Osvaldo Romberg's +2000/-2000 even
installation project

Effective History
by Dominique Nahas

+2000/-2000, even is Osvaldo Romberg's commentary on 4000 years of history. In his major work of the late seventies Mythologies, from Altamira to Manet-an Emotional Analysis of Art History, Romberg demystified what he claimed to be the mythology of art history and the myths of art-making. His art said in essence, art history doesn't exist, only artists exist. In his current project, the artist goes a step further: he says history doesn't exist, only people, time and events exist. The +2000/-2000, even project draws attention to the idea of history as manipulated interpretation of facts. Additionally, the artist's quotational use of reproductions from Eastern and Western civilizations, images drawn from so-called evolved to so-called primitive cultures is a critique of the modernist cult of the original and the modernist fetishization of style.

Romberg's installation +2000/-2000, even examines the fine line that separates the relevance and the irrelevance of history. The work's broad implication is that there's really a very small difference between legend and history. This fracture between fiction and fact is emphasized in several ways. One way involves the artist's refusal to deal with history chronologically; instead he selects and spatially arranges trivial and monumental historic incidents at random. The artist's presentation of images and information according to whim destroys the hierarchy of historical moments and ruptures the idea of the purported significance of certain events in time. The viewer of the artwork is invited to move through an installation space filled with suspended pages covered with images and texts in a fluid, totally unsystematic way. This element of chance/play/randomness in the work suggests to the viewer that there is no discernible or unified teleological goal in history but rather that it (history) exists and that the goal (if there is one) expands subjectively along mutable interchangeable connections and along a network of personal associations. The element of time in +2000/-2000, even is apprehended in this work as in a dream. The artist applies an art of additive surfaces, the collage, in this work, and this formal strategy is heightened, magnified and made more complex by the use of transparency . Overall, the +2000/-2000, even project is an amalgamation of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary applied towards a visual/verbal commentary on the millennium.

This commentary alludes to the mechanisms of the production of history, that is, the role that objects of knowledge, books, maps, images of art works and historical reportage have played in the institutionalization of codes of knowledge. In Romberg's current work these sources are applied towards a reinterpretation of historical reality. This reinterpretation examines the slippery rapport between knowledge, its accumulation, and what the artist would call the appearance of history. In the installation historicity is used, then supplanted by a Foucaultian effective history, a history free from constraints and self-recognition, a history that recognizes the contingency of knowledge and establishes the grounds for a destabilization (including its own) between meaning and understanding.

In +2000/-2000, even Romberg's images are informed by short printed passages gleaned from source books on events throughout the course of mankind's progression through time. The artist highlights certain words that when read sequentially recombine to form sentences. These made-up universal aphoristic commentaries, these ahistoric truths, are another part of Romberg's strategy of emphasizing the rupture between recorded fact and fiction. Such subtexted commentaries act as voices of timeless Greek chorus arising out of a millennial Tower of Babel. Coming from all points of view and from all points in time, they are the subjective voices of the strong and the weak , of belligerence and of tolerance, of reason and of fanaticism. And they point to a crucial aspect of Romberg's installation: its humanistic resistance to ideology, its refusal to explore or give credence to a specific system of domination (that is, to take sides, champion a particular cause, or point blame). The installation instead carries a heavier burden. It is meant to simply bear witness to all the wisdom and madness that has been part of the human condition through time. The +2000/-2000, even project is easily the largest and most complex "book" Romberg has ever fabricated. Seen from the back their transparent sheets, these floating cut-outs --- which are painted red, brown or yellow, depending on the "crisis" flash-point condition of the historical moment in each of the civilizations that is being commented upon -- are encoded reminders of the great late cut-outs of Matisse with their self-imposed limitations. Other elements in +2000/-2000, even, such as the title, the silhouetted allegorical iconography, and the transparency, recall Duchamp's The Large Glass. Romberg's +2000/-2000, even project also holds close ties with classic surrealist impulses, specifically (in Breton's words) the cultivation of the effects of a systematic displacement and the exploitation of the fortuitous encounter of two distant realities on an unfamiliar plane.

Romberg's use of transparent imagery and text (and the infiltration, virus-like, of a new text) is a fin-de-siecle updating of early surrealist games and literature that allows new levels of meaning to arise out of a seemingly mundane material juxtaposed in a sharp unexpected way. On each of his floating book sheets in this new installation, Romberg collages a small excerpted historical chronicle with illustrations drawn from a worldwide cultural image bank. Using this basic technique, Romberg interlaces two visual and linguistic strategies that lead the viewer through a doubled mental experience. First, in each of the folders, the transparency allows the main text and the subtext to co-exist; the simultaneity reinforces the overall Borgesian idea that in every text one has all the texts in the world. Second, the artist does not allow the possibility of a logical bonding to occur between visual imagery and the historical excerpts which form the initial reading. For example, a text describing a brief period in Ghandi's life is accompanied by the image of a seated carved Egyptian Middle-Kingdom (c.2000 BC.) scribe flanked by the images of two overlapping updated Jema's Head masks from Nok, Nigeria. From the highlighted text emerges the aphorism "Imprisonment in prayer kills belief in hoplessness". Such double displacement causes a momentary, dizzying semantic/visual deferral of meaning that upsets ideological presumptions. Romberg's play with the disjuncture between the readings of iconography, text and highlighted subtext questions the presumption of collective memory. The artist's newly confabulated world history comprised of intertwined slivers of time from all cultures where an historical text on the events in the life of Cleopatra is illustrated with an image of Modigliani nude in one instance and where Frida Kahlo serves as a stand in for Sappho in another shakes the assumption of cultural identity. +2000/-2000, even become reclaimed territory where uncharted ideological options have been put into place. In this new space the artist's systematic dismantling of the nationalistic idea of "belonging" creates a mental fold that eludes geographic borderlines and historical timelines. Such elusiveness even embraces the parameters of the +2000/-2000, even project itself, which opens simultaneously in fourteen venues internationally, and with the artist declining to favor any particular site with his presence at any of the openings. The flip side of cultural identity, of belonging and of collective memory is that of the outsider, the foreigner. The Other, in the Rombergian world that includes imagery from Eastern and Western cultures is dealt with in a specific way. The Other is rescued (through revealment) from his traditional role as a non-actor, a bystander acted-upon in the play of linear progressive history that has prevented him from participating in his own definition and development. In Romberg's installation, the other becomes an active participant in the making of a new non/history in our minds. In dealing with unfamiliar images drawn from unfamiliar cultures, Romberg's work directs us our attention beyond the level of curiosity, beyond the question, Well, what are these cultural images, these fragments of cultural historical data? His work forces us to reconstitute and recapitulate how we have assembled our interpretations of what we consider "truthful" in history. The artist asks us to reconsider the traditional relationship between text and illustration throughout time. Through this process the viewer mirrors Romberg's own artistic world that seemingly lacks referentiality and meaning; objectified art images assume a reality that propels us towards levels of subjectivity that act as screens for our own insufficiencies, desires and fears, situating in this way the real content of the work in the viewer. This project, then, is a reverie on the historical formation and deformation of Western (and, by contrast, Eastern) identity. Moreover, +2000/-2000, even , with its overloaded volume of informational imagery --- culturally loaded icons from all cultures, great and small, from diverse points in time --- is an oblique commentary on the eventual merging of cultural identities. Finally, it suggests a digging into the formation of cultural memory in order to obliterate it. To completely understand +2000/-2000, even is to walk through the installation and think it through the body. By doing this you apprehend that the artist has wanted all of his installations to be participatory. This is in keeping with Mikel Dufrenne's contention in the Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience that the virtue of the aesthetic object is largely measured by its ability to seduce the body. This seductive quality in +2000/-2000, even emerges out of Romberg's intention that a perception of an altered reality be gained through a sensualized visual experience. The artist's walk through imagery and unanchored, floating words envelops the viewer in a celebration of the diversity of styles through time. What is sensed is knowledge brought to the level of lived experience. In the eye of the viewer's mind, knowledge (and its manifestations) is wrenched away from the cerebral cortex, pushed closer to the surface of the skin, and then drawn to the interior of the human heart.

Dominique Nahas/ NYC / April 1996

Dominique Nahas is former chief curator of contemporary art at Everson Museum and former director of the Neuberger Museum. He is now an independent curator, critic and art historian.

This exhibition , subtitled "An installation at the end of the millennium" consists of a large walk-through transparent book. The exhibition opened simultaneously on May 28, 1996 at 6:00 p.m. at all venues. The artist was present at none of the openings. The venues are the following:

  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, USA
  • Staaliche Museen Kassel, Neue Galerie, Kassel, Germany
  • Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, Austria
  • Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
  • Stadtgalerie Saarbrucken, Saarbrucken, Germany
  • Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Ludwig Museum, Budapest, Hungary
  • The Reykjavik Municipal Art Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland
  • Tel Aviv University Gallery (Central Library), Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Museo de Arte Moderno, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
  • Centro de Actividades e Investigaciones Artisticas de Cataluna (Fundacion Xavier Corbero), Barcelona, Spain
  • Voxx Galerie, Chemnitz, Germany
  • Museum of Modern Art, Odessa, Ukraine
  • The Sudo Museum, Yokyo, Japan

Copyright ©1996 Dominique Nahas All Rights Reserved
+2000-2000even An Installation at the end of the millenium by Osvaldo Romberg

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