José Vera Matos

The compelling power of José Vera Matos’s Ryszard Jaxa M / Museums Also Die stems from the fact that, as Adorno once declared about the work of art, it “answer[s] to questions brought before [it] from outside.” Indeed, Vera’s video brilliantly resituates Peruvian Indigenismo—an intellectual movement that glorified Peru’s pre-Hispanic past while rejecting all forms of colonial legacy—in the context of the current neoliberal celebration of Peru’s economic boom.


Ryszard Jaxa M / Museums Also Die directly alludes to the name of the Polish architect Ryszard Malachowski and to the short film by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, Statues Also Die (1953). Malachowski developed a prolific career in Peru after raising many of the most important buildings in the city of Lima at the beginning of the 20th century, most of them in a neo-colonial style. In his video, however, Vera focuses on a special project that Malachowski designed in 1924: the Museum of Peruvian Culture, a building with a neo-Inca architectural style highly influenced by the Indigenista movement. Although the building contains some formal reminiscences of certain vestiges of native cultures of the Andean region (e.g. Tiahuanaco), it was inspired mostly by Malachowski’s personal interpretation of the pre-Columbian world. Elaborate cement reproductions of stone blocks from Inca walls and anthropomorphic monoliths combine with several totems that surround the building in order to create the Tiki aesthetic that characterizes the entire structure.


Vera Matos’s video captures this eclecticism and the contradictions it engenders very well. What starts off as a fairly romantic and mute portrait of images of the pre-colonial world ends up being a decontextualized exhibition of different indigenous objects devoid of use, cultural significance, and aesthetic value. The museum appears in this way as a tragicomic replica of a pre-Hispanic temple, a stereotypical representation of an “ancient civilization” perfectly tailored to the contemporary viewer.


The anthropologist Paul Stoller has suggested that, as opposed to artists, academics are fifty years behind the time. In Vera’s work what looks like a radical (but nowadays conventional) critique of Indigenismo is made more complicated by the video’s reference to Marker and Resnais’ famous film essay. Statues Also Die presents a critique of the colonial appropriation of ‘primitive” art objects—which have no meaning outside their everyday use—exploring how their meaning is transformed and therefore symbolically “killed” by the institutional mechanisms of the museum.  In his video, Vera recovers and follows to the extreme the famous words with which the film opens: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art.” Vera’s video serves as a reflexive exercise of excavation which, in little more than 10 minutes, appears to present a crucial archaeological discovery. In a style reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s, the camera begins with close-up shots of the museum’s architectural details. Gradually, the camera opens out to expose details of what appears to be a lost pre-Columbian construction in some inhospitable place, eventually revealing the location and status of this complex and placing it within its real context.


It is only at that point that what initially appeared to be a pre-Columbian structure, loaded with rich and esoteric symbols and endowed with a certain majesty and a transcendent meaning, is suddenly revealed to be no more than a bizarre replica, a life-sized souvenir in an urban context. Furthermore, the video shows the building as it can be found today: vandalized, abandoned, and immersed in a hostile landscape that has devoured it, its concrete “Inca” walls exposed to contact with, and to the constant movement of, the reality of Lima’s neoliberal present, which has transformed this awkward reproduction into a real ruined temple, a dead museum that has finally entered art.


—Gustavo Valdivia

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