Mirtha Dermisache



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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Mirtha Dermisache 1940–2012
Ink on paper
Image: 280 × 230 mm
Presented by ArteBA 2017


This small ink on paper work is one of six related drawings by Mirtha Dermisache in Tate’s collection (Tate T14814T14819). They are all untitled and were executed in Buenos Aires around 1970. In each one, the artist has arranged a series of graphic marks on the paper in groups or lines, giving them the appearance of handwritten letters, an effect that is reinforced by the use of black ink and the small sheet size of the paper. However, the ‘script’ in each one turns out to be illegible and of the artist’s own invention. Dermisache worked almost exclusively in ink on paper, though she later employed coloured pencil and felt-tip pens in blue and other colours. The drawings in Tate’s collection are typical of her practice in which she explored asemic writing – writing that has no specific semantic content or meaning – as well as illegible, wordless, abstract or invented calligraphies. These were presented as letters, as here, or as newspapers and in hand-written books.

While Dermisache’s work arose in the context of Argentine conceptual and systems art concerned with issues of communication at the end of the 1960s (and in particular in relation to the Centro de Arte y Comunicación or CAyC and its predecessor the Instituto Torquato di Tella, both in Buenos Aires), it can be considered in relation to a number of other themes and contexts. The French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes included Dermisache’s works in his study of what he described as ‘illegible writings’, and her work can thus be connected with French ‘lettrisme’ and linguistics. However, it is also to be understood in the context of the linguistic and conceptual play on meaning that has characterised Argentine culture, particularly in relation to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). Dermisache’s art is concerned with themes that were also at the heart of Borges’s work – legibility, incoherence and senseless cacophony, as summed up in the Argentine writer’s image of a closed book whose letters spontaneously move and jumble themselves up overnight.

As Argentina moved towards dictatorship in the mid-1970s (the country’s president Isabel Péron being deposed by a military coup in March 1976), Dermisache’s work took on a heightened ideological aspect, testifying to the condition of muteness inflicted by state censorship and resistance to that censorship through a strategy of illegibility. Her ‘letters’ can be compared fellow Argentine artist León Ferrari’s (1920–2013) series Letter to a General from 1963, which was also written in illegible writing. Nevertheless, Dermisache’s work has resonance in a wider context than just that of living under dictatorship and freedom of expression, as it offers a broader exploration of themes of communication and understanding.

Further reading
Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin America: Didactics of Liberation, Austin 2007.

Tanya Barson
July 2016

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Display caption

This is one of several ink drawings by Dermisache that look like hand-written letters but are unreadable characters invented by the artist. They make strange the everyday process of reading and writing. Dermisache invites us to reflect on our ability to share complex ideas and experiences through marks on a page. As Argentina moved towards dictatorship, her unreadable writing came to be seen as a way of resisting state censorship through illegibility.

Gallery label, January 2019

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