León Ferrari (1920 - 2013)

Sin título (Caligrafía) (2000)
Untitled (Calligraphy)

Newsprint and indian ink on paper
height: 50cm
width: 35cm

Donated by León Ferrari 2004


On 9 January 2000, a mere thirty days after taking up office, the Argentine government of President Fernando de la Rúa issued a curious press release. In the communiqué, reported in an article in the major Argentine newspaper La Nación, the government admits poor diffusion of messages about its activities and highlights a need to establish “a more fluid contact with the public”. Failing to live up to the pre-election promises, and sensing an impending economic crisis and social unrest (issues over which De la Rúa would eventually resign in December 2001), the new government of Argentina had recourse to an ancient tool: philophronesis, a figure-mode of speech in which one mollifies the anger of a superior addressee and creates amicable rapport by using gentle words, or even a submissive apology. Yet, as it tends to happen with discourses that subsume in themselves conflicting aims and affects, and get disseminated through a multiplicity of relays, the lack of clarity is precisely what distinguishes the government communiqué on communication. The apparent irony of this state of affairs was not lost on León Ferrari, a long-time devotee of artistic re-transcription of ideological messages.

In his 2000 Sin título (Caligrafía), Ferrari juxtaposes the newspaper clipping of the article in La Nación and its transcription in barely legible script, reverse to each other. Ferrari’s ‘deformed’ calligraphic transcription of the government’s communiqué omits punctuation, splits and rearranges sentences, phrases, and words so that meaning and non-meaning are both upheld, and their conflict is visually represented. In this particular piece, the words and phrases wash up against each other in a wave-like movement that comments on the purported ‘fluidity’ of the contact between the holder and the recipient of the ideological message. The surprising three-dimensionality of this calligraphic interaction is relayed by the alteration of emphatic brush strokes, accentuating random portions of words, and the thin, seemingly timid scribbles, withdrawing in the background. The latter, however, also appear generative of the flashes in the foreground. The end visual effect is, then, one of the power-struggle for communication that coils around itself; for, enforced communication, in this case at least, can only result in its exact opposite.

Yet, this piece, where reproducibility and semantic authority are both explored and exploded, need not be understood as defeatist in intent. Remembering Ferrari’s commitment to an art that is “neither beauty nor novelty” but “efficacy and perturbation”(1), one may reinterpret the piece as a pointer to human agency and a more genuine, perhaps more effective, renegotiation of political and ideological spheres. Here I recall Bruno Latour’s discussion of transmission of ideological tokens (by which he meant the dissemination of scientific and artistic discoveries in the economy of knowledge), and his final concession that, symbolic exchanges, rather than being subject to unilateral diffusion of power, are ultimately “in the hands of people”; and people can react in a variety of ways—“by letting the token drop, or modifying it, or deflecting it, or betraying it, or appropriating it”(2). In its press release the De la Rúa government dropped one such symbolic token into the public sphere: it inserted in the discourse of the turn-of-millennium Argentina its desire to establish a “more fluid contact” with the disenchanted citizens. In the hands of Ferrari, however, the ideologically over-charged token ‘fluidity’ transforms into an innovative artistic practice—waves of transcribed phrases washing ashore—thus inscribing an irreducible human component in the discursive field of transmitting and transacting in Argentine society. It is the human hand, the artist’s hand, that persists as the criterion for action in Ferrari’s piece.

1. Ferrari, León. “El arte de los significados”, mimeograph, 1968; quoted in Luis Camnitzer, “Ferrari’s Vocal Vocabularies”, León Ferrari: Politiscripts, The Drawing Center’s Drawing Paper, Volume 48 (2004): 3.
2. Latour, Bruno.“The Powers of Association”, Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, ed. John Law. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986: 267.

(Text commissioned by ESCALA for the exhibition Connecting through Collecting: 20 Years of Art from Latin America at the University of Essex, 2014)

Sanja Bahun, 2014

Ferrari has repeatedly explored the boundaries between word and image, particularly in the context of political propaganda. In his famous early calligraphy Carta a un general of 1963 the combination of the title (Letter to a General) and the illegibility of the apparent text was enough to evoke ideas of military power and censorship. In this more recent untitled work of 2000 from the Escrituras Deformadas series of calligraphies there is a text, but it is extremely hard to decipher. Dated 10 January 2000, it is a transcription of an article from La Nación of the previous day reporting the government's desire to improve communications with the public. Thirty days after taking up office the government of President Fernando De la Rúa admitted it was not getting its message across. Elected on promises to tackle the corruption and economic failings of the Menem government, De la Rúa soon found himself needing to push through an emergency package of spending cuts and tax increases in the face of growing social unrest. The article itself is unclear, perhaps reflecting the lack of clarity of the government press release. With elegant irony Ferrari subordinates the content to the presentation, filling the page with unpunctuated, barely legible but highly textured text. The government wants to 'maintain a more fluid contact with the public', it says, and in Ferrari's cursive script words wash up against other words in a blur of incomprehension. The article ends with a comment that De la Rúa needs to appoint people to some of the state departments that are still headless, and Ferrari contrives to leave the word acéfalas, headless, floating on its own at the bottom of the page.

The cutting from La Nación is pasted onto the back of the sheet, as illustrated on this site.

Valerie Fraser, 2008

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