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The Artist and the Propaganda Machine: How Fernando Bryce Retells 20th-Century History
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The Artist and the Propaganda Machine:
How Fernando Bryce Retells 20th-Century History


His series “Südsee” is currently being shown at the Deutsche Bank-sponsored California-Pacific Triennial in the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA). Fernando Bryce draws his way through the violent history of the 20th century almost manically, investigating how media images influence our view of the world. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met the artist, who works in Lima and Berlin.


“It’s about power structures and paintings,” says Fernando Bryce amicably, as we look down from his balcony on to Neue Schönhauser Strasse. Seen from above, Berlin-Mitte with its cafes and concept stores looks almost like a village. Bryce rented this apartment at a very early stage, before the boom began. It is bright and tidy, but almost disappointingly empty, because given his art, you could imagine the artist (who divides his time between Berlin and Lima) in a completely different environment: walking amidst wall-high cabinets and shelves, through dark endless corridors formed from piles of newspapers and archive pictures. The material that the 48-year-old has viewed in the last two decades for his extensive drawing cycles could probably fill up gymnasiums.

With each series, Bryce draws his way further through world and colonial history, through the horrors and utopias of the modern age, the precipices and triumphs of mass culture and politics. There is something almost manic about this works. Like a reproduction machine, he assimilates all kinds of documents of 20th-century history: newspaper reports, movie posters, magazines, illustrated books, advertisements. And when Bryce spits them out again in his black-and-white cycles, often consisting of more than a hundred pictures, the original material seems to be homogenized due to his graphic drawing style. He calls this a “filter” that makes everything the same, that extinguishes hierarchies and interpretations as well as the colors and materiality of the original document.

The people in his ink drawings, no matter whether they are politicians, aborigines, film stars, athletes or soldiers, bear a resemblance to comic strip characters from the period between the 1930s and the Cold War. In his work, text and writing become a kind of rhythmic ornament that moves across the wall from frame to frame, like different patterns of one and the same material that is processed. 

“I’m actually like a schoolchild who ’s given homework that he does,” says Bryce with a grin. “It began in around 2000, with my first big series Atlas Peru, consisting of 500 drawings. I wanted to investigate the history of my country since the 1930s, to develop an image of Peru over a period of a half-century. I use the term “image” here in a very broad sense. I incorporated all kinds of things that have to do with representation – advertising, tourist brochures, political manifestos, articles from arts sections of newspapers, publications on architecture and engineering. I was interested in tracing the whole thing and restructuring it, retelling it in a constellation of drawings. That is my task. Then, from Peru, I slowly approached different aspects of Latin America, such as the gap between the north and south and postcolonial history. After Latin America, I was eager to deal with specific geopolitical and global political events. But primarily through images, of course. My material is everything that has been printed, that has been propagated. Naturally, this can’t be grasped in all its complexity and variety. But I try to create a specific, singular kind of story.” Indeed, Bryce creates a kind of mental cinema with his work in which viewers can produce their own stories and connections from countless fragments. The superstructure of his series are the great narratives of the 20th century: The Spanish Civil War (The Spanish War, 2003), U.S. hegemony (Américas, 2005), the era of colonialism and imperialism (Südsee, 2007 and The World, 2008). Without being polemical or didactic, Bryce’s drawings reveal the Eurocentric perspective of these tales, the propaganda machinery and historical violence underlying them. This has not only made him one of Latin America’s most important contemporary artists. For more than a decade, his works have been exhibited at major international exhibitions, for example, at the 2003 Venice Biennale, the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and the 2011 Lyon Bienniale. He is represented in important collections, in the MoMA, the Tate, and the Deutsche Bank Collection

Bryce’s series Südsee (The South Seas) is currently on view at the first California-Pacific Triennial in the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), whose main sponsor is Deutsche Bank. With 32 artists from 15 countries, the event, which succeeds the California Biennial, is expanding its focus beyond the USA to the entire Pacific region. It is doing so not only because national borders are becoming increasingly transparent. In the view of Dan Cameron, the curator of the Triennial, a paradigm change is also taking place. The trans-Atlantic exchange between New York, Paris, London, and Berlin, which had a decisive influence on 20th-century art, is being increasingly replaced by the cultural and artistic transfer between the neighboring Pacific States of the Pacific.  

Fernando Bryce is surely a protagonist of this development, someone who stands for the up-and-coming Latin American art scene. He has worked in studios in Peru and Germany since the 1990s, feels at home artistically in Lima and Berlin. Südsee engages with a chapter of repressed German history: the colonization of Papua New Guinea at the end of the 19th century. Bryce was particularly interested in the connection between political and ethnological interests and the “exotic” image of the South Seas, which also inspired Modern artists, who longed for a more original state. First, he read secondary literature, he says, and then he spent months in the archives of the Berlin National Library with prepared lists. In the library, he found all kinds of sources, including publications on the then young science of anthropometry, which tried to find purported links between anatomical features, race, and character.

In the course of his research, Bryce or one of his assistants photographed every book page or document that interested him right in the library. This was followed by the copying process. First, the rough outlines are traced and the drawings finished with ink. Bryce calls this act “mimetic analysis,” which is more contemplation than imitation. “It’s a little like a copy machine, but at the same time it has something meditative,” says Bryce. “I don’t want to romanticize it, but I like the figure of the medieval monk, although that's not me of course.” Subsequently the drawings are hung on the wall, a selection is made, and the chosen drawing are put together in ever-new combinations based on a aesthetic and content-related criteria. “Then I think about what I need. Maybe it’s too political now? Do I need more ethnology?”

Bryce takes the position of both the reader and the author. And this allows him, as Natalia Maijluf, the director of the Museo de Arte de Lima, writes in the catalogue for his retrospective Drawing History, to construct “new versions of old stories.” His drawing style may seem a bit nostalgic. The historical events he refers to may have occurred in a past century. But the ideologically determined mechanisms of image circulation and production that Bryce exposes in his combinations of drawings, is very topical. It is not so much the history itself he traces as the media propaganda with which he writes history. Much of the visual language Bryce’s drawings develop seems strangely familiar: stereotypical poses of rulers and the oppressed, staged images of the foreign and exotic, maps and diagrams with which the world is measured and explained.

“I’m interested in understanding images as political fact,” says Bryce. When I’m in the library, I think very simply. What lies in front of me are facts, products. They were made at a certain time by certain people. These media images are both product and construct. When I see a picture that fascinates me, I’m always interested in its function. That’s my political view of pictures. I wonder what it was made for and I do something different with it.”




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