For more information, visit www.malba.org.ar