Implicated Viewers: Looking at Violence through Contemporary Latin American Art
BASTA!: An Exhibition About Art And Violence in Latin America at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College
May 5 to July 15, 2016
860 11th Avenue (between 58th and 59th streets)
New York, 212 237 1439
“BASTA!” at John Jay College’s Anya and Shiva Art Gallery, revisits the relationship between violence and contemporary art in Latin America. Curators Claudia Calirman and Isabella Villanueva present works by 14 artists from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Latin American artists have always exposed social struggles of their countries, but “BASTA!” focuses on the conflict between representation and reality — inherent in the use of violence as a theme for art. “How to represent violence without aestheticizing it to the level of the banal?” asks Calirman.
Paintings, installations, and video works are distributed throughout the main gallery, while two videos are featured in darkened rooms. The exhibition is conceptually divided into two main groups: works that use violence as a tactic and those representing violence primarily through aesthetic means. Visitors find the latter when looking at Argentinian collective Mondongo’s Calavera 5 (“skull,” 2009–13), a six-by-six-foot Plasticine skull in which artists depicted tiny scenes of political crimes. Peruvian Giancarlo Scaglia, in his painting Stellar (2016), refers to the massacre of political prisoners — from the guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso — by the Armed Forces, in the 1980s, in Peru. White star-like spots over dark painted backgrounds correspond to the position of bullet holes on the walls of El Frontón prison, where the massacre occurred.
The play between aesthetics and violence is also explored by Brazilian Alice Miceli’s In Depth (landmines)/Colombian Series (2015), a series of six horizontal photographs that seem to depict a serene rainforest with mysterious red and white markings stuck to the ground. Each photograph shows the same location with slight variations, as if the artist moved closer to the markings. But reading the work’s caption the viewer learns that those are land-mine fields in Antioquia, Colombia, and realizes the risk implicit in the making of the piece.
If Miceli deals with risk of death through photography, Teresa Margolles creates a tension between death and life, in which aesthetics is not emphasized. For Irrigación (“irrigation,” 2010), Margolles diluted, in 5,000 gallons of water, the blood and bodily fluids of people killed by drug cartel violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The video shows the rear of a truck dispensing water along Highway 90, between Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Her action can be understood as a displacement of the dead, in which blood-evoking symbolisms are absent perhaps to emphasize the “invisibility” of unidentified bodies found in Mexican morgues: it is as if she turned blood into water to “recycle” violence.
Guatemalan artist Regina Galindo, instead, inflicts pain into her own body, producing blood as a tactic. In the video Perra (“bitch,” 2005), she wears a long, black dress, sits on a chair and uncovers her naked right thigh only to incise it with a knife. She carves the word PERRA, letter by letter, into her skin. Harder than looking at the moment of the incision, it’s to see Galindo moving the sharp knife over her leg, as if foretelling the pain. She softly holds her skin so that blood drops don’t slip away from the carved flesh, while the camera shakes above her.
Galindo’s self-mutilation refers to the culture of violence against women in Guatemala, where girls have been found mutilated with the word bitch written on their genitals. Female genital mutilation is a practice that occurs around the world, in different cultural contexts: by making that violence visible, Galindo pursues the pain of a ubiquitous crime. Though it is not the same pain caused by abuse that often happens in the private space, Galindo nonetheless becomes a victim as the viewer becomes a witness — she puts violence under the precision of her knife, complicating its aestheticization.
Other works in the show deal with the nature of systematic violence. In the video Testimonio (“witness,” 2012), Guatemalan Aníbal Lopez, who died in 2014, invited a sicario, a mercenary from Guatemala, to respond to the questions from an audience of art enthusiasts at dOCUMENTA, in Kassel, Germany. The video begins with the sicario’s silhouette behind a white screen — to protect his identity — framed by theatrical red curtains. The man explains his profession saying that he pays for his studies at the San Carlos University by doing “social cleansing” for the Guatemalan army, which pays him based on each victim’s social class. The images toggle between the man’s silhouette holding a microphone and shots of the audience: white men and women looking stupefied after hearing the sicario’s words.
Participants ask him questions for 40 minutes; as time passes by some people in the audience start to smile, even though many keep frowned eyebrows and bulging eyes at disturbing answers such as “One day I had to drown a lady but she wouldn’t die so I smashed her face with a stone,” or when asked if he cares about the spirits of the people he kills, “No, this is just my profession, I don’t have any feelings about it.” The raw brutality of his testimony contrasts with the silly naivety in the expressions and questions the audience asks such as, “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you play violent video games?”
In Testimonio, the performance’s participants compulsorily perpetrate a second violence: one marked by a temporary contract with the sicario’s mode of living, even though not free from judgment, and even though it occurs through an understanding of that man’s life as a theater. Many of the participants seem to judge both the murderer’s and the artist’s gesture as unethical, while others clearly believe the whole thing was staged: they laugh and look doubtful. The work oscillates between fiction and non-fiction, as it tests the limits of reality and truth, defying the boundaries between crime and art. Although the work plays with fiction, it may not matter if the man’s words are make-believe or not: as much as we would like to deny it, violence is institutionalized and can be profitable not only for individuals, but also for entire Latin American elites or imperialist governments that maintain their home countries “safe,” while violence spreads elsewhere. Lopez’s Testimonio disrupts the judicial system of the countries in which the sicario’s crimes had been executed as it snubs the borders between the geopolitical North and South. Ultimately, the anonymous sicario becomes a Trojan Horse whose speech unveils the violent reality of his developing country, but also the silent brutality of privileged countries — represented in the piece by the art world — casting their investigative gaze over the tragedies they’re directly or indirectly complicit with.
Adopting the logics of a confession, Testimonio shows a distinction in the way violence can be perceived across different countries: for the sicario, violence was so natural that it was a rule, not an exception. Because deadly crime rates in Latin America are among the highest in the world, violence is perhaps more palpable in those countries, whereas some people from developed countries may perceive violence through the spectacularization of “moments of exception,” such as when a terrorist act or a mass-murder occur close to home. But in many developing countries violence is endemic and normalized, not understood only through climax: high unemployment, inequality, and broken educational systems, among so many other reasons, produce living contradictions, such as that sicario’s life.
Less than through easy aestheticization, and more through elaborated actions, contemporary Latin American artists who expose and denounce violence ask us to look at it and learn how it works, for it’s through our bond with victims — and also with perpetrators’ minds — that we can seek change. Few of the artists in “BASTA!” offer options for healing, but some open a space for mutual mourning and for a critique of a global reality that expands well beyond the domains of Latin America.