“no puedes luchar en contra de la injusticia del sistema si no sigues sus leyes”
(you cannot fight injustice of the system without following its laws)
—in conversation with Leon Ferrari, 2004
I will never forget these words spoken to me by Leon in one of the first of many conversations that we would have. We met and started working with Ferrari at an auspicious time in his career. It was 2004, weeks before the opening of his grand retrospective at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, a show that would change the path of his career after over 40 years of consistent work as an artist and voice for change. We had made a significant acquisition of his work and were preparing the export, at a time when yet again the banks in Argentina were frozen. The government had not held true to its promise and duty to act in the best interest of its people, and yet Leon took this opportunity to declare the full value of the export, paying this same corrupt system the high tax due in spite of, and in the face of its own lies and thievery of the people’s money.
What was particularly poignant in Ferrari’s resolve is his central premise of fighting against, not only injustice in the world but more importantly, the hypocrisy with which it is carried out. His many provocative pieces on display seemingly against the church – with saints in frying pans, the emblematic crucifixion of Christ on a U.S. air force fighter jet – are prime examples of how Ferrari denounces the iconic tools of manipulation to reveal hypocrisies within corrupt systems. He was not against the Church, rather against the way that church and state used these symbols to manipulate public perception, creating false binaries of right and wrong.
Killing is wrong unless you are killing for the right? Ferrari’s work was not created with the premise that what he fought against was an absolute wrong, and therefore his position was an absolute right; rather his work implores us to question this absolutist perspective and reveal the hypocrisy of using absolutes and morality to justify what in the end is inhumane, unjust and manipulative.
Much attention is given, particularly of late, to Ferrari’s overtly political work, yet throughout Leon’s practice, he was constantly playing with aesthetic values and classifications with his more abstract works which are ostensibly less aggressively challenging. These works are as delicate and subtle as the other works are in your face leaving no doubt of intent. In our exhibition, we set up a sort of dialogue between these two bodies of work showing an underlying theme which is consistent philosophically in all of his work even if they seem visually disparate.
“Declared Value” also draws into question perception of value in the art world, is the work of an artist with 40 plus years of experience, and recognition among his peers worth less than that of an emerging artist who happened to produce the “right work at the right time”? He did not change his resolve or his aesthetic because it didn’t fall within the constantly changing and erratic aesthetics of collectors and institutions, he just held out, with the courage of his convictions, until eventually, the art world took notice. When asked in an interview “What words of advice would you give a young aspiring artist?” his reply was “make it to your 80’s.”