Acts of Empathy1
Arnd Schneider


In a recent keynote lecture at a major international conference on contemporary art and anthropology, Rimer Cardillo focused on how the practices of his art making were inspired by the engagement with the lives and cultural manifestations of the peoples, past and present, in various parts of Latin America — his native Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Venezuela.1 How can these encounters be characterised?
I suggest that we have to conceive of the appropriation of otherness in contemporary art as a hermeneutic strategy,3 not simply as an act of copying, assimilation, or incorporation of difference. This hermeneutic approach implies notions of ‘understanding’ and ‘learning’ on the part of the appropriating artists, without falling into a simple trap of an idealistically conceived ‘dialogue’ — which, in any case, must remain incomplete, precisely because of cultural differences, and disparities of economic and political power between artist and cultural others.
A good example of this hermeneutic principle is the intuitive empathy with archeological artefacts displayed in works, such as Charrúas y Montes Criollos (Montevideo, 1991), where Cardillo applies techniques which reveal what he has called the “logic of indigenous construction.” 4 This implies the use of primarily those (non-industrial) techniques which, potentially, could also have been available to the Charrúa (an indigenous people of Uruguay wiped out in the 19th century). Soil, charcoal, sand, ash, and ceramic casts of fossilised animals are used in the construction of an artificial installation-mound entitled Ancestor with Fossils. Cardillo, of course, transcends the immediate material vocabulary of indigenous people (working with wooden artifacts, plywood scored with electrical routers, photo silk-screens), yet keeps reference to ancient techniques and materials. This procedure amounts to a kind of ‘retrospective empathy’ with indigenous materials and techniques, by suggesting that the now extinct Charrúa could have been (and in fact are) co-authors of Cardillo’s artworks, along with the artist and his collaborators who create them in the present.
Cardillo’s appropriations put into question accustomed anthropological methodologies of representing other cultures. Artists, such as Cardillo, especially those who take a ‘learning attitude,’5 contribute both to the understanding of the material and, in fact, artistic practices of indigenous cultures, and to the realm of interpretative and hermeneutic analysis and description.6 Such hermeneutic procedures are mirrored by artistic practices adopted in anthropological fieldwork as a form of ‘practical mimesis,’7 where they can serve as a further means to elicit meaning from physically inscribed bodily practices and their material results (objects) which are not readily open to verbal discourse and interpretation. One of the examples is anthropologist David Guss’s decision to become a basket maker among the Yekuana of Venezuela. His apprenticeship allowed him to understand and interpret Yekuana culture through this omnipresent and pervasive art form, rather than to base his ethnography solely on fragmented verbal discourses and observation.8
In essence, rather than thinking of two clearly separated disciplines, art here and anthropology there, we should conceive of complementary and sometimes overlapping endeavors which creatively elicit meaning from other cultures. As Cardillo points out in the following responses, both artists and anthropologists are in fact practitioners of creativity.9

Arnd Schneider10 What are the influences of anthropology on the contemporary art world?

Rimer Cardillo Traditional artistic techniques within disciplines are at this time no longer enough to express the ideas and feelings connected to the era we are living in. The current international art scene is involved in crossing boundaries between disciplines and thereby creating a richer vocabulary for artistic expression. There is a need, at this moment, for research and creation of new venues to express concepts related to our historical present.
In a very remote estancia (ranch) in the northern part of Uruguay, I recently met with a gifted craftsman, a guasquero, that is an artisan who creates with rawhide all the artifacts needed to ride horses. He showed me a commissioned piece, a rebenque (whip) with a handle made of a shiny chrome car antenna. This given object was preciously incorporated into the woven strings or strips of hide. I tend to compare this behavior with those seventeenth-century German metalsmiths who marveled at the new artifacts brought from the New World and incorporated them into very elaborated metal pieces (i.e. the series of objects with ñandú eggs (South American ostrich), and coconuts shells found in the Albertinum Museum, in Dresden. Most notable The Coconut Goblet (the so-called Holzschuher Goblet), model by Peter Flotner, a goldsmiths' work attributed to Melchor Baier, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (see ill., page 49). The contemporary artist doesn't have all the answers in the political, historical, or artistic compartments, so they naturally embrace anthropological methods in their work.

AS What have been the anthropological influences on your work, in either a generalized way or in the sense of specific works or theories? How does this influence manifest itself in your work and how do you encounter anthropology, through museums and exhibitions and/or through written work?

RC As a child I experienced an enormous attraction to objects made by early cultures like a set of humble ceramics attributed to the Charrúas, decorated with fingerprints, displayed at the Santa Teresa fortress, Rocha, Uruguay. Later, my attraction continued with my confrontation with the ethnographic museums of Hamburg, Berlin, and Leipzig, with all the marvelous collections of objects from the old German possessions in the Pacific Islands.
My late childhood and adolescent years were spent at the general store owned by my father and uncle. The store was located in the frontier zone between the city and the countryside in Montevideo's outskirts. A place of confluence of unique human characters: gauchos, Indian descendants, factory workers, industrials, guitar players and singers, ventriloquists, billiard players, thieves, soccer players, bicyclists, murgueros (carnival actors), medicine men, and other unforgettable people, the store was a scenario for cultural anthropology. Later in my trips in the Amazon forest in different parts of Latin America, I encountered again the ‘frontier town’, the limit between ‘civilization’ and the unknown: the jungle. In this shared space takes place the confrontation from the most diverse cultures and the most diverse interests: economics, science, artistic, religious, etc... And everybody has a cautious and enormous curiosity to know about the other.

AS Do you see your work as either directly or indirectly addressing any anthropological questions or concerns? What are they and how does your work achieve this?

RC Perhaps the necessity to create an iconography of the past, a past taken away by the ruling classes. American history is written by winners of wars against native peoples. How was the New World created? The structural model argues that language itself produces reality. What was the "reality" of the other? How do we know the countless cultures that were exterminated and that continue to be seeped away, without leaving a written or oral history?
In 1991, I spent 5 months in Uruguay, I created an installation entitled "Charrúas y Montes Criollos". The project opened at the Salón Municipal de Exposiciones and is on view at the Fernando García Museum in Uruguay. The region had been occupied for millennia by several native tribes. In 1516 the Spaniards arrived at the River Plate and started the conquest and the Charrúas defended their land in a war that lasted three hundred years. In 1831 they were exterminated, as was the indigenous flora (Montes Criollos), which at the beginning of the conquest covered 25 percent of the land. Today it has been dramatically reduced to a little over 3 percent of the landscape.

AS What kind of anthropological methods do you, or could you, see as relevant for your own practice and for contemporary art in general?

RC Cultural anthropology, field research, a personal and natural way of investigation reinforced by anthropological analysis, towards the investigation of indigenous cultures, their environment and the life of people is what I practice. Horacio Quiroga, a writer and early ecologically inspired artist from Uruguay, moved at the beginning of the 20th century to San Ignacio a "frontier town" in Misiones, Argentina. There, in contact with nature and its various people, he created a series of powerful short stories named “The Stories of the Jungle”, published in weekly installments in magazines and newspapers of Buenos Aires. I believe Quiroga is a model of an artist (albeit not visual) who integrates anthropological methods in his work to great effect.
Time and space, different layers of time, overlapping over each other, in my travels I participated in many different experiences that involved people, animals and objects. I distilled from my life pieces of reality, almost short theater plays. In my installations I want to obtain many layers of visual information by almost a re-construction of images from a remote reality.

AS How has anthropology influenced your approach to the preparatory stages or ‘research’ that leads to particular works?

RC My research and creation is guided by my being a product of two cultures, and by my lifestyle that moves from the Hudson Valley in New York to the Orinoco river in the Amazons. I inherited the attraction for the oral tradition. Many members of my family were notable story tellers, who told tales of immigrants and their life in the countryside, some other narratives originated in Europe at the turn of the century. I recorded and keep recording stories from family and other people. These methods of approximation and knowing a system has fueled my projects.
A good example was my contact with the Piaroa in the Ventuari River. I lived within these people: recorded conversations and interviews, kept a small journal fundamentally with drawings, took photographs, and witnessed the conflictive confrontation of interests in the area. Later, the rich information I collected was used to create an installation, "Pachamazon–Hunters–Jorobados–Missionaries" at Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City in 1996.

AS What chances do you currently see for new productive dialogues between art and anthropology? What would be the shared ground for any such dialogues?

RC I think artists and anthropologists can benefit in their respective areas of work by overlapping their experiences. There is an area of creation and investigation in both categories; artists and anthropologists should learn from the other. There is intensive creative investigation on both areas.
I have been enjoying and investigating the "will of form" by peoples around the world in different times and spaces. My first interest was visual, for instance, how people in contact with animals need to translate their respect and emotions through visual objects, "art objects." I collected clay horses made by farmers in Peru, Yugoslavia, and Paraguay during the sixties, and they share the same formal characteristics. Different groups in contact with one rough material, in this case clay, (and I suspect under similar environmental circumstances) react in the same formal manner (will of form). I also found this in old Greek, Mayan, Egyptian, and Japanese terracottas. I would benefit from working with an anthropologist to further develop a more cohesive investigation in this area.
I can’t forget the reaction of anthropologists when they first saw my show "Charrúas and Montes Criollos," a massive installation where the enigmatic, forgotten, and extinct Charrúa tribe, was metaphorically recreated (see Plate XXII, page 51). They confessed to me that they were fueled by this visual and physical experience and that the experience would help them find new ways to approach their investigation. Based on this contact, a young anthropologist gave me photo material of recent excavations done in 1993 at the Atlantic coast of Uruguay. An important finding, a perfect bone bag from 2000 years ago, evidence of a second burial, was later manipulated by me and incorporated in a series of silk-screened canvases. This not only fueled my formal will but also informed the conceptual background of my project.

AS What could be gained from dialogues between artists and anthropologists?

RC Common themes of interest bring together artists and anthropologists. In 1991 I worked with an anthropologist who was investigating the indigenous mixed descent among the inhabitants of Uruguay. I made some contacts with these ‘mixed blood’ people and gave some other information to the anthropologist about possible areas where they could find people interested in knowing their native descendents.

AS Would you consider, or have you, collaborated directly with anthropologists? What are the possibilities for this?

RC In 1991, during my installation “Charrúas y Montes Criollos,” I worked closely with anthropologists. Later in 1996, I had another intense collaboration in Venezuela and Paraguay when I was advised by anthropologists with experience in the Ventuari, Orinoco and Paraguay rivers and also in the Gran Savana and the Pantanal region.

AS If you are involved in any form of teaching practice or giving lectures, does anthropology form a component of this in some way, perhaps through the use of ethnographic examples or by referring to anthropological theories?

RC I teach at the Art Department in the State University of New York at New Paltz. Rather than teaching from only an aesthetic point of view, my teaching methods depart from the individual and their own environment past and present. I have students from all around the world; my class is a ‘frontier town’. I teach according to the dynamic that you encounter in those zones. Rather than a technically oriented class, my classes are focused in ideas where different media merge to express a concept. In my lectures, I share about the origin of my works, the anthropological methods I have used, and I also bring in and show ethnographic objects.



1. This piece expands on some revised elements from Arnd Schneider, “Sites of Amnesia, Non-Sites of Memory: Identity and Other in the work of four Uruguayan artists,” Siting Ethnography, ed. Alex Coles (London: Blackdog Publications, 2000). Rimer Cardillo’s responses to a questionnaire by Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright are to appear in a forthcoming volume Border Crossings: Contemporary Art and Anthropology, eds. Arnd Schneider & Chris Wright (Oxford: Berg Publ.).
2. Rimer Cardillo, “From the Purple Land to the Hudson River Valley,” keynote lecture, Fieldworks: Dialogues between Art and Anthropology (London: Tate Modern, 26 -28 September 2003). Fieldworks was organised by Arnd Schneider, Chris Wright and Dominic Willsdon, and a full record of the conference webcast is at: onlineevents/archive/fieldworks/
3. Arnd Schneider, “On ‘appropriation’: a reappraisal of the concept and its application in global art practices,” Social Anthropology, 11:2 (2003), pp. 215-229.
4. In an interview with Alicia Haber, “The Scenario of Memory,” in Charrúas y Montes Criollos: A los Quinientos Años de la Conquista Europea, exhibition catalogue of Rimer Cardillo (Montevideo: Ed. Galería Latina, 1991), p. 27.
5. A felicitous term coined by César Paternosto, North and South Connected: An Abstraction of The Americas, essay and exhibition catalogue (New York: Cecilia de Torres Ltd., 1999), p. 22.
6. See Arnd Schneider, “Sites of Amnesia, Non-Sites of Memory: Identity and Other in the work of four Uruguayan artists,” op. cit.
7. A term borrowed from Michael Jackson, “Knowledge of the Body,” Man (N.S.), 18 (1983), pp. 327-45.
8. David Guss, To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rain Forest (Berkely: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 2-4.
9. On anthropology’s relationship to contemporary art, see Arnd Schneider, “The art diviners,” Anthropology Today, 9:2 (1993), pp. 3-9; and Arnd Schneider, “Uneasy relationships: contemporary artists and anthropology,” Journal of Material Culture, eds. James Clifford & Daniel Miller, 1:2 (1996), pp. 183-210.
10. Questions by Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright.

Arnd Schneider is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of East London and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hamburg. He specialises in the anthropology of contemporary art, visual anthropology and the study of transnational migrations and ethnic identities, with special reference to Latin America and the Mediterranean. He has done extensive fieldwork in Argentina and in Sicily, and also research in Mexico, Uruguay and Ecuador. His books include Futures Lost: Nostalgia and Identity among Italian Immigrants in Argentina (Peter Lang, 2000), Mafia for Beginners (with the illustrator Oscar Zárate; Icon Books, 1994) and Return Migration in a Sicilian Village (in German; Peter Lang, 1990). He is currently editing a special journal issue for Third Text resulting from the conference Fieldworks: Dialogues between Art and Anthropology, he co-organised at Tate Modern in 2003. His other projects include a book on the appropriation of indigenous cultures among Latin American artists, and an edited collection Border Crossings: Contemporary Art and Anthropology (with Chris Wright) to be published by Berg Publishers (Oxford).