For the exhibition “Librería ‘Donceles’” (2013), Pablo Helguera installed a functioning Spanish-language used bookstore in the large front room at Kent Fine Art. Sales were pay-as-you-wish donation, and proceeds went to Spanish literacy programs. The shop was furnished with all the accoutrements one might expect in such a venue, if one were to exist in New York City. But there is not one used-book store serving New York’s Spanish-speaking population of nearly two million, a fact which provided the motivation for this piece.
The room feels haunted, commemorative; that the work functioned at a practical level did not amount to a disregard for aesthetic effect. In addition to shelves filled with books divided into various categories, the room, painted a warm yellow, also contained threadbare chairs and ottomans, dim lamps, rugs, sculptural busts, a chess set and an orchestral playlist, all lending the Librería an uncanny hyperreality. Bright track lighting and a swath of white gallery wall were visible above the bookshop tableau—its yellow paint ending about two feet from the ceiling. This exposed juncture between presentation and infrastructure gave the odd impression of an after-hours movie set.
Rogaland(2012), a text and found image installation, was exhibited in the back room of the gallery, a conventional white cube. The work re-conceives a 1936 Norwegian monograph by the archeologist Jan Peterson as a series of 11 3/4 x 18 1/4 inch framed prints resembling spreads from the original book. Helguera was first drawn to the text because its photos of an excavated medieval farm recalled 20th century land art. Rogaland couples these images with the artist’s own translations of the explanatory captions. Helguera does not speak Norwegian, and so his poetic interpretations are based upon sound and feeling, without concern for the book’s previous informational content. The re-worked language is mystifying, expansive and lyrical: “The background skirmishes mellow . . . everyone is forgotten.”
Canon (2013) is a two-channel video installation that depicts, on one screen, slow, panning footage of the memorabilia in a private museum located in the Brooklyn home of Aldo Mancusi, a first generation Italian-American. The museum is dedicated to the famed opera singer Enrico Caruso, one of the earliest internationally recognized recording artists. The adjacent screen shows a video portrait of Caruso’s great-grandson sitting still in a dignified pose, his breath and occasional blinking the only indications that this is indeed a moving image. Here, the simple messages given by newspaper clippings and commemorative plaques offset the immeasurable complexity of the living, breathing person pictured in the film or photograph. Helguera thus maintains a taut dialectic between the defining energies of historical representation and the indeterminacy of the unfolding present.
As a theorist and practitioner of socially engaged art, Helguera does not rest easy within its conventions, but rather retains his creations as consistently self-critical media forms. As is evident in his writings—for example, the guidebook for artists, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011)—formal integrity is not, for him, a bygone concern but an undeniable part of art-making. With his attention to the printed, photographed, filmed or audio-recorded document, Helguera always distinguishes between the impact of actual experience and its re-ification in the record. He also tampers with legibility such that his mistranslations and re-workings of historical materials confuse the viewer’s drive to absorb, translate, simplify and memorialize them. Thus, if Libreria offers a frank response to a glaring social problem, the show as a whole disputes the very possibility of frankness, given the complications that history, nationality and textuality introduce into the delivery of intention from one mind to another.