In search of the authentic

I thought Lex brought up two significant points about the Gramsci Monument that we haven’t really discussed yet: a) that there is a choice involved in caring or not about the Monument and b) that race matters.

She noted: “That many other people didn’t care or find it interesting matters because it takes away some of the unyielding power that we assume comes into play in a project like this. In fact, it doesn’t have the kind of power that we both desire and fear for it to have.” This is a significant point in that it acknowledges the realities of choice, opinion, and level of interest that the individual brings (or doesn’t bring) to the project. While they may not have chosen the subject of the work, they decided for themselves on a level of participation and engagement. Lex further underscores the significance of the proactive choices and decisions that were made by Erik Farmer, Clyde Thompson and Diane Herbert at the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center in support of the project coming to Forest Houses. Disinterest is a choice and could potentially be seen as a radical gesture of rejection of the mainstream art world.

The end of Lex’s essay brought up arguably the most important and maybe the (still) least discussed aspect of the Gramsci Monument. Race clearly factors into the proper study of the Monument and its (after) effects. As Anna also acknowledged, there is a history of artists creating experiences that, perhaps while not avoiding the issue of (race and) visual representation, create an opportunity around the experience of a work of art—an experience in which the body plays a central role. In fact, there is a history of artists of color creating projects intended to pose or offer experiences, or interrogate our understanding of particular aspects of the human condition.

I would like to use as an example here the case of the founder of El Museo del Barrio, the artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz and his efforts to interrogate “authenticity” and to create a physical/conceptual space for the body of color. Born in 1934, Raphael Montañez Ortiz was known as Ralph Ortiz in the 50s and 60s, when many Puerto Ricans trying to survive in mainstream culture were also known by the Anglicized versions of their names. In addition to his efforts in the founding of El Museo, Raphael also thought about the importance of the surroundings of the body and how knowledge and experience can be absorbed through the placement of the physical being in a space of “authenticity.” For him, this experience was best represented in an unrealized project that he called the “Rainforest Room,” a reference to one of the most culturally valued (and now protected) landscapes in Puerto Rico: El Yunque.

As described by the artist, the “Rainforest Room” would have been a nearly literal re-creation of a small section of El Yunque, as though transplanted into the severity of the 1969 East Harlem version of the white cube. The significance of this transference of landscape lay not only in offering this unique space to the people of El Barrio, even more significantly, it was a way to understand and commune with the rainforest as the island/homeland via the body. This immersive environment developed by the artist could potentially be seen as a way not only to help the locals of East Harlem to connect directly with a (romanticized) homeland but also perhaps as a reminder to visitors of the differences in the experience of the body. A (Nuyorican and racialized) body marked as different in the climate of East Harlem and other parts of New York City would here be allowed a space in which to feel, potentially, at “home.”

In a way, we might note the similarities between the goals of the “Rainforest Room” and the happier (albeit temporary) outcomes of the Gramsci Monument, where people from the hosting location were paid for their work and given a place in which to offer their contributions in print publication and radio. The racial reality check that Lex describes might be explored by seeing the project as a place in which racialized bodies—a result of the purposeful choice of location—evoke the spirit of the group through the built environment of the Monument, constructed by their own labor, for their use but also for the benefit of a visiting audience. The visible “spectacle of realness” becomes the unavoidable point of encounter at the very site that offers both acceptance and disavowal.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, De-Struction Ritual: Henny Penny-Paino-Sacrifice-Concert, 1967. Courtesy the author.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, De-Struction Ritual: Henny Penny-Piano-Sacrifice-Concert, 1967. Courtesy the author.


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Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.

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Gramsci MonumentRocio Aranda-AlvaradoThomas Hirschhorn
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