There were two evenings of screenings and talks about Guatemalan live art at Iniva in Shoredtich on 5 & 6 May (2009). On both nights six videos lasting around 40 minutes in total were followed by a talk that went on a little longer. The panel on the first night consisted of London-based curator Joanne Bernstein and her Guatemala City counterpart Rosina Cazali. Among other things, they outlined the political background to contemporary cultural production in Guatemala. This might partly be summarised by explaining that mid-twentieth century land reforms in Guatemala led to a CIA sponsored coup in 1954; then after a presidential assassination three years later and other internal troubles, there followed a civil war that only ended in 1996.
The neocolonialist exploitation of Latin America by the United Fruit Company, whose economic interests were being defended by the United States government when it intervened in Guatemala was not mentioned, presumably in the interests of keeping the session relatively short and simple. What was outlined was the policy of genocide towards the mainly rural native American population, the destruction of hundreds of Mayan villages, and the systematic murder by the US supported Guatemalan regime of thousands of civilians who became known as the disappeared.
On the Tuesday night three videos by Regina José Galindo, probably the best known contemporary Guatemalan artist, were screened. The first of these We Loose Nothing By Being Born (2000) was the best of them. In this Galindo lies naked in a clear plastic bag (with holes in it to allow her to breath) at a landfill site on the edge of Mexico City; the soundtrack is simply ambient city noise captured as the piece was filmed. As with many of Galindo’s works, a strong and deceptively simple image is created. On the one hand Galindo in the bag might be taken as a representation of a baby in its mother’s womb; on the other, she is simultaneously invoking the unidentifiable bodies of the disappeared that are found abandoned in many parts of Latin America and bagged up before being buried. Aside from the obvious birth/death dialectic at work here, the setting and surreality of the image also reminded me of those Jeff Keen movies (particularly White Dust, 1972) set in the Whitehawk landfill dump on the edge of Brighton in England.
Performing Localities was billed as consisting entirely of videos screened ‘for the first time in the UK’, which put the curators of this event at a major disadvantage as far as Galindo was concerned, since a mid-career retrospective of her work, The Body Of Others, was hosted by Modern Art Oxford from 31 January to 29 March this year. Thus the pick of her work had already been shown in the UK, and as a consequence two of the three Galindo pieces screened on the first night of Performing Localities could be viewed as second-rate. That said, what these screenings also brought home is that a bad Galindo piece is often better than the most outstanding work of her contemporaries on the Guatemala City live art scene.
Weight (2005) documents a four day performance in the Dominican Republic during which Galindo ate, slept and performed all her daily tasks shackled by heavy chains. Given Galindo’s encasement in slave manacles, the work is first and foremost concerned with colonial exploitation, although the programme notes suggested the piece is also more generally about: “the limitations placed on women… in Central America’. The video contains some nice images but is ultimately unsatisfactory. The majority of films showing Galindo’s actions are straightforward point and shoot exercises, and often they are very grungily framed. There may be time lapses but in part their effect depends upon the viewer believing that any editing has been minimal. I wasn’t surprised when during a talk she gave at Modern Art Oxford, Galindo insisted that it is her actions which are her art, while the videos and photographs of them are simply something she sells to sustain herself. This accounts for their rough documentary feel; on the whole – despite a very different content – they don’t look much different from thousands of home videos you can see posted on YouTube.
With Weight there is self-evident manipulation of the filmed material. For example, Galindo is shown singing, the video then cuts to her walking in her manacles while the singing on the soundtrack continues, and finally we see her singing again. Clearly these images have not been run in their original chronological sequence, and their clumsy manipulation completely undermines the deceptive sense of simplicity that gives her work so much of its power. The imagery within Weight made me think of Spanish exploitation director Jess Franco’s women-in-prison movies such as 99 Women (1969), Devil’s Island Lovers (1974), Barbed Wire Dolls (1975) and Ilsa, the Wicked Warden (1977). I doubt that this is a connection Galindo was looking to make, but given Franco’s ongoing popularity it is inevitably one that is going to crop up in some viewers’ minds. Another possibly inappropriate association that occurred to me is the use of harnesses to tie members of the British performance art collective Ddart together during their durational works of the 1980s.
The third Galindo work screened on Tuesday night was Bitch (2005). In this, Galindo sits on a chair and carves the word ‘perra’ (bitch or whore) into the flesh of her left thigh with a knife. I understand the intention is to invoke the disfiguring of women that is part and parcel of male sexual violence in Guatemala. From the video it is evident that Galindo finds cutting herself painful, and while I’m left impressed by her determination to follow through on ideas she has for her actions, I end up thinking more about this than the general situation of women in Guatemla. Likewise, the performance is too obviously premeditated, whereas sexual violence more usually has the appearance of being spontaneous – even when it isn’t, and despite the fact it springs from a long-established patriarchal culture. This particular work also struck me as being little different in its ultimate effect to talentless rock idol Richey Edwards using a razor blade to carve the phrase “4 REAL” into his arm as a publicity stunt to promote his group the Manic Street Preachers. Fans of Marina Abramovic will probably love both that and this piece by Galindo, but since I think Abramovic and The Manics suck, I am unimpressed.
Moving on, Your Tortillas My Love (2004) by Sandra Monterroso did nothing at all for me. It showed the artist making tortillas and looking almost as bored as I felt watching it. Something may have been lost in translation, because within it Monterroso speaks some Mayan, and this was accompanied by both Spanish and English subtitles, with the latter being at some points completely scrambled and very clearly not the work of a native speaker. According to notes circulated to accompany the screening, the ‘artist appears to be in an obsessive trance’. I’m not convinced by this and see the entire thing as a piece of fakery, despite the assertion by the curators that Monterroso’s work is a ‘magic incantation’ to evoke ‘the gap between Latin and Mayan cultures’. Her video was easily the worst thing screened over the two nights, and at 16 minutes it was also the longest!
Detachment (2007) by Maria Adela Diaz showed two women in matching red dresses that had been stitched together, and as they attempted to move in different directions, the stitching came apart. This created a colourful image but even if as the notes available on the night suggested, this was a daughter seeking independence from her mother, the women should have donned matching slips and bras to take it a little closer to formalist perfection. Personally I’d have preferred the work if the women had been more evenly matched in stature, rather than one being large and the other small. The last film of the first evening was Angel Poyon’s Litanies (2008), a recitation of names of disappeared persons interrupted by questions and a plea for one of them to return from the dead. For non-Spanish speakers such as myself, the work would have been more effective if the names of the missing had been subtitled alongside the other pieces of speech, then I could have been more certain I wasn’t missing anything during those portions of the video that weren’t subtitled.
Wednesday night kicked off with films from Anibal Lopez who was born in 1964, rather than the early to mid-1970s like the rest of those featured in Performing Localities. Lopez is a crucial connection between the younger artists and the preceding generation, and in their earlier days also between this younger generation and the wider international art scene. Lopez acted as a mentor to many of the younger artists and after Galindo, he is probably the best known among them. The first of his films, Roll of 120m x 4m Black Plastic Hanging From The Incienso Bridge (2003), showed a long ribbon of plastic being attached to a bridge and then floating in the air above a valley. It looked like Christo on crack to me, and that is praise indeed!
Another video by Lopez, One Ton Of Books Dumped On Reform Avenue, was the single best piece screened during Performing Localities. It showed a dumper truck halting in the middle of a busy street, discarding its load of used books and moving off; local traffic is disrupted and has to manoeuvre around this pile of rubbish, and before long pedestrians are in the middle of the road, picking through the abandoned publications and taking anything that interests them. This work reminded me of the largely unrealised plans George Maciunas laid out for disrupting high cultural activities and harassing middle class commuters in his Fluxus New-Policy Letter No.6 (dated 6 April 1963). In this, Maciunas famously advocated the disruption of the New York transportation system via pre-arranged break-downs at strategic points on the city road system during the rush hour.
One Ton Of Books also inclined me to the view that Lopez is probably an unreliable guide to his own work; books are extremely dense and heavy objects, and from my experiences of moving large quantities of them, I’d guess that the weight of books dumped on Reform Avenue was far more than the rhetorical ton used in the title of the piece. This, of course, also made me wonder whether the length of plastic used in the previous piece really was 120 metres, or if it was some other length. On reflection, I figured the length given looked about right for the plastic shown in the film.
The title of the final Lopez film screened on Wednesday night appears to have been inaccurate if its English translation is correct: Sculpture Composed of 500 Boxes of Contraband Transported from Paraguay to Brazil (2007). For this, Lopez paid smugglers to transport empty boxes into Brazil, there was no contraband inside them and it looked to me like there was a lot less than 500 of them. Unless this was a double bluff, and Lopez hid drugs in some of the boxes or used his art piece as a decoy to fool the cops while some real smuggling went down, the work is slight and silly. That said, it brought to mind the activities of British artist Francis Morland, who in the 1960s smuggled hash inside his fibre-glass sculptures (but he pursued this as a money-making criminal activity, rather than as art). No doubt the smugglers Lopez employed are more than happy to be paid to participate in no risk operations but that hardly makes for riveting viewing, and what I saw looked weak in comparison to the other Lopez videos screened during Performing Localities.
Far better was Dario Escobar’s 12 Minutes, 8 Seconds (2008), which consisted of a fixed shot of a lit cigarette placed on a public fountain and filmed until it had burnt down to the butt and the remains were blown away by the wind. Like We Loose Nothing By Being Born and One Ton Of Books, this piece was a real groove sensation! You knew there would be a pay-off when the ash fell from the cigarette, and the way this was stretched out proved a real gas. And again, like One Ton Of Books, this piece made me think of Fluxus, and in particular of its simple instructional performances that were theorised by Maciunas as the ‘monomorphic neo-haiku flux-event’ and which he counterposed to the self-indulgence of the ‘mixed media neo-baroque happening’. Needless to say, the soundtrack to 12 Minutes, 8 Seconds was simply ambient city noise captured as the film was made!
A further Galindo video, Survival Skills Course For Men & Woman Preparing To Travel Illegally To The United States (2007), was screened on Wednesday. The film was shot in Mexico and showed a survival instructor hired by Galindo teaching useful skills to a group of people planning to enter the USA illegally via its southern border. This piece had definitely been shown in the UK before since it was included in the recent Galindo retrospective at Modern Art Oxford. But that said, as far as I can tell it was the only video to have had a prior UK outing, although at least one of the other films shown has been available for viewing online.
The last video screened was a 5 minute extract from Jessica Lagunas’ 120 Minutes Of Silence. Unlike all the other artists included in these two nights of screenings, Lagunas was born in Nicaragua rather than Guatemala. She currently lives in New York but was included both because she makes work explicitly about Guatemala, and likewise when she lived in Guatemala City she worked at the same advertising agency as Galindo and Diaz (obviously this was before Galindo became a professional artist). Lagunas has described 120 Minutes Of Silence in the following way: “From one-yard of camouflage fabric, a person cuts along the solid shapes for two-hours, honoring the 40,000 disappeared victims during the 36-year civil war in that country”. The audience at Iniva was extremely restless during the projection of this brief extract; coughing, knocking over drinks and shuffling in seats, therefore at the time it was impossible to determine whether Lagunas (or the person performing the piece for her if it was not Lagunas) was attempting to make as little noise as possible while snipping at the fabric, or if the sound had simply been stripped off the video footage. To me the work would have been more powerful if the former had been the case, but online searches led me to conclude that the film is simply silent. From Lagunas’ description as quoted above, the similarity of these pieces to Fluxus works and scripts once again becomes evident, this is a simple live event that anyone – not just the artist who wrote it – could perform.
The panel talk after the Wednesday screenings was between Professor Oriana Baddeley from Camberwell School of Art in south London, Julian Stallabrass from the Courtauld Institute of Art in The Strand, and Rosina Cazali. Unfortunately the discussion was completely moribund because Baddeley began by challenging the curatorial premise of a Guatemalan art upon which the screenings were based, suggesting that perhaps the pieces we’d seen had a more universal validity. While someone else might have turned this into an interesting argument, Baddeley was unable to do so and it appeared she knew virtually nothing about the work she was on stage to talk about. She made a couple of tenuous and completely generalised comparisons with currently fashionable artists – Cildo Meireles from Brazil who recently had a big retrospective at Tate Modern, and the pathetic Santiago Sierra (the subject of an April Fools Day hoax on this blog just over a month ago). Baddeley is apparently an ‘expert’ on Mexican art, particularly murals and painting, but evidently doesn’t understand that in order to deal with the general one must also address the specific; and in this instance that would mean referencing both the works that had been screened and knowing something of the history of live art – she said virtually nothing about either. Having pushed the discussion up a blind alley, Baddeley was absolutely determined to keep it there, and thus the Wednesday talk was very dull in comparison to the discussion the night before.
Overall Performing Localities was still an exciting event, highlighting work that would be ignored by the London art world if it was being produced in Europe but that can find an audience here – although it doesn’t have much of one Guatemala – because right now Latin American (and particularly Mexican and Brazilian) culture is fashionable. Successful European artists tend to make slicker but duller work than Galindo and Lopez, and most have had their mind shackled by a formal art training. None of the artists featured in Performing Localities attended art school, they are autodidacts who created a scene through mutual support. Possibly that is why academics like Baddeley are presently incapable of talking about this work, they are so trapped inside the bourgeois art box that they simply don’t understand anything that comes from outside it. Only once this work, its historical precedents and the scene around it, have been more fully mapped out, will the likes of Baddeley suddenly discover a way to understand it. In the meantime, Baddeley – who evidently didn’t even know that it wasn’t the Guatemalan label that held these artists together, but rather the fact that they’d created their own small scene in that territory – remains an impediment to more interesting cultural developments.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!