«often the artist is labeled as a being who despises traditional and established values; a misunderstanding exists; to the contrary, the artist reaps values petrified by formalities, revives them and shows them so free of their impure, heavy incrustations that their contemporaries fail to recognize them. »
Janine Janowski, Vivencias: Arte, Valor, Sociedad, (Happenings: Art, Value, Society) 1982
Anyone who experienced San Salvador's Galería el laberinto (1977-2001) in its early years may recall its Vivencias (Happenings), a series of collective exhibitions where experimentation and spontaneity responded to an uncertain moment in El Salvador's history, with themes that did not seem to engage the experience of the violent Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992): “harnesses,” “masks,” “the city,” “the signature.”
With Vivencias, Janine Janowski, founder and director of el laberinto gallery, challenged her artists to seek new artistic languages. For example, for Vivencias I, held at the gallery’s first location at the 1era Calle Poniente (First East Street) of San Salvador, the artist Julio Sequeira built a tunnel with cloth and other materials, transforming the gallery’s entry terrace into an installation entitled "El paso por el Mar Rojo" ("Parting of the Red Sea"). Somewhat fearfully at first, the public ventured into the symbolic and conceptual world of the artist. “What we have experienced here tonight in your gallery is something we will never forget” some of them confessed to the proprietor; they were captivated by the first presentations of installation, performance and conceptual art in El Salvador. [Otto René Castillo, “Aproximación al arte post moderno en El Salvador,” Diario CoLatino (July 11, 2009)]
The Vivencias continued every year until 1986, when they were interrupted as a specific series of exhibitions, partly because they had provoked a reevaluation and regeneration of existing art paradigms. This critical spirit, sense of invention and an unfettered freedom of expression lived on in el laberinto until it closed in 2001, and exhibitions such as "piedra, tijera y papel… 500 años después" ("Rock, paper, scissors…500 Years Later") and Urbania (Urbanism) from the decade of the 1990s remain in our memories for their daring proposals, for their inclusion of diverse materials and strategies, and for their keen message featuring the artist as protagonist in the debates of the time.
Thirty five years after the first Vivencia… What is the value of art and what is the function of art in our society? How do we ensure the documentation, protection and transmission of our cultural history?
Vivencias: Legado (Happenings: Legacy) is a response. As part of laberinto projects*, this exhibition reunites the artists who were part of el laberinto gallery along with a group of emerging artists whose sole knowledge of this heritage amounted to little more than rumors overheard in a bar. All of the artists participated in a Vivencia, motivated by the desire to know and re-invent a memory that is still not written in El Salvador’s collective narrative. Through a series of encounters, workshops, interviews, and studies leading to the creation of a fully populated and organized archive, we create a space of commemoration and re-imagination. We work on behalf of memory, of getting to know “the other;” we put our perceptions to the test and reconstruct and reinvent them, all through knowledge and a re-encounter with the past, that for some, like for the artist Nadie, has remained blurry. Unveiling a heretofore unacknowledged chapter of Salvadoran history, the artworks deal directly with its absence. They are now informed by new-found testimony or by the revelation of memory, translating sound to paper, words to drawing, thought to object.
We shall also see various artists — Deleón, Bicard, González Palma, etc.— who show us the process of constructing a body of work over time, reinterpreted in a new context, while honoring the point of view of our first intent and celebrating the understanding that hindsight offers us. We invite the public to be both a witness and a participant in our first intergenerational, transnational happenings laboratory. Together, we call for consciousness, the formation of new habits, we value knowledge and critical thought, we promote a culture of memory, of open dialogue. And, above all, we, in the words of Janine: we never forget that art is the oxygen of society.
Muriel Hasbun Washington, D.C./San Salvador, June 2016.
Vivencias: Legado (Wall text, translated from the original Spanish by K. Mitchell Snow and Muriel Hasbun.)
*laberinto projects promotes contemporary art, social inclusion and dialogue in El Salvador and its diaspora through exhibitions, education, artists residencies and other community outreach initiatives.