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Changing History: A Review of Artists’ Books

Curators across the United States presented thousands of artworks and artifacts in the many “1492-1992” commemorative exhibitions. This anniversary was a special occasion, when we were enlightened by displays of culture, philosophy and artistic vision by formerly invisible contemporary artists.

By December, these curatorial gifts had all but disappeared.

For the Institute of Art, artist Armando Gutierrez designed a mural entitled Quetzalcoatl Cries, 1492-1992. A complex depiction of both historical and contemporary events, the giant mural was painted by artists John Acosta, Carlos Menchaca, Michael Russell, and Gutierrez over a period of months. It was on display only a short while before being painted over with gallery white. A large painting by Frank Stella hung on the opposite wall, serving as a reminder that soon business would be back to normal.

Unlike art exhibitions, a book is not painted over, nor crated and shipped back to the sender to be stored for the next issues-related exhibition. A book sends its message out long after the event it commemorates is over, extending the time of current events and their impact upon us. Current events become the recent past; our interpretation of them becomes history.

For the Maya,
time was born and had a name
when the sky didn’t exist
and the earth had not yet awakened.
The day set out from the east
and started walking.
The first day produced
from its entrails
the sky and
the earth.

So begins a Mayan story from ancient Mexico, long before it had that name. The story is retold by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in the first book of his trilogy, Memory of Fire: I. Genesis.1 The author begins this ambitious and engaging work of literature by laying out the pre-Columbian territory of the Maya, Inca and other indigenous peoples of what is now Central and South America. Lyrical yet harsh, the creation stories come to us from oral tradition. Some still sound like song- the words and cadence eventually recorded for future generations. The song was transformed dramatically, frighteningly in 1492. Dissonant and violent, the words came from explorers and conquerors. The world changed.

The Binnewater Tides
Women’s Studio Workshop Press
Volume 9, 1992