The Search of a Lost Work By Nelson Carro
by Nelson Carro
In 1933, during his brief stay in Argentina, the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), created a singular piece at Los Granados’ Village, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Plastic Exercise, painted in the four walls, floor and ceiling of the cellar of a countryside house, has as its main motif feminine figures that blend and transform across the 123 square meters of the mural’s surface. In its creation, the Mexican muralist counted on the collaboration of several outstanding apprentices: the Argentinean plastic artists Antonio Berni, Lino Spilimbergo, Juan Carlos Castagnino and the Uruguayan set designer Enrique Lázaro.
Because of his militant politics, Siqueiros was expelled from Argentina soon after. Some years later, in 1941, the industrialist Natalio Botana, proprietor of Los Granados, died. For many years, the mural received hardly any attention. In the early Nineties, it was acquired by a company that – after hiring a team of specialists to remove it from the building – went bankrupt and fell into legal problems. As a result of this litigation, Plastic Exercise has remained confined for over ten years in four rusty, leaking shipping containers. Although the Culture Secretariat promoted the inclusion of the work in the nation’s cultural patrimony, to date the situation has not been solved. Complex, absurd, confusing, the story of the mural is also fascinating and involves other stories in which many other famous names appear. It is no wonder that Lorena Muñoz felt attracted by the case. In fact, Next to be Gone (Los próximos pasados), has many points in common with her previous documentary, co-directed with Sergio Wolf, I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me (Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos, 2003).
In the earlier film, the concept was to trail Ada Falcón, a popular singer of tangos whodecided in 1942 to disappear from the world of show business. To the audience’s surprise and amazement, Lorena Muñoz and Sergio Wolf (whose on-screen presence guided the storyline, a little bit in the style of detective films) finally do locate and film the Ada Falcón. Her appearance lasts only a few minutes, but it is sufficient to give a forceful end to the story.
Next to Be Gone also involves some detective work, but the result is less happy: Lorena Muñoz is not able to show us the Plastic Exercise mural, which remains locked away. But she is able to show us a miniature reproduction that at least allows us to have an idea of what we are missing, while suggesting the absurd difficulties that Siqueiros’ intimist mural (if the expression fits) continues to have in reaching the public. (The situation seems even more absurd when we remember that he was mainly a painter of public and opened spaces.)
How, then, to reconstruct this complicated puzzle which lacks so many of its pieces?
Facing the impossibility of showing the original piece or describing it through first hand testimonies, Lorena Muñoz makes an exhaustive compilation of images and archival footage, and interviews the descendants of those who participated in its creation. She films what remains – almost nothing – of Los Granados Village and resorts to the elaboration of a scale model, so far the only chance to discover a lost image.
That idea of loss, disappearance, forgetfulness, is the basis of both of Lorena Muñoz’s films, but it is also fundamental to many Argentine cinematographic and literary works, products of a country whose identity is based on the absence of an identity. In this sense, Next to Be Gone can also be seen as an allegory about Argentina’s own history, which generally has to be constructed out of gaps and fragments.
The still unfinished adventure of Plastic Exercise involves many important names. Among them, there is one as fascinating as the film itself: the Uruguayan Blanca Luz Brum. Wife of both Siqueiros and the Peruvian poet Juan Parra del Riego, Pablo Neruda’s occasional lover, a very close friend of Jose Carlos Mariátegui and and admirer of Juan Domingo Perón and Evita; Brum was a key figure in the creation of Siqueiros’ mural – not only because she was the inspiration for the piece, but also because it is possible that the industrialist Natalio Botana commissioned the mural in order to be close to Siqueiros’ wife, who would later become his own.