'Inverted utopias'

Between 1920 and 1970, a Latin American avant-garde movement promoted the belief that artistic works could present possibilities for a form of utopia, and function as a pattern for an improved society. During those 50 years, the manner for expressing these opinions changed from an assimilation of influences from European and North American Modernism, to an expression of independence from events in Europe and the US.

This is already more than most of us ever knew about the Latin American avant-garde, but the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH) set out to change that situation this past summer by mounting an exhibition showcasing more than 200 works from more than 60 artists. While the museum exhibit closed in September, a small but instructive sample of that collection remains on the Web at Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. And the site itself has been getting as much notice as its content.

Faced with representing an extensive physical exhibition with a much smaller online selection, Utopias' content concentrates on the formative and the twilight years of the avant-garde. Divided into two very different Flash-based exhibits (and available in English and Spanish), the site first looks at the latter end of the avant-garde chronology with El Techo de la Ballena - a Venezuelan movement of the 1960s that strove to turn deliberate provocation into an "instrument for human research." After an introduction places the movement's self-declared mission to "change life and transform society" into a cultural and political context, Ballena then offers a selection of books, posters and postcards created by the movement, biographies of the Ballena's artists, and a collection of recently translated manifestos and writings.

But for most visitors, who will arrive knowing nothing about Latin American avant-garde, the feature that will keep them long enough to learn is the exquisite way that the information is presented. In fact, the presentation is so attractive, that one can't help wondering if the artists would have appreciated this particular approach. (Still, given the dark nature of so much of the material, a more thematically appropriate interface could well have driven visitors to Disney.com just to try to regain their emotional equilibrium.)

The exhibit's four sections are all situated on a single sheet of virtual paper, largely decorated with line art illustrations by Ballena member, Josep Maria Berenguer (in varying degrees of saturation so as not to interfere with the main content). Chose a subject, and the page shifts to bring the corresponding section of paper into the browser frame. Once settled on a particular quadrant of the sheet, the next level of interaction includes such features as a menu that displays book covers when the user selects a title, and then loads the book itself (with user-turnable pages and occasional curatorial guidance) when that title is clicked. The biographies place each artist's background and a sample of their work on to flippable post cards, and the 'Manifestos' - the most basic of the sections - open each sample of writing in a new window within the existing frame, accompanied by a paragraph or two of introduction.

The second exhibit, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, looks at the early stages of the avant-garde through a Brazilian artist's illustrations for the 1923 book, "Legends, Beliefs and Talismans of the Amazon River Indians." In addition to a general Introduction, and Biography of Rego Monteiro, the main component of this exhibition is the book itself, which, like the smaller examples in Ballena, features pages which can be virtually turned by the visitor. (If you prefer the feeling of complete control, pages can actually be grabbed by a corner and manually drawn to the other side of the screen, though for simplicity's sake, a single click will generate an automatic advance to the next spread.)

Due to size limitations on the computer screen, most of the text content is illegible, and - having been published in Paris - of little benefit to anyone without at least a reasonable grasp of French. That said, specific sections of the book (such as a table that compares common graphic symbols on three continents) are accompanied by commentary, and English translations are provided for chosen stories (including the legend of "How the night was born"). Depending on the speed of your connection and computer, the links to the 'Commentary and Translations' section may take a few seconds to appear after a page has been turned, so try to linger for a moment over any content that you find promising.

While the color scheme for the Monteiro exhibit is darker, the subject matter is decidedly more benign, and even when a legend is recounting the tale of a lustful brother-in-law being turned into a tree toad, it still makes for lighter reading than an open letter to Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam war. But like the bookmarks that they are, the two exhibits complement if not actually mirror each other as they introduce neophytes to the movement. (While it's possible to open each production into its own popup window from the home page, surfers can also move from one to the other within an existing window by way of an unobtrusive site navigation bar at the bottom left of the frame.)

Finally, while not part of this particular online presentation, the MFAH also created an interactive guide to the interactive qualities in much of the art that was included in the physical museum exhibition. Rediscovering the Senses opens with some very agreeable guitar music and proceeds to educate visitors on how to become 'active participants' while experiencing art. Simple concepts such as changing one's perspective and - when permitted - physically interacting with the artwork are illustrated first with simple line art animations and then through photographs of relevant artifacts from the actual exhibit, and while the specifics from this simple exercise may no longer be on display, the concepts are worth remembering for any trip to an art museum.

So, do I know more about the Latin American avant-garde than I did before? Yes. Was it because of a burning desire to expand my knowledge of art? No. The MFAH's achievement was in creating a presentation that made me want to explore a website - and then populating that website with the information it wanted to share. Sneaky. Effective.

Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America can be found at http://www.mfah.org/microsites/IU/inverted_utopias_website/.

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