Felipe Ehrenberg, Work Secretly Titled Upwards and Onwards...whether you like it or not
Abstraction, Figuration, and Postcard Mail-Art as Vehicle for Dissent
Felipe Ehrenberg’s work Obra Secretamente titulada Arriba y Adelante…y si no pues tambien (Work Secretly titled Upwards and Onwards…whether you like it or not), 1970, presents viewers a large rectangular image of gathered horizontal rectangles patterned with varied black and white color, which, upon closer examination, can be identified as 200 postcards (with each card including postage). When collectively assembled, the 200 postcards stretch 20 cards in height and 10 cards across, coming together to form one larger graphic image. The sum combination of the cards creates an image of a female form that is rendered using varied black and white shapes and lines on each card. The figure’s mouth is agape in the image’s center, head and hair back, and breast firmly held in her right hand. Her nipple is positioned directly to meet the viewer. A soccer ball or football is featured in the upper right portion of the work with the inclusion of black pentagonal shapes and stitching.
Text utilized in the image appears in the center of the circular white soccer ball and reads “WORLD CUP MEXICO 1970”—with “MEXICO” shown in a very different type-face than the rendering of “WORLD CUP” or “1970,”indicative or referential potentially to Lance Wyman’s textual design for the 1968 Olympics two years prior (simultaneously invoking the games’ project of an outward “modernity”). The text on the soccer ball turns directly to accommodate the viewer’s incoming gaze as well. Although graphic in their imagery when combined as a whole, individually the cards are abstract works, filled with diverse arrangements of black and white shapes (together they constitute the female form, soccer ball, and the more graphic or one-dimensional pop image only when placed, combined, and re-configured correctly).
In 1970, Ehrenberg was living in London’s Islington area with his family following the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre and resulting repression and state politics (Ehrenberg, Tousley 21). Ehrenberg cites himself as both engaging in new art practices during this period and feeling sick for Mexico (Ehrenberg, Tousley 22). In order to complete and realize the work, Ehrenberg mailed the 200 postcards from three different post stations in London, giving specific instructions for the assemblage of this work in the Third Annual Exhibition of the Independent Salon (Marcin). He writes “after a respectable amount of citizens are gathered, my duly appointed representative shall begin by tacking up each card in order... Members of the public are happily invited to help” (Gilbert).
The body becomes important in the work both in the physical participation needed for its construction, as well as in Ehrenberg’s employment of small-scale abstraction in a time of government repression as a way of realizing large-scale figuration. Abstraction allows Enrenberg to permissibly create and send an image of possible social dissent, working to critiquing geometric abstraction as a popular genre in Latin America during this time period and calling into question what different types of art do and do not allow or prod in terms of social critique (Pérez-Barreiro et al., Web). Postcard as medium and canvas for this nude figure similarly raises questions about what gets offered up, presented, pushed to the foreground about a place for the rest of the world to see during large-scale global events, as with the 1968 Olympics in Mexico and World Cup in 1970.
Following the massacre of hundreds of students and civilians in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, secretary of the interior Luis Echeverría under Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ran for the presidency in 1970 and won. The same year, Mexico was hosting the World Cup. The headless female body created in Ehrenberg’s work in many ways has echoes of those bodies not featured, of the student and civilian bodies the government was trying to disappear and make-invisible at this time. Postcards by nature are indicative of what people normatively expect to see, experience, or get from a place when they visit—what parties and entities invested in the tourism industry and specific outside perceptions of a country want and hope visitors see, as opposed to what they do not. The postcard in this context again becomes interesting in that Ehrenberg is on the outside of Mexico looking in, sending cards one-by-one to generate a larger picture he has rendered from the outside (Oles 359). It is as if the woman featured here is making an offering, holding both the soccer ball and her breast in tandem and facing them in full to an on-looking viewer.
The figure’s awareness of this gaze, of the outside onlooker brings relevancy to Zolov’s discussion regarding Mexico’s “burden of representation” surrounding the 1968 Olympics, as well as this notion of presenting and promoting a place and image to outsiders and the world (as one does with postcards) beyond which exists in much more varied and nuances realities. “Onwards and upwards,” as Echeverría’s campaign slogan expounded, but at the expense of what and whom?
Gilbert, Zanna. "The Afterlives of Mail Art: Felipe Ehrenberg’s Poetic Systems." Post: notes on contemporary art around the globe. Museum of Modern Art, 13 Dec. 2013. Web.
Marcin, Mauricio. "Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation." Post: notes on contemporary art around the globe. Museum of Modern Art, 13 Dec. 2013. Web.
Oles, James. "From the Olympics to Neo-Mexicanism (1968-94)." Art and Architecture in Mexico. Thames & Hudson; 1st Edition, 2013. pp. 350-286. Print.
Pérez-Barreiro, Gabriel, Adrian Locke, and Sarah Lea. Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps De Cisneros Collection. Royal Academy of Arts, 2014. Web.
Tousley, Nancy, Felipe Ehrenberg, and Sally Alatalo. Learn to Read Art: Artists' Books. Hamilton, Ont.: Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1990. Print.