Juan Acha's Creative Engagement: "Paper and More Paper" (1969)

October 8, 2016

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.


Like other important critics of his time, including Mario Pedrosa (Timbaúba, 1990 – Rio de Janeiro, 1981), Jorge Romero Brest (Buenos Aires, 1905-1989) or Marta Traba (Buenos Aires, 1930 – Madrid, 1983), Peruvian critic Juan Acha (Sullana, 1916 – Mexico City, 1995) is one of the key figures for understanding the transformations in Latin America’s cultural and social spheres over the latter half of the 20th century. These critics took on the enormous challenges brought about by the vertiginous changes occurring over the course of the 60s and 70s, which forced them to adopt positions on the cultural and ideological tensions of the Cold War as well as on artistic practices that questioned traditional systems of representation. While the theoretical work that Acha produced in Mexico in the 60s is considerably well-known—mainly due to his publications in that country, which commenced in 1979 with the book Art and Society in Latin America—his early work as a critic and cultural agitator in Peru in the 60s has barely been discussed.

One reason for this oversight is the manner in which the critic distanced himself from Peru after having left the country in 1970. His abrupt departure came about after being unjustly imprisoned, shamed, and accused of drug trafficking after police intervened and broke up a party he was attending with other colleagues and artists, in which some of the attendees were presumably in possession of marijuana. Acha was one of the many individuals impacted by the increase in repressive policing measures brought on by the new nationalist military regime (which had taken power through a coup in October of 1968). This situation was symbolically aggravated by a lack of solidarity within the local artistic community, which he had enthusiastically supported. Shortly after he was released, Acha traveled to the United States, where he stayed for several months before going into exile in Mexico in 1971. The incident irreparably severed the critic’s ties to Peru. [1]

Acha’s engaged work in those early years resulted not only in the writing of numerous articles that were published regularly in the newspaper El Comercio beginning in 1958, but for him it also meant initiating a relationship of complicity with, and active participation in, several of the artistic occurrences that would come to define new directions in Peruvian art in the 60s, whether through exhibitions or public debates. For over fifty years, Acha’s fresh and lucid perspective made him the boldest interlocutor for the avant-garde artists that he himself had stimulated since 1966, through the emergence of groups like Señal (1966) or Arte Nuevo (1966-1968), which introduced pop art, happenings, installations, and ephemeral practices, and questioned the stench of eternity plaguing traditional art. While some of these practices were a direct reflection of the cosmopolitan aesthetics of the North American and European metropoles, many others developed bold grammars that appropriated the language of international movements in order to propose a critical interpellation between art and its immediate social context, as was the case with artists such as Teresa Burga, Jesús Ruiz Durand, Luis Arias Vera, Gloria Gómez-Sánchez and Rafael Hastings, among others.

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_1.jpg

Works by the Arte Nuevo group in the Museo de Arte de Lima, 1966. Photo: Luis Arias Vera
Works by the Arte Nuevo group in the Museo de Arte de Lima, 1966. Photo: Luis Arias Vera

Acha aimed to contribute to the renewal of the theoretical views of his era. This meant that he had to stay up to date on debates by traveling internationally and contributing to publications in other locales. In 1968, the critic undertook a lengthy voyage across Europe, distancing him from his country for nearly a year during what would be a critical period in the evolution of his ideas. During this time, he attended Documenta IV in Kassel and the XXXIV Venice Bienale, while he closely followed the uprisings of May ’68 in France, the black civil rights movement, anti-colonial rebellions and the emergence of new political and philosophical positions. Upon his return to Peru in 1969, Acha found himself in a country that was clearly different from the one he had left a year before: the military coup of General Velasco Alvarado in October of 1968 and the subsequent rise of the self-proclaimed Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces had rapidly transformed the cultural and social landscape.

While some of the initial measures undertaken by the military regime (like the expropriation of the International Petroleum Company in 1968 and the Agrarian Reform Law of 1969) satisfied popular demands to defend national interests in the face of foreign exploitation, that initial acceptance would begin to dissolve due to a series of authoritarian gestures that included the expropriation of television stations and newspapers, as well as the deportation of intellectuals perceived as critical toward the regime. Faced with this situation, Acha chose to radicalize his discourse as well, in articles disseminating reformist ideas and demanding that artists seek out new ways of engaging their reality. The critic organized a conference cycle titled “New Sociological References in the Visual Arts” for a small group of local artists and critics with whom he attempted to establish dialogues regarding the social role of art.[2]  In these sessions, Acha aimed to test out the ideas he had absorbed during his European voyage, confronting them with the new situation that the country was enduring under the military government. Acha also sought to comprehend the process of transformation that the work of art was undergoing, its conversion into actions and ephemeral forms of intervention. As the critic emphatically noted at the time, “We are witnessing the awakening of a revolutionary spirit: we are marching toward a socioeconomic justice that—it is assumed—will mold a new mentality. Faced with this situation, a group of young artists has begun to manifest … the need for a cultural revolution.”[3] That process of readjustment of aesthetic paradigms also permitted him to redefine his role as an art critic, inspiring exhibitions and bold projects that would produce a notable impact at the local level.

One such instance was the exhibition Paper and More Paper: 14 Manipulations of Newsprint, which Acha organized in the Foundation for the Arts in June of 1969. This project crystallized artists’ concerns with abandoning traditional formats and embracing ephemeral forms, while at the same time foregrounding Acha’s desire to take up positions that were less traditional and that were not restricted to a single field of action. In order to generate a collective installation focused on reusing sheets of newsprint, the critic brought together thirteen artists from the avant-garde scene (Jorge Bernuy, Mario Acha, Cristina Portocarrero, Luis Zevallos, Emilio Hernández Saavedra, Queta Gaillour, Jesús Ruiz Durand, Gloria Gómez-Sánchez, José Tang, Jaime Dávila, Gilberto Urday, Rubela Dávila and Regina Aprijaskis) as well as including himself among the participants. Acha decided to depart from his customary role as an analytical observer operating through the pages of the local newspaper, in order to participate in the production process along with the artists. An important premise of this project was to denounce the status of “artists” and self-designate as “manipulators,” in reference to the artisanal process used with the paper, but also as a suggestion with further implications. The word “manipulators” had a provocative connotation in Lima at that time due to an absurd debate that had arisen a couple of months prior, in light of a charge of “plagiarism” levied against the artist Luis Zevallos Hetzel for having used a photograph from a commercial advertisement for Harley-Davidson motorcycles to produce a series of pop paintings. The self-recognition of the artists as a group of apparent “manipulators” thus involved an indirect recognition of artistic work as a site of deformation, denaturalization and the betrayal of meanings.

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_2.jpg

Juan Acha participating in a public discussion on the complaint against a work by Luis Zevallos Hetzel, accused of plagiarism. Galería Cultura y Libertad, April 23, 1969. Photo: Luis Zevallos Hetzel
Juan Acha participating in a public discussion on the complaint against a work by Luis Zevallos Hetzel, accused of plagiarism. Galería Cultura y Libertad, April 23, 1969. Photo: Luis Zevallos Hetzel

Paper and More Paper also appropriated the playful form of some of the linguistic strategies used in North American conceptual art: the invitation to the exhibition was a printed rectangular flyer that reproduced the definitions of the words “paper” and “newspaper” from an encyclopedic dictionary. Both of these definitions focused on historical precedents, from the origin of paper in Asia and its use in the creation of the printing press, to the economic and political demands associated with the birth of news media. But the connection between these two words—“papel periódico” (“newsprint”) combines the terms “papel” (meaning both “paper” and “role” in Spanish) and “periódico” (“newspaper”)—can also be interpreted as an interrogation of the role of newspapers in that precise moment, meaning the purpose and social function of the press during those times of complicated reforms and delicate political transitions.

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_3.jpg

Invitation to the exhibition “Paper and More Paper: 14 Manipulations of Newsprint” (June 9–21, 1969). Lima, Fundación para las Artes
Invitation to the exhibition “Paper and More Paper: 14 Manipulations of Newsprint” (June 9–21, 1969). Lima, Fundación para las Artes

The exhibition consisted of objects and installations made of newsprint, which occupied every available space in the Foundation for the Arts. While the installation as a whole was billed as a collective work, each manipulator focused on one particular piece, producing fragile objects, playful agglomerations, spatial installations and even fleeting actions. For example, the “manipulation” undertaken by Gloria Gómez Sánchez consisted of a hanging structure composed of two extended sleeves made of interconnected newspaper pages, while Jesús Ruiz Durand’s contribution was a large sphere made of wrinkled pieces of newsprint in the form of rags that were tied together in the shape of a soccer ball, and Acha’s intervention consisted of two vertical columns made of numerous newspapers stacked on top of one another. The first column measured some two meters in height, the second less than 30 centimeters. As if it were a ready-made or a minimalist sculpture, Acha’s “manipulation” clearly separated itself from the rest of the more metaphorical or sensorial pieces. This gesture may have been aimed at dismantling conventional illusions regarding the work of art and highlighting not only the physical dimension of the material being used, but also its political and ideological implications.

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_4.jpg

Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Work by Gloria Gómez Sánchez. Photo: Mario Acha
Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Work by Gloria Gómez Sánchez. Photo: Mario Acha

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_5.jpg

Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Right: work by Mario Acha. Left: work by Juan Acha. Photo: Mario Acha
Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Right: work by Mario Acha. Left: work by Juan Acha. Photo: Mario Acha

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_6.jpg

Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Left: Work by Juan Acha. Right foreground: detail of a work by Jesús Ruiz Durand. Photo: Mario Acha
Installation view of “Paper and More Paper,” 1969. Left: Work by Juan Acha. Right foreground: detail of a work by Jesús Ruiz Durand. Photo: Mario Acha

The way in which Acha and the other “manipulators” sought to call attention to the press and mass media crystallized a moment in which art seemed destined to reinvent its place in the world and to seek out a distinct engagement with other aspects of life. This event underscored the importance of the press, and at the same time, emphasized the turbulent position that the mass media had begun to occupy among the military regime’s new strategies of authoritarian control, which would lead to the expropriation of the mass media and the deportation of writers and journalists starting in 1970.

STATEMENTS_MIGUEL-LOPEZ_7.jpg

Emilio Hernández, Museo de Arte Borrado [Museum of Erased Art], 1970. Offset printing on paper, 15 x 15 cm
Emilio Hernández, Museo de Arte Borrado [Museum of Erased Art], 1970. Offset printing on paper, 15 x 15 cm

Paper and More Paper could even be seen as an early attempt to experiment with curatorial formats—three decades prior to the official establishment of this debate in Peru—conceiving of the curator as an agent who experiments and plays with format. That concern with defining curatorial work from a procedural standpoint was also present in later events co-organized by Acha, such as the 1st Colloquium of Non-Objective Art and Urban Art in Medellín, Colombia, in 1981.[4] There is still work to be done in order to reconstruct the manner in which Acha conceived of the political dimensions of the positions he took up. For him, this meant destroying his privileged position as an arbiter of taste and aesthetics, and replacing it with horizontal instances of complicity and collective engagement aimed at intervening in the cultural field in which he was so crucially situated.

 

* The research on the Peruvian Avant-Garde of the 1960s was conducted together with Emilio Tarazona in 2005–2010. For a more in-depth look at some of these ideas, please see: Miguel A. López y Emilio Tarazona, "Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los sesenta", in: Temas de Arte Peruano 3. Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos. Juan Acha 1969, Lima, Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp. 1-17. 


[1] Ten years after his imprisonment, Acha still recalled it with anger and pain: “I was turned into a suspect (in 1970) by being charged with drug trafficking because I attended a party with young artists. I was stripped of all human dignity over the course of ten days in El Sexto [prison] due to a judge’s negligence, and later declared innocent in the respective trial. And anyone who has been singled out as a suspect will be subjected to continual harassment.” Juan Acha, “Why don’t I live in Peru?,” Hueso Húmero, no. 8, Lima, January-February 1981, pp. 108-109.

 

[2] All of the presentations from this conference cycle can be found in Temas de arte peruano 3. Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos, Juan Acha, 1969 [Topics in Peruvian Art 3. New Sociological References in the Visual Arts: Mass Media, Language, Repression and Groups, Juan Acha, 1969], Lima, IIMA, URP, 2008, pp. 19-53.

 

[3] Juan Acha, “La Revolución Cultural” [“The Cultural Revolution”], Oiga 386, Lima, 14 August 1970, p. 31.

 

[4] A further reflection on this can be found in: Miguel A. López, “Redrawing Global Aspirations of Exhibition-Making from a Southern Perspective: Latin American Biennial of São Paulo (1978) and Coloquio de Arte No-objetual (1981),” in: Paul O’Neill, Mick Wilson and Lucy Steeds, The Curatorial Conundrum. What to Study? What to Research? What to Practice?, New York,   Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and Luma Foundation, 2016.


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen