Born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1956, Graciela Sacco is both a distinguished professor of theoretical issues in 20th century Latin-American art and an artist who has literally worked in the streets. She has done installations, mixed media (including sound and video), urban interferences, and postal actions. Manipulating light and shadow, radically cropping images of the human body, and blowing up photographs of crowds and demonstrations, her work touches on the political by focusing on the human. She is perhaps best known for her use of heliography (sun writing), an early photographic technique involving the transfer of an image by placing it on a chemically treated surface exposed to sunlight. Sacco also employs a technique she refers to as photoserigraphy, which enables her to imprint thrown shadows on transparent acrylic sheets. She has done heliographic and photoserigraphic “interventions” in outdoor sites in Havana, Jerusalem, Cairo, Petra, Venice, and São Paulo, as well as in Rosario and Buenos Aires. This practitioner of “sun writing” works often with the power of darkness: in one installation, a man points a gun directly at us, making us extremely self-conscious about the flashlight we are aiming at him. In other works, scores of eyes peer out from postcards, shutters, and city walls.
I first saw Sacco’s work in Buenos Aires in the mid-’90s. Since then she has participated in the major biennials and has had important solo exhibits in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. In person, she is open, quick, and assertive. We talked over a long dinner in Washington, DC last winter, where she had come to install an exhibit at the Organization of American States.
Marguerite Feitlowitz Rosario has always struck me as one of those provincial cities right out of a Balzac novel.
Graciela Sacco (laughter) Totally, yes. Completely.
MF Nonetheless, it has spawned avant-garde art and literary movements at political flashpoints in Argentina’s history. You are often associated with one of Rosario’s—indeed Argentina’s—most illustrious artists, Antonio Berni. I ask because I don’t think of your work as narrative, while Berni’s is very strongly so, especially his graphic series on the innocent Ramona and her hair-raising descent into prostitution and “the lower depths,” as Maxim Gorky would say. Were you conscious of Berni as an early influence on you as an artist?
GS Berni was certainly part of what I would call my artistic horizons. But he was not the determining influence. Let me say that while Berni had an extremely strong narrative period, in which he mostly made prints, his greatest strength was in the use of materials. That, I think, is what liberates him from being didactic, and enables him to transcend the tired label Berni el bueno. I was much more influenced by what is commonly called arte popular: Mexican corridas, the Guadelupe de Posada, the Brazilian practice of decorating town squares with sheets of drawings or poetry set to hang like laundry drying in the sun. When you walk into a chapel covered with objects and offerings, you are caught up in a dialogue where art is totally entwined with daily life. I think that from a conceptual standpoint, my work has a lot to do with this. The site is always integral to my work. This is something the Mexican muralists understood very well. Their works were intended to be social events, places of meeting on various levels. They were also narrative, of course, but that isn’t what attracts me to them.
MF How did you begin to make art?
GS I was always doing art. Always. But I had two passions: one was art, the other was the law.
GS Then a funny thing happened. When I went to register at the university, I signed up for both courses of study, but somehow the papers for my law concentration got lost. So that was that. Fate intervened! Art would be my destiny! (laughter) It was always my fantasy that as a lawyer I’d take on hopeless cases, and maybe my artistic production isn’t so far removed. Because the work does call attention to a lot of events in contemporary life that are disturbing in terms of social development, or underdevelopment, the individual and power.
MF You would have been a student in the late ’60s and early ’70s—
GS I began university in ’75 and dropped out in ’76. It was impossible to be at university during the [Dirty War] dictatorship. Those were terrible times. Even before the 1976 coup, the schools were a battleground. A bomb would go off: was it the military? The Triple A [Argentine Anticommunist Alliance]? The guerrillas? You couldn’t be sure. It was very complicated, very dangerous. As you know, people were being disappeared, others were underground, everyone was burning books. And in terms of studying, it was a trap. Art was restricted to working from the live model.
MF How did you manage to read texts that were of personal importance to you?
GS Photocopies. There wasn’t much at the time, but what there was got passed around.
Hideous, horrible times. Nothing romantic about it. Shortly before I’d left university, I’d married, had a child. But I never stopped working, and gave art classes at advanced levels. I went back to the National University of Rosario in 1980, and have taught there ever since.
MF And you still offer special seminars on the problemática de arte Latinoamericano del siglo XX. The subject intrigues me. What does it mean to you? A close friend who is a writer always insists, “Theory is real, it’s concrete.” What do you think of that?
GS If we look at this in the conservative sense, it has to do with how you arrive at form, how you take a problem and materialize it. Any reading of a work radiates from the form. All artistic production has theory behind it. What changes is how that theory is made legible. That’s where the specificity of technique comes in—if it’s language or painting or video or sound. But the essential problem remains the same. It’s a search for form, for a way to materialize our questions, conflicts, quests, and discoveries.
MF You’ve always been fascinated with multiple images.
GS For some reason, I’ve always wanted to transfer images from one surface to another. And yes, I’ve often used multiple images of the same event, or used the same image over and over. I’ve also made images with handmade paper. Once I recycled newspapers and made them into sheets of paper that still had little vestiges of headlines and news stories.
MF Do you remember how you got this idea?
GS (pause) I’m not completely sure, but making paper by hand implies a whole artisanal ethic.
MF Working on newsprint—the crudest paper there is—would also seem rife with implication. It’s manufactured for mass circulation, and has always been immediately recycled—for wrapping fish or flowers, for lighting a stove . . .
GS Yes, absolutely. I also did a whole investigation on how plants transform, metamorphose. How a tree becomes paper, for instance. It sounds crazy, but there it is. So I worked on these transformations. And I printed the way these things transformed.
MF You didn’t just make drawings. You also printed on the paper you made.
GS Yes, I printed postage stamps, which I made myself. I also made the linoleum or woodblocks used for transferring the images. Conceptually, I was working with transformation, and so sometimes there was no image as such, only the gestural surface of the homemade paper. I wanted to juxtapose the material itself with the act of making paper. For me, that alone was aesthetically very strong. And I discovered that you could make paper from a whole host of things—asparagus, for example. And I made paper from all kinds of things—celery leaves, lettuce, onion, banana leaves . . . When you make paper, you’re working with the process of putrefaction. Natural chemical reactions: water, rain, heat. You wash the vegetable, get down to the fiber, that’s what gives the paper consistency, body. I got hooked. This observation of the physical world got transformed into a physical activity. I moved on to make dyes—the seed of an avocado gives you a violet color you can hardly believe.
MF I had no idea.
GS Yes! The most incredible violet. And watercress gives you wonderful greens. I was experimenting with all this in the most passionate way.
MF Have you always kept your studio at home?
GS No. At that time, I did. My poor children, with all that rotting vegetation and pots cooking up plant fiber, plants soaking in the bathtub. After that, I decided it was better to have a separate studio. And when I started with heliography, there too it began from necessity. I was doing a project that had to do with the city of Rosario and it had to be sent to a number of places. I love chemical processes, they fascinate, they delight me. I don’t know if it’s the transformation that gets me thinking, or if I’m always thinking about transformation. Whatever. I found these papers, the kind used for making architectural plans. These papers are photosensitive: the light attacks, passes through, the image is revealed. Well, I loved the idea. All you need is the sun. It’s like photographing without a lens. But there were chemical limitations. So once I got the papers, I called the factory to see if I could buy the product they’d used to treat the paper. They’d hang up on me like I was some sort of crackpot. Until finally one day, I reached a young woman who said, “Look, I have to tell you I have no idea what you’re talking about, but there’s a chemist here, I’ll pass you to him!” So I got passed to this very lovely, elderly gentleman who said, “Well, fine, why don’t you come by?” Now I live in Rosario, and this factory was in Temperley, just outside Buenos Aires, almost four hours by bus! Early the next morning, I was at the bus stop. I had these huge sheets of paper—two by three meters—on which I’d begun to work. The chemist couldn’t believe it. The products only have a life of about six hours, he told me, by the time you get home, they won’t work very well. But I insisted and finally he gave me the chemicals like someone offering alms.
I have to tell you, I could feel my blood start to flow in a different direction. I just knew it would work. Within a month, I went back to show him what I’d done, and the factory gave me money to do a publication showing the use of their materials in the making of art.
MF What a wonderful story. So you started painting—if we can put it that way—with these chemicals.
GS Exactly. Well, first you have to prepare the surfaces. And then I made special camera-like things to guide the passage of light and reveal the images. And then I started giving classes in this technique. And I wrote a book about it. [Escrituras solares: la heliografia en el campo artâistico.]
MF Is it a fast process?
GS It has its quirks. It’s not the most complicated, or the most simple. The technique existed before photography as we know it. And it had only continued to exist in the form of an industrial secret.
MF So you didn’t begin with the idea of recovering a lost technique . . .
GS No, not at all. For me, it was about solving a problem. How to transfer an image from one surface to another. This technique was used for making city plans. That too has a connection for me. So you can look at it in very practical, historical, or poetic terms. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that in the beginning. Later, at the São Paulo Biennial I was asked by some German critics how I’d made these things. When I explained, they told me that this was a prephotographic technique. And that was incredible to learn. But no, I hadn’t started with the idea of salvaging a lost technique. I did this in the same spirit as my experiments with vegetables for making paper. Or the work with shadows. How was I going to be able to print shadows? You can only print if you’ve got a surface impregnated by light. With heliography, all you need for printing on the sidewalk is the chemical and the sun. With photoserigraphy, you start with the thrown shadow on a transparent sheet of Plexiglas. Although the image is imprinted on the Plexiglas, it’s essentially invisible until light passes through the sheet. In reality, the imprinted image blocks the passage of light. What you actually see is not the image itself, but its shadow. But with both techniques, the sensation is the same. Suddenly you can see! Literally. And of course there’s a whole metaphorical change as well.
MF Quite a lot has been written about the poetics of heliography. I’ve read a number of articles that posit your use of this technique as a way of recuperating history, making the past palpable in your art-making. It’s coherent. Especially now that you know the history of heliography.
GS Yes, but that interpretation is not completely right. While the choice of a technique is never innocent, and technique is always integral to the sense of a work, the images have their own history, and so does the artist, and all this derives, at least in part, from the medium. But I have no interest in nostalgia, or in exploring nostalgia. The pieces I make are inscribed in the present.
MF You have heliographed open mouths on spoons and postage stamps, on sidewalks and city walls, even on top of election posters. The combination of the image—communicating hunger, outrage, fear, or shock—and its site make for a shifting resonance. In a gallery, the suspended heliographed spoons create a very quiet, glowing space. I’ve seen visitors gather round, and remain there, quiet and thoughtful. In another installation, you had these spoons in plastic cases, like laboratory specimens. And while walking down the street it must be an unsettling experience to realize you’ve just stepped on one of these mouths.
GS It would be, yes.
MF I think your least ambiguous presentation of the mouth appears on a video along with an excerpt from the Virgilio Piñera story, “Meat”:
The mayor expressed his desire: that his beloved village nourish itself with its own reserves, that is to say, with its own meat. And in the street the most delicious scenes occurred: two women who had not seen each other for a long time were unable to kiss each other, for each had used her own lips to make a dish of fritters. And some, though not all, no longer spoke, for they had boiled their tongues, a dish which, incidentally, is said to be a delicacy fit for kings.
GS That story is hallucinatory. The village literally eats itself. And that’s what you see on the video—a mouth consuming another mouth over and over, forever, without end.
MF The materials on which you imprint images are themselves evocative. Spoons, suitcases, a table, a window blind—objects from everyday life. I find the suitcase particularly affecting because it calls up departure, separation, and new beginnings all at once, and its leather or fake leather surface is very skin-like. The suitcases are heliographed with hands, often with the fingers interlaced. And there’s a pile of suitcases heliographed with a huge open mouth.
GS The suitcases are about exile, emigration, the unknown. The window blinds are the ones you see in any public office, so they’re a direct reference to daily life. And these are the offices that determine who will be allowed to stay, who will be made to leave. The images I print on window blinds are usually of immigrants. One series titled Outside shows a group of Bosnians, arriving from I don’t know precisely where. The faces of these women are traumatized but very strong, as though they’ve already been through absolutely everything. Yet in terms of what you see, the action has yet to begin, the story is still to unfold.
MF The image captures these women on the cusp—
GS Exactly. But it’s not only about them. Because the blinds are so familiar and the women so unfamiliar, the combination creates an intermediate place. The dilemma is the viewer’s: who really is outside? Again, the focus is on the present.
MF Which brings us back to the importance of the site.
GS The space is always integral to the work, and sometimes in ways that go beyond one’s original intentions. El combate perpetuo [The Perpetual Combat], which shows a popular demonstration with a man in front throwing a stone toward the viewer, was first exhibited at the sixth Havana Biennial, in 1997. At the next Havana Biennial, I was assigned to a cell in La Fortaleza, which was the jail for political prisoners. So there—as part of a different installation—the image of the man throwing a stone had a much more specific charge, a whole different frame of reference. As a viewer, inside the cell, it was like a photographer’s darkroom. You saw nothing, until you approached the flashlight hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room. I’d put eyes all over the walls, all over the ceiling. They were photoserigraphs, but you only saw this when you got close to the light. When you started to see, the first sensation was one of presence. Of being looked at. What I didn’t know was that this space was the very cell that had been occupied by the writer Reinaldo Arenas.
GS It was incredibly strong. And the power of it was beyond my control.
MF Did you know Arenas? Had you read his work?
GS I didn’t know him personally. I’d only read a few short things, but was deeply impressed.
MF You’ve said that you think of objects in a primitive way, as things that have a great deal of life within them.
GS I was walking down the street one day and saw this soccer ball, collapsed, dirty, discarded. How terrible, I thought, an object that was made to be kicked until it’s no good anymore. In Latin America, as you know, the soccer ball has a social and political resonance. There’s a whole history of art right there. So I took the ball home and printed a big mouth on it with the words, Ay, de mi! [Woe is me].
I try to imprint images in a way that makes it seem as though they arise from within the object. In Cuerpo a cuerpo [Body to Body], I appropriated a photograph of the May ’68 demonstrations in Paris and heliographed it onto jagged wooden sticks. The sticks are leaned up against one another, nailed to the wall. It’s the crowd and the barricades, the barricades and the crowd.
MF The faces, clothes and bodies in this work are so distinct and immediate. The separation of the sticks, which are rough and of unequal sizes, intensifies a sense of movement, of things breaking apart.
GS I hope so. I’ve also used images from Prague Spring, the Intifada and other uprisings, and no matter where I exhibit them, viewers associate what they see with events from their own city. In Rosario, people thought of the food riots of 1989 and 1999; in Córdoba, they flashed on the Cordobazo [the uprising in 1969, which sparked sociopolitical risings all over Argentina]. It happens every time.
MF You’ve also done works on paper, as opposed to nontraditional materials. Does working in two dimensions change anything for you?
GS No, it really doesn’t. Because I work from the image. It’s essentially the same process. I manipulate the images, of course, as in Cities of Fear, where I burned out facial details to lend the tumultuous street scenes a certain anonymity. And many times I work with images from the newspapers. I think it has to do with a conception of what is available firsthand. The sources make it impossible to say, “There is no war in the Middle East,” or “There is no ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.” Even if you weren’t there, you saw it on television, the images came into your house. This is a valid form of knowing and mustn’t be denied.
MF But isn’t there another layer here? These images are also projections, they’re framed, an interpretation of what happened. The news is never the event itself, it’s always a version of the story.
GS I totally agree. You know I’ve been asked why I don’t cite the photographer of the original picture. Which seems to me a completely wrongheaded question, since what I’m after with the use of these images is something we’ve experienced in common. And as you were just saying, the photographer chooses what to shoot, sends it to his agency, which sells it to a newspaper, which does its own framing. So who am I supposed to credit? The news is a construction. A photograph as well. We can ask, what is the starting point of this photograph, where did the work begin? In what reality? In whose reality? The actual event is a fragment of a fragment of a much larger story. When does one ever apprehend a totality? The field is trimmed, the optic set, the image arranged and recomposed. At every stage, something new is evoked, something new gets seen. Art too is a construction, if not a fiction. So in that sense, who am I supposed to cite?
MF Have you had legal problems arising from this?
GS No, actually, I haven’t.
MF You did have a problem with an interference you did last year in Israel, a work you called Borders. Here again you used shadows of eyes on city walls, and included a passage from Heidegger: “A border is not the line where something stops, but the place where something begins to manifest its essence.”
GS I did this same interference in Jordan and in Egypt. Because, in all these places, I was working with the theme of shadows, I chose a site where the sun would pass, project light, and then pass on. An argument in Israel broke out over the text by Heidegger, raised by a man who had been in one of the concentration camps. I understand where this gentleman was coming from, given that Heidegger was apparently a member of the Nazi Party. For that gentleman, I have only respect. But Heidegger has an undeniable place in the history of ideas, and what he is saying in this passage is very important: “A boundary is not the line where something stops, but the place where something begins to manifest its essence.” The objective was to enact this drama about boundaries physically, through art. The fact that I’d appropriated the text and was using people’s shadows provoked the questions: Where is the boundary? Where does the art begin? Whose shadow is it? Everyone has a shadow, all shadows fall, or don’t fall, in the same way according to the light . . .
MF May I ask—as a non-Israeli, as someone who is not from the very troubled Middle East—what right do you have to insert yourself in such a way?
GS Good question. I actually don’t think that I do insert myself. I insert an idea. In general, working the street is the same everywhere. Unless it’s a biennial, in which case it becomes a kind of official action, which is different. It’s always good to find out later what it provoked for people. But working the street isn’t really very different from appropriating an image from the newspaper. I interact with a public space. It’s an attempt to go from the intimate to the public. I never occupy a public space in the sense of making a statement. Rather, every space is for asking questions. Every image should start a dialogue.
MF Is that what you mean by making art that is engagé?
GS For me the definition of engagé is the genuine intention to inscribe oneself in a different place. To question one’s own boundaries, or limits.
MF So we’re back to your passion for transformation.
GS For observation and discovery.
—Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, a 1998 New York Times Notable Book and Finalist for the PEN New England/L.L. Winship Prize. Her poetry, essays and translations have appeared in City Lights Review, TriQuarterly, Salmagundi, Agni, Les Tempes Modernes, El viejo topo, and many other magazines and anthologies. A literary translator from Spanish, French and Catalan, she writes often about contemporary art and artists. She is currently at work on a novel.