Support us with Kachingle!
March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Columbia College Sociology Professor Yngve Digernes delicately thumbs page by page through a fragile, 90-year-old Spanish newspaper. He doesn’t have a clue what the articles say, but the language barrier won’t stop him. Although it is a slow and daunting process, Digernes manages to flip through hundreds of issues until stumbling upon a key word in the copy: “Rivera.” Eagerly, he passes the article on to his translator and wife, Nancy Flores, and hopes he has finally found a key component of his research. He does this for several years of newspapers.
The 43-year-old Bergen, Norway, native set out last summer to explore and analyze the social context behind public art. Sociology is all about expanding horizons and seeing things from another point of view, he says. His study is aimed at shedding light on vast differences in public art among different cultures, particularly the meanings behind local works in Columbia and Mexico City, his wife’s hometown.
The idea for his research struck him while visiting Mexico City last year. He noticed the murals there had explicit messages, ones that even those uneducated about art could understand. Diego Rivera’s Wall Street Banquet (1928), for example, portrays capitalists such as Henry Ford dining while consuming gold and drinking champagne. These political caricatures overtly displayed the artist’s views toward the elite in the 1920s.
To understand the context behind the art, the duo spent hour after hour digging through the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s newspaper archives. It was like a treasure hunt, Digernes says. He knew the library had vital articles explaining the works, but he had to find them first. “There are no catalogues, no indexes or anything like that,” he says. “You have to dig through by hand to find things. I knew the time frame, but I didn’t know the date or anything, so I spent a lot of time just leafing through old newspapers.”
For three months the process dragged on. Digernes dug, and Flores hand-copied relevant passages (Mexico has strict photocopy laws). Luckily, a nearby restaurant served adobo salmon, a cure for Digernes’ frustration. In the end Digernes discovered his treasure: an interview with Rivera as well as important quotes from two other articles.
To contrast Mexico City’s public art, Digernes scoured Columbia newspaper archives to examine the context behind local art. Sculptures such as Peter Chinni’s La Columba, which is located on Broadway across from the public library, are more abstract in message and contain little to no propaganda, Digernes says. They target a more cultured community. Those more privy to this type of high art can deduce its meaning, a dove in flight. “I think part of the reason for why we have the art we do in Columbia is because we try to project an image of ourselves as a progressive community, kind of avant-garde and cutting edge,” he says.