For the exhibition “Librería Donceles,” Pablo Helguera installed a functioning Spanish-language used-book store in the large front room at Kent Fine Art. Sales were pay-as-you-wish, and proceeds went to Spanish literacy programs. The shop-named for a street in Helguera’s hometown of Mexico City-was furnished with all the accoutrements one might expect in such a venue, if one were to exist in New York City. However, there is not one used-book store serving New York’s Spanish-speaking population of nearly two million, a fact that provided the motivation for this piece.
The room feels haunted, commemorative; that the work functioned on a practical level did not amount to a disregard for aesthetic effect. In addition to shelves filled with books divided into various genres, the room, painted a warm yellow, also contained threadbare chairs and ottomans, dim lamps, rugs, sculptural busts, a chess set and an orchestral playlist, all lending the librería an uncanny hyperreality. Bright track lighting and a swath of white gallery wall were visible above the bookshop tableau-its yellow paint ending about two feet from the ceiling. This exposed juncture between presentation and infrastructure gave the odd impression of a movie set after hours.
Rogaland (2012), a text-and-found-image installation, was exhibited in the back room of the gallery, a conventional white cube. The work reconceives a 1936 Norwegian monograph by the archeologist Jan Petersen as a series of 65 framed prints resembling spreads from the original book. Helguera was first drawn to the text because its photos of excavated medieval farms recalled 20th-century Land art. Each print couples an image from the book with the artist’s own interpretations of the explanatory caption. Helguera does not speak Norwegian, and so his poetic adaptations are based on sound and feeling, without concern for the original informational content. The reworked language is mystifying, expansive and lyrical: “The background skirmishes mellow . . . everyone is forgotten.”
Also on view was Canon (2013), a two-channel video installation. It depicts, on one screen, slow, panning footage of the memorabilia in an obscure private museum located in the Brooklyn home of Aldo Mancusi, a first-generation Italian-American. The museum is dedicated to the famed Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, one of the earliest internationally recognized recording artists. The adjacent screen shows a video portrait of Caruso’s great-grandson sitting still in a dignified pose, his breath and occasional blinking the only indications that this is indeed a moving image. Here, the simple messages offered in the newspaper clippings and on the commemorative plaques in the museum offset the immeasurable complexity of the living person on the other screen. Helguera thus maintains a taut dialectic between the defining energies of historical representation and the indeterminacy of the unfolding present.
A theorist and practitioner of socially engaged art, Helguera does not rest easily within its conventions. As is evident in his writings-for example, the guidebook for artists, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011)-formal integrity is not, for him, a bygone concern but an undeniable part of art-making. With his attention to the printed, photographed, filmed or audio-recorded document, Helguera always distinguishes between the impact of actual experience and its reification in the record. He also tampers with legibility such that his mistranslations and reworkings of historical materials confuse the viewer’s drive to absorb, translate and simplify them. Thus, if the bookstore offered a direct response to a social problem, the show as a whole disputed the very possibility of such straightforwardness, given the complications that history, nationality and textuality introduce into the delivery of intention from one mind to another.