Horacio Zabala is a conceptual artist who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trained as an architect, he frequently incorporates into his work architectural plans or representations of the built environment evoked through language or signs. Zabala’s interest in physical structures elicits an exploration of the very purpose and utility of artistic expression, while also gesturing outwards to the political situation in his native Argentina.  Indeed, the earliest works in this show were created amidst a thriving backdrop of conceptualism and systems art, as well as of the socio-political context of political oppression, between the fall of one dictatorship and the beginning of another.[1] Rodrigo Alonso suggests that the work points “to the risk of complicity that architecture runs in the case of being placed at the service of an authoritarian system.”[2] This makes Zabala’s interest in the architecture of oppression or safety—the jail or the bomb shelter—all the more poignant.

Systems art has an important history in Argentina; it found institutional support from the influential Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) and its director, Jorge Glusberg, who was at the forefront of international trends in the visual arts in the late 1960s and 1970s. Glusberg was ever sensitive to the sociopolitical connotation of art created in an oppressive regime like that in Argentina at this time, writing: “from the viewpoint of semiotics, art is an ideological discourse [….] By way of artistic acts, man can become aware of his social reality.”[3] Zabala’s work, which was shown in the seminal exhibitions of systems art at CAyC, shares with Glusberg an interest in the scientific method, semiology, and how art functions within a society. Later, Zabala reflected: “In the field of the visual arts, relationships between things stimulate me far more than the things themselves. Accordingly, in my work with monochromes, signs, furniture and cartography, I attempt to force relationships, to point out analogies and to divert uses.”[4] Herein perhaps lies the key to understanding his work. It makes us look at things known intimately with fresh eyes and ponder how they could be put to an alternative use. The most jarring of such analogies is the one seen emblazoned on so many works in the show—Art is a Jail—a statement he first arrived at in 1972. Zabala’s hand is shown writing the phrase or stamping it with ink onto paper. This is quite shocking coming from a visual artist who has chosen this path. What does it mean for art to be a jail? On one level, it describes the confining limitations of art as an institution, [5]  but the proliferation of the motif in highly varied works begs a closer look.

            In 1973, Zabala had a solo show at CAyC entitled Anteproyectos (Draft Projects). For this he created numerous plans for prisons that became codified into typologies—prisons on a column, floating prisons, and underground prisons—suggesting that they can be anywhere and everywhere, and that they are not always where you might expect them. Also shown there was the installation Espacio Represivo (Repressive Space) from the same year. A domestic-scaled cage-like enclosure, it brings the prison to the scale of the body and into the space of the gallery viewer. In other works, Zabala presents a less hypothetical depiction of the prison—those that are currently in use but are so integrated in our daily lives that we barely recognize their existence. In doing so, he shows how they have been obfuscated through fear tactics, revealing how we voluntarily submit ourselves to imprisonment for safekeeping against wars manufactured by our own governments, for example. Exemplifying this, he created Anteprojetos para refugios antiatómicos (Draft Projects for Anti-Atomic Shelters) in 1983 during his time in exile in Italy. It explores the commercialism of atomic warfare and what the artist terms the “aesthetics of the catastrophe.” “The anti-atomic shelter,” he writes, “is presented to the consumer as a defensive necessity. If the threat is generalized and has acquired a planetary character, the bunker is no longer a single concept of military strategy (or a negative utopia of science fiction), but another element of the economic-technological system whose image circulates by mass-media.”[6]

Not all of these prisons are so cynical, however, which is one explanation for Zabala’s characterization of his own creative imprisonment. In a 1975 draft project series Anteproyeto para Tzinacán (Draft Project for Tzinacán), he draws the plan for the prison described in Borges’s short story The God’s Script, reproducing the first paragraph of the text as a legend.[7]  In the story, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado imprisons Tzinacán, the priest of the fictitious Mesoamerican pyramid of Qaholom, in a hemispheric, underground prison with a jaguar in an adjacent cell separated by a dividing wall. Tzinacán is kept in complete darkness, and he can only glimpse the animal when a jailer feeds them at midday. Tzinacán becomes convinced that the spots of the jaguar spell out a message from God, and spends his days trying to decipher it. Then, upon awaking from a dream, he had a vision of a wheel made of fire and water in equal measure that provides the key to unlock the script that, upon recitation, will unleash the jaguar on Alvarado and free him from the prison, restoring the empire destroyed by the conquistador. But once Tzinacán is granted this divine wisdom, his personhood dissolves and he becomes one with the universe; he can no longer conceive of himself as the singular protagonist of his own story. Here imprisonment serves as a metaphor for both the constrictions of art and the ethical responsibility it presents for the artist, while also connoting the unique ability for forced reflection under duress.  

Zabala’s continual preference for draft projects privileges the process over the result suggesting an affinity between the artist and the priest of Qaholom. He searches for solutions to problems often unacknowledged by others, presenting art as a laboratory to make the impossible real. In the words of Zabala:

I believe that the work of art, showing what is here and now—the real and the visible—offers a glimpse at what could be here and now—the possible and the invisible. Contemplating, reading, interpreting, the subject travels, because the work of art is a navigable surface and at the same time an instrument of navigation. You know as well as I that a good journey always transforms the traveler.[8]

Anna Katherine Brodbeck

[1] The Revolución Argentina (1966-1973) ended when Juan Perón returned from exile and served for his third and final term before he died the next year in 1974. Emerging shortly after was the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (1976-1983), the so-called “Dirty War” where upwards of 30,000 Argentines were disappeared.

[2] Rodrigo Alonso, “The Analytic Language of Horacio Zabala,” in ed. Rodrigo Alonso and Vanessa Davidson, Horacio Zabala: la pureza está en la mezcla (Buenos Aires: Fundación Amalia Lacroze Fortabat, 2016), 52.

[3] Jorge Glusberg, “Arte e ideología.” Exhibition catalog: CAYC, 1972, Cited in ibid., pg. 48.

[4] “Series de obras desde 2009 hasta el presente,” previously unpublished text, Buenos Aires, November 2015. Cited in ibid., 56. 

[5] For example, in 1976 he begins “Today Art Is a Prison,” a multi-year survey of international scholars, artists, architects, and theoreticians soliciting evidence of art as a closed system. The results were included in exhibitions, seminars, and texts in Italy, where the artist was then living.

[6] Horacio Zabala, notes for Anteprojetos para refugios antiatómicos, April 1983.

[7] Jorge Luis Borges and L. A. Murillo, “The God’s Script,” Chicago Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1964), pp. 5-9.

[8] Horacio Zabala, El arte o el mundo por segunda vez, (Buenos Aires: UNR Editora, 1997) p. 73. Cited in Vanessa Davidson, “Horacio Zabala: Mapping the Monochrome,” in Horacio Zabala: la pureza está en la mezcla, 26. 

Horacio Zabala (Buenos Aires, 1943) obtained his architecture degree from the Universidad de Buenos Aires but gravitated towards the arts, putting on his first solo show in 1967 and publishing his first theoretical text in 1972. From 1972 to 1976, he was a member of the “Grupo de los Trece,” formed as part of the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC). He lived in Europe from 1976-1998 before returning to South America. Zabala’s work has been featured in both individual and group shows, including: Memories of Underdevelopment, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego and Museo Jumex, Mexico City (forthcoming September 2017); Mapping the Monochrome, Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, Buenos Aires and the Phoenix Art Museum (2016-2017); Toda percepción es una interpretación: YOU ARE PART OF IT, CIFO Art Space, Miami (2016-2017); Open Work in Latin America, New York & Beyond: Conceptualism Reconsidered, Hunter College, New York (2013), Sistemas, Acciones y Procesos. 1965- 1975, Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires (2011); Subversive Practices. Art under Conditions of Political Repression: 60s–80s South America/Europe, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, (2009); and Arte en cambio, CAYC, Buenos Aires (1973). His work has been acquired by the Tate Collection, London; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art, Essex; Daros Latinamerica, Zürich; Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), Miami; Diane and Bruce Halle Collection, Scottsdale; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires; Museo de Arte Moderno, Buenos Aires; Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de Sâo Paulo, Brazil; among others. He lives and works in Buenos Aires.