It's sometimes reassuring to see ourselves reflected in the world around us, even in depictions of the past or of cultures far and radically different from our own. Other times, it can feel overwhelming and inescapable, part of a never-ending cycle of rehashed power dynamics and existential crises. With a limitless source of information to scroll through, having yet another reminder of how we're barreling toward hell in a gold lamé hand basket just seems, well, cruel.
At first glance, León Ferrari's new exhibit at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), "The Words of Others: León Ferrari and Rhetoric in Times of War," appears to be one of these painful reminders. The Argentine artist spent the majority of his career addressing the complicity of religious institutions, bureaucracy, and the media in the proliferation of toxic ideologies, such as Nazi-era fascism or U.S. imperialism. The content isn't dissimilar to what we might find on our Twitter feeds today. But that's not what interests Alexandra Grant, one of the founders of X Artists Books, the publisher that released the first full English translation of Ferrari's The Words of Others last September.
"It’s really a myth that he’s created," Grant explains. "It makes us more aware of our moment as not being exceptional even though it’s new."
The Words of Others might be best described as a literary collage. In it, Ferrari splices together the words of figures such as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Adolf Hitler, Pope Paul VI, and even God himself to create a dialogue among the characters. Published in 1967, the script is an antiwar screed inspired in part by the military tragedy unfolding in Vietnam.
Grant became involved in the Ferrari project through Ruth Estevez Gomez, the gallery director and curator at the Roy & Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), in Los Angeles. According to Gomez, it took nearly four years of research to translate the epic eight-hour play that will accompany the exhibit on view at PAMM. Grant laughs when she admits that curators in Madrid, where the exhibit will show after it leaves Miami, believe the meticulously studied translation almost puts the original Spanish version to shame. But her admiration lies mainly with Ferrari's process.
"The fact that he did it and made a play that makes sense without a computer... I mean, he was using tape and scissors," Grant says of the 250 sources Ferrari used for his piece. "It’s almost like a spoken sculpture out of language."
The multidisciplinary nature of this Ferrari retrospective fits well with the mission of X Artists Books. Grant, who works primarily as a painter, started the press with her sister Florence after collaborations with Keanu Reeves (yes, John Wick himself) led her to realize that "an artist book in particular can create a world." Alexandra, Florence, and Reeves created X Artists Books to give a home to the "orphaned" projects that don't fit neatly within gallery spaces or on the bookshelves of the Library of Congress. That Ferrari's work resisted the typical exhibition catalogue made it perfect for their press.
"These books are like recipes for real-world experiences," Grant stresses, "and people are very hungry for intimate experiences with books."
Viewers can get as intimate as they want with the content of Ferrari's work — it's beside the point. Whether they peruse the museum, watch a portion of the performance, or buy the book, it seems less important that they relate to the particulars of his collages and more important to realize how he frames a thing with which we're already intimately familiar.
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"What’s interesting about the Ferrari text reappearing now in our media climate is the fact that we get our news online," Grant reflects. "In a funny way, his using the scissors and the tape and all the voices was an analog model for the digital talking-heads news culture that we have now." And while Grant emphasizes that "these weren't just aesthetic moves," she nevertheless acknowledges "there's this joy in the language."
Maybe you can think of that the next time a gif of Donald Trump's coy eyebrow raise is pasted over a salsa-dancing figure. Or maybe don't. Perhaps the most seductive offer "The Words of Others" makes is that a return to the analog might actually give us new tools with which to process our current climate.
"I don’t think I have the ability to really reflect and digest what’s happening in contemporary politics," Grant admits. "A work like Ferrari’s gives me a certain set of tools or ways to reflect on the now. You almost want to pay it forward."
The Words of Others Live Performance. 1 to 9 p.m. Thursday, February 15, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. The performance is free with museum admission, which is $16 for general admission; $12 for students, seniors, and youth ages 7 to 18; and free for members, active U.S. military, and children 6 and younger.
"The Words of Others: León Ferrari and Rhetoric in Times of War." Friday, February 16, through August 12 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Tickets are $16 for general admission; $12 for students, seniors, and youth ages 7 to 18; and free for members, active U.S. military, and children 6 and younger.