"A photographic break down." Leandro Katz and his Mayan poems.

Cuauhtémoc Medina


Of our thoughts
Will nothing be left,
Only objects? Antiquities
Oppressing the coming generations
To carry the torches
Of a history to be continued?
Leandro Katz (1972-1973)


From the very beginning, Leandro Katz is and will always be a poet. A poet because his primary trade is not only weaving words on paper that place grammar and common sense under siege, but because he finds the word as an imaginary enigma, the image as indecipherable writing and, nevertheless, predisposed to outline hieroglyphics. Not to be overlooked is the fact that his works can also serve as a kind of travel diary, because many of his text-images are equivalent to the residue-treasure-fetish of a scrapbook, and because he allows them to emerge from a surprise rather than from a methodology. And poet because he allows contingency to take over and therefore the notebook, the camera or the work, becomes a vehicle of an unfathomable temporality...
When in the summer of 1970, in the midst of all kinds of cultural and political upheavals, Leandro Katz was traveling through northeastern Guatemala, he decided to head south from the ruins of Tikal, crossing territories and rivers. Away from the urban centers, Katz realized that his photographic film reserves were almost exhausted, and he only had a roll of infrared film. Thanks to that mistake, his recordings of his passage through the town of Las Flores and his arrival in the area of Quiriguá have the halo of an initiatory path: the passage through the mist and magenta vegetation of the jungle and the river, to reach the altar of the so-called "dragon" of Quiriguá, covered with lichen and mold, transmuted for the camera into an intense and mystical red: A God who evokes the ancient sacrifices as well as the political violence of the indigenous exterminations of the present, and the exaltation of the psychochemical trips of the counterculture. The images of A Canoe Trip (1970) go beyond the ordinary objective record of the images of archaeologists and tourists: they are an invocation of the unbounded temporality to which the ancient Maya aspired when they carved their stones and inscriptions. After some time, Katz wrote a poem entitled Passing Clouds (Nubes Pasajeras) (1972), in which the author wanted to recapture the visionary character of those experiences. The way in which meditating on the Maya was a way of approaching the transhistorical drama of the Americas:


The Maya
With their thirteen panoramic skies
And their nine subterranean labyrinths (...)
In the eternal space
They rubbed their eyes and withdrew to forget
The drama of eight hundred centuries,
Unrememberable theater of history.
Sleepers of the fifth world
Do bored people worship violence? ••


That encounter in acid and burning colors produced a multitude of explorations in the invention of visual and written (and written-visual) poems in Leandro Katz's work. The Monster of Quiriguá unleashed a series of surtiers, including, certainly, an interest in ancient and modern Mayan writing, astronomy and mythology, but also in the memory of the
experience of travels through the Central American lands that saw the rise and fall of various civilizations and conquerors since the time of the stelae and pyramids. Katz filled his workwith a variety of text-image combinations that evoked the complexity of the longundecipherableMayan writing systems, with the intention (as the "poet-artist" himself onceput it) of
"expressing ideas from gestures that varied between rational gestures and divinatory gestures, phonetic gestures and sensory gestures" . ••• In the collages of The Writer's Dream series produced in the 1970s, the images become phrases in a river of echoes and images, as part of a poem deliberately offered as an unfinished sketch. One gets the sensethat other compositions of image and text, such as El Foso Ideológico and The Diagram in the Sand series, are an immediate summary of the poet's early Guatemalan experience. In them, Katz accompanies deliberately contrasting images of ancient Mayan reliefs and inscriptions with texts that mix, in a free and specific association, flashes of inner revelations and shadows of imperial political and military oppression in Cold War times. Interestingly, in his poems of the period, Katz alludes to "A photographic break down" ••••: the way in which the images of his experience in tiny letters, poems, tapes, photos, letters and memoirs, suffered their own form of entropy: their inevitable transformation into ideograms of oblivion.
What is characteristic of these materials is to propose a constant palimpsest, not only in the articulation of the image with the words, but in the superimposition of historical stages, personal interjections and memories in code, which are offered in a superimposition of crumbling layers, similar to the way in which ruins appear, after centuries of destruction and successive creations, in the jungle. It is clear that Katz aspired to create hieroglyphs of a new kind, and that these works were tracing the possibility of an early postcolonial conceptual art. Libro quemado (1992), a series of banners produced on handmade paper, seems to be the materialization of that program, including the rescue of the linguistic palimpsest characteristic of colonial chronicles. On the one hand, the multicolored text of the work suggests the ambition of inscribing "the blood of the songs". At the same time, however, the title of the work refers to the destruction of the word that fell back into the hands of the same agents, such as Fray Diego de Landa and the result is a poem of multiple times and multiple voices.
Eventually, Leandro Katz constituted his own expeditions to the Maya lands, in a logic of assemblage and palimpsest of epochs and writings. In the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, Katz took up the images and routes that had guided Stephens and Catherwood in their classic accounts of the Yucatán peninsula, to compare them with the shots Katz's camera took of ruins disrupted by the reinvention of archaeologists and restorers, and transformed by the
massification of tourism. The Catherwood Project bursts into the imagination of postmodern art and culture in the Americas like a whiplash: it exposed the colonizing continuity of our relationship to Yucatán territory and archaeology, and our subjection, even in times of globalization's cheapening of geography, to imaginary models of romantic exploration and addictive consumption of the exotic. But on another level, Katz's photographs are posed as a
pilgrimage journey in themselves. The realization that Western culture still needs to be constituted on the basis of a kind of Grand tour: the demonstration that, beneath the trivialization of organized travel and the consumption of identity manufactured by the governments of the South, we reinvent ourselves as "modern" in the melancholic contemplation of "the old".
One of the main questions Leandro Katz was asking in these and other works was, in effect, what was the nature of our transactions with history. Where is it that our capitalist civilization and global capitalism had the gods of ancient civilization in the midst of their "armed struggle with spears and calculators". In 2001 he returned to Quiriguá to make a video film that sought to brutally and defiantly answer the question of the location of the American past. Katz portrayed the dragon of Quiriguá in its contemporary context: enclosed in the middle of a banana plantation, where in an industrial chain the successors of the United Fruit Company continue to colonially control the Mayan lands to provide bananas for the American market's cereal breakfasts. Katz's Paradox (2001) is an implicit critique of the modernizing optimism
with which cinema portrayed the battle of the old and the new, to use the title of Sergei Eisenstein's 1929 film about the industrialization of the countryside. His sequences of the human machine packing bananas echo the spiraling narrative of the Mayan relief, as if the monolith and the factory were both allegories of a system of oppressive flows; echoes and
sequences that seem part of a mysterious spiral. Twists and turns that can barely be measured in the cycle of a Baktun.

• Leandro Katz, "Nubes pasajeras"; (1972-1973), en: Ana Longoni, Jesse Lerner y Mariano Mestman, Leandro Katz. Colección conceptual, Buenos Aires, Fundación Espigas, 2013, p. 324.
•• Ibid., p. 316, 318.
••• Rodrigo Tarruella y Quintín, "El cine es el mayor jeroglífico: Encuentro con Leandro Katz",en: El Amante, año 2, no. 10, diciembre, 1992, p. 30. Citado por: Jesse Lerner, "Leandro
Katz: Lenguaje, Arte y tiempo entre las ruinas mayas", Ibid., p. 127.
•••• Leandro Kat, ""Nubes pasajeras", cit., p. 318

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