Alexander and Bonin, New York
Through June 18
by Benjamin Lima
Fernando Bryce carefully explores volumes of old newspapers, magazines and other published material, chooses selected pages to painstakingly copy in pen and ink, then exhibits them in series that reflect a particular context and set of sources. Some of the series, such as South of the Border (2002) and Atlas Peru (2000-2001), touch on how Latin America has been represented to foreign audiences; others, such as Walter Benjamin (2002) and Trotsky (2003), address radical thinkers of the 20th century. Like Benjamin in the Arcades Project, Bryce’s assembly of mass-cultural fragments from the past provide sudden moments of illumination that shine through to the present. El Mundo en Llamas (“the world in flames”), Bryce’s first solo exhibition in the US currently on view at Alexander and Bonin, transports viewers into the terrible years of World War II.
The titular series in the main gallery, El Mundo en Llamas, offers two complementary perspectives on the fears and occupations of the period of WWII: newspaper movie advertisements grounded in fantasy, and headlines grounded in reality. Handmade reproductions of newspaper front pages from around the Western world follow developments in the war, from El Comercio (Peru’s newspaper of record) to the Vichyite Le Matin and The New York Times among many others. Above the horizontal fold, the front pages are completely dominated by news of the war, revealing its totalizing nature as other matters pale in significance. The sheer geographical range of the dispatches, from North Africa to the South Pacific, underscores the truly global scale of the conflict, while the numerous three-line banner headlines in the Times emphasize its gravity. These are interspersed with hand-drawn reproductions of advertisements from the same editions of El Comercio for Hollywood films that were dubbed and retitled for the audiences in Lima (Bryce’s home town). Some of the movie pages show familiar faces— Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Reagan— while others, such as La Marca de la Pantera (Cat People) or La Amenaza Invisible (The Invisible Menace), are tantalizingly obscure, promising an escape into worlds of science fiction, fantasy and romance.
In the rear gallery, Das Reich / Der Aufbau (2010-2011) juxtaposes the front pages of a German-language paper published by Jewish exiles in New York with an equal number of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda organ during the summer and fall of 1944, as the tide began to turn against the Nazis. While the Aufbau headlines express a cautious optimism at the prospect of the Axis defeat, the Reich remains stridently defiant to the end. The papers’ diametrically opposed ideologies are accentuated by their symmetrical display: two rows of seven broadsheets from each daily newspaper, one on top of the other.
After making an initial reading of the reproductions, viewers are left to deduce the meaning of the selections and juxtapositions that generated the series. The methodical, deliberate procedure employed by Bryce, what he calls “mimetic analysis,” leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The discipline and devotion needed to sustain his project is impressive, as is his determination to avoid explicit authorial utterances. At the same time, his approach depends on the sensitivity and acuity of his archival selections. We rely on the artist to make intelligent and compelling choices of source material. While Bryce’s role is indeed something like that of the medieval copyist, as explored by art historian and critic Carlos Jiménez in his article “The Untimely Copyist,” his work in exploring archives, in selecting and arranging certain works for contemplation, is also that of a curator. This curatorial-copyistic mode brings together elements of the documentary and the handmade. It engages the eye, the hand and the mind in interaction with one another. We viewers are reminded of his activity in the moments when we pause to make sense of the unfamiliar, fascinating source materials that he has exhumed and copied. His work is a process of reanimation. In it, the past “flashes up at the moment of its recognizability” (to quote Benjamin’s “Theses on History”), allowing us to apprehend both its strangeness and familiarity.
Benjamin Lima is assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Arlington.