Wrestling the Phallus, Resisting Amnesia: The Body Politics of Chilanga Performance Artists
By Antonio Prieto Stambaugh
ella se desnuda en el paraíso
de su memoria
ella desconoce el feroz destino
de sus visiones
ella tiene miedo de no saber nombrar
lo que no existe
Alejandra Pizarnik’s poem speaks to issues addressed in the following pages: the relationship between memory and the body, and the scary task of naming the unseen. The poem evokes the image of a visionary woman who renders herself nude “in the paradise of her memory,” but who is “afraid of not knowing how to name what does not exist.” The image of an artist perhaps, tentatively setting out to name – and thus create – something new. From the safe halls of memory to the uncertain destiny of imagination exposed to public debate, this is a journey that involves the body, not only of she who performs the act, but also of those of us who witness it. The journey may be perilous as well if the artist intends to name that which has been rendered invisible and unspeakable by power. This essay examines the work of performance artists who move us to reflect upon how power splits the body by exercising phallic violence in everyday life, and the way power produces institutional amnesia as a mechanism of silencing and control.
If, as Janet Wolff maintains, the body is a site of repression and possession, a visual marker of social hierarchy (122), it must then tread carefully towards the path of subversion because patriarchal culture has already situated the symbolic regime under which it is read. Performance art has been used by many women artists as a way to engage with how the body is displayed and viewed. As a self-reflexive genre, performance art never takes for granted the premises under which the subject is represented. As opposed to theater, it doesn’t attempt to tell a story by means of actors who represent characters imagined by a playwright. On the contrary, a performance artist may choose to represent herself autobiographically or to raise issues by displaying conceptual personas that can help, in Wolff’s terms, question and expose “the construction of the body in culture” (137).
While the use of performance by feminist artists in Europe and the US has been the subject of numerous studies (e.g. Forte, Phelan, Schneider), less known is the work of their Latin American counterparts. In this essay, I address the work of Mexico City-based artists Katia Tirado and Ema Villanueva, both of whom critique how female bodies are positioned within patriarchal culture and politics. I will attempt to examine how they not only expose the construction of the body in culture, but also the metaphorical and physical destruction of bodies in society. Working in a cultural environment that reproduces the ideal image of women as silent and passive, they aggressively create “noise” within silence, a disturbance not necessarily dependent on speech, for they may resort to the performance of silence as a way of unsettling their audiences into another way of seeing the body politic.
Katia Tirado (b. 1965) and Ema Villanueva (b. 1975) represent a new generation of performance artists in Mexico who continue a tradition begun by their senior colleagues. They all work in critical conversation with Euro-American artists and feminist theories, but address issues specific to their context of urban chaos.
In Mexico, the topic of feminist art is controversial, as evidenced in a recent debate between different generations of artists published in debate feminista.
Attitudes began to change, however, and the first explicitly feminist group was created in 1983 by Maris Bustamante and Mayer (who studied at Los Angeles’ Women’s Building). The group’s name, Polvo de Gallina Negra, was based on a powder sold in popular herb markets as a protection against the “evil eye”. Bustamante explains that the name derived from their finding “a connection between ‘evil eye’ and our professional role as visual artists in a male-dominated medium” (236). The team sought to intervene the specular regime of the mass media by strategically getting themselves invited to widely viewed TV talk shows, or making appearances in newspapers, popular magazines and radio to talk about issues such as motherhood, domestic labor, etc. Bustamante states that the group’s goal was to “modify the image of women” in the media, and to “assert our condition of women and our claims in a patriarchal society” (236).
Inspired by Bustamante and Mayer’s pioneering efforts, other feminist art groups appeared during the mid-80s, such as Tlacuilas y Retrateras (“Indigenous painters and Portrait-makers”) and Bio-Arte. Mayer describes this as a boom of feminist conceptual performance in Mexico, albeit short-lived, as the groups disbanded towards the late 80s and early 90s (“Del boom al bang,” 1). However, women in other areas of the performing arts were also making their mark, notably Jesusa Rodríguez, Liliana Felipe and Astrid Hadad (see accompanying essays in this volume). While not considered “performanceras,”
By the early 90s, a new generation of young women began to be noticed thanks to their appearances in performance festivals, as well as their many street and independent gallery interventions.
Tirado and Villanueva belong to a generation that saw encouraging developments such as the neo-Zapatista uprising, an increasingly vocal, if conflictive, civil society, and the crumbling of the PRI’s hegemony.
These critical issues went nearly un-addressed by the majority of young conceptual artists who are loath to be labeled as political. And while conceptual performance during the 70’s and early 80’s was often highly politicized, the next generation rebelled against this trend, preferring to adopt an art for art’s sake position, or to indulge in actions of esoteric intimacy. Tirado and Villanueva are to a certain extent exceptions to the rule, although the concern for the political is shared by a few colleagues such as César Martínez.
As with most Mexican performanceros/as who appeared in the 90s, Tirado and Villanueva focus more on image and movement than on speech. While Tirado stages a parody of the “phallic war” in which people willingly fight, Villanueva directly addresses institutional amnesia and the role women’s bodies play in the public sphere. Their work affects memory without promising to cure amnesia, but moving consciousness in unpredictable ways. The following pages register sometimes dream-like traces of how these works, as well as the artists’ own recollections, unsettled my particular memory.
Katia Tirado wrestles the phallus
Tirado is a rebel of the theater arts who studied under the mentorship of director Julio Castillo and later Juan José Gurrola, the first Mexican theater director to espouse radical conceptual art in the 60s. Her forays into performance art were galvanized by meeting the likes of Annie Sprinkle and Nao Bustamante during her stay in California in the early 90s. Tirado’s work reflects a fascination with on the one hand burlesque cabaret, and on the other, with punk aesthetics in its original spirit of pure anarchy.
Tirado’s work explores certain aspects of what she calls “the contemporary feminine condition” (Interview), and she does this by resorting to archetypal images from different religions, particularly those that display the ability of women to simultaneously seduce and terrorize. Tirado explicitly rejects any pretense of “diva-hood”, preferring the role of the freak or the clown who deliberately upsets the viewer’s expectations by performing “un-sexy nudity” (Interview).
Her hybrid personas are a mélange of female deities of diverse traditions attired with (post)modern imagery, one of her best known being “Lady Luck”, a contemporary, multi-limbed Kali.
One of Tirado’s most important and ambitious performances is Exhivilización: Las perras en celo (Exhibition/Ex-civilization: Bitches in Heat) (1995-1997). The piece was staged in a wrestling ring in which she and a collaborator
The image was of a startling two-headed creature facing opposite directions, but with its two asses aggressively exposed and linked by a tube maybe feeding, or maybe draining each other. Their frantic attempts to reach the huge (1.60 m.) penises within the barbed-wired ring were accompanied by the excited crowd’s whistles, cheers and insults, and Tirado recalls being amazed at how even the artsy gallery-going audience really got into the show, dropping their solemn façades and yelling exclamations as in any popular wrestling match. During the course of the performance, the wrestlers displayed ambivalent attitudes that wavered between aggressive competition and tender seduction. Never turning to face each other, they would at times interrupt the painful scramble towards the phalluses to reach back and caress the opponent’s skin as they writhed with pleasure, a sado-masochistic spectacle of phallocentric pain and homo-erotic pleasure.
Around the elevated ring’s base, a series of 64 photographs were projected showing a shaved vagina with pierced labia from which hung different objects: toy hammers, scissors, screwdrivers, Mexican curios, etc.
Exhivilización thrived on popular culture idioms that the previous generation of conceptual artists resorted to as an anti-establishment strategy, while it introduced a punk aesthetic already present in Chilango urban youth culture. The bizarre, violent circus-like environment is also indebted to Tod Browning’s Freaks, to the films of Luis Buñuel and more recently Alejandro Jodorowsky (especially his Santa Sangre).
The lucha libre genre so dear to the urban working class was recontextualized in the Ex Teresa and Carrillo Gil museum spaces attended by the cultured middle- and upper-middle class. However, Tirado also staged Exhivilización in the popular market of la Merced. It was performed without previous warning in one of the neighborhood’s small plazas immediately attracting a crowd that Tirado recalls was taken off-balance by the sight of two semi-naked women engaged in the bizarre conceptual action (Interview). While the audience appeared to enjoy the unexpected spectacle, Tirado said she could also feel the morbose attitude of several men, an attitude that the audience of the gallery performances might have shared, but that in la Merced was apparently more explicit.
In spite of the fact that performance art pieces often go unnoticed by the Mexican press due to the virtual non-existence of critics interested in this genre, theater critic and playwright Jorge Kuri devoted one of his columns to an extremely positive review of Exhivilización. Kuri reads the performance as a conceptual wrestling match between archetypal opposing forces, a ritual act that takes “the condition of femininity to its last consequences,” although his gloss on this “condition” is problematic:
If the condition of the feminine is not apt for battle, that’s where the outstandingly unusual nature of this wrestling match resides, for here the feminine harbors within itself an ambiguous condition that wavers between the erotic and the tanathic.
Kuri sees in Tirado’s “paratheatrical” show a post-industrial return to Dionysian rituals, reminiscent also of Coliseum gladiator combats and bull fighting. But among all these references, the reviewer significantly omits any mention of the phallic sculptures or the vagina images. Other brief descriptions of the performance in the press mention the “biomechanical sculptures,” without saying they are penis-shaped. Are we before an issue of censorship, or rather the anxiety of male critics unwilling to engage symbolic genitalia? Kuri, however, acknowledges Exhivilización’s ironic tone, present for example at the performance’s conclusion during the small lady’s singing number. As in the work of Astrid Hadad, here popular Mexican sentimentality as it’s conveyed in ranchero songs was cleverly ironized.
This stereotypical aspect of the “Mexican character” -- prone to melodramatic emotion, anarchical relajo
inscribed in a circle that defines his patriotism but that also imprisons him; from violence to emotivity, from emotions to resentment, and by means of indignation, back to violence. It is a permanent circular movement that one cannot know where will stop, just as in the roulette. (137-138)
Bartra metaphorizes this caged subject by means of the amphibian axolote indigenous to the lakes of Xochimilco. The axolote – not accidentally penis-shaped – is a potent symbol due to “its mysterious dual nature (larvae/salamander) and its repressed potential for metamorphosis” (20). Bartra proposes the image as a way of examining binary constructs underlying Mexican nationalist discourse such as rural/urban and traditional/modern. The axolote’s peculiar condition “cages” it in a schizophrenic split between melancholia (tradition) and metamorphosis (modernity), a situation Bartra suggests is symbolic of Mexicans’ alleged resistance to change. Exhivilización’s dual creature is an axolote of sorts, but the performance does not show the path out of the wrestling ring, nor does it deliver redeeming metamorphoses to cure the axolote’s melancholia. It works fundamentally as a parody of modern civilization, as its title suggests, an ex-civilization rendered a mere exhibition of vile, base instincts.
The performance’s uncivilized wrestling match dramatizes a predicament faced by Mexican women as theorized by Estela Serret. In her essay on the intersections between national identity and gender identity in Mexico, Serret traces the origins of gendered self-perception which, she argues, is structured “on the one hand, around the feminine-masculine opposition and, on the other, the opposition of antagonistic images of femininity” (262). She examines the theory that argues Mexican womanhood is based on two opposing images: the mestiza Virgin of Guadalupe, symbol of submission and sacrifice, and the indigenous Malinche, symbolically raped by the Spanish conquistadores and whose evil resides in treason. Serret points out that these two symbols are ultimately submissive, and thus different from the classic Eve-Mary polarity that underlies Christian attitudes towards women. While Guadalupe is equivalent to Mary, Malinche is different from Eve in that her wrong-doing is passive. Her evil is not diabolical or scheming, but rather linked to subordination, shame and slavery (Serret 266). This image of double submission, suggests Serret, accounts for Mexican women’s traditional acceptance of male domination, and why “the feminine imaginary in Mexico has expressed self-degradation and mutual mistrust between women” (270).
These polarized females are transformed into a bicephalous monster that performs the drama of split subjectivity, a condition examined by Lacan, and of schizophrenia, posited by Deleuze and Guattari as a force potentially destabilizing capitalist rationalism, and by critics like Jameson (63-64) and Harvey (55) as paradigmatic of the postmodern subject. In her production notes, Tirado states she wanted to explore “the schizophrenic nature of the human species, in constant struggle between its animal, irrational aspect, and its civilized, rational one” (“Producciones”). For Lacan, the subject is always already split, that is, separated from him/herself insofar as s/he can never exercise self-knowledge completely. The subject’s split is essentially a separation between signifiers, and in the process of illustrating this, Lacan recalls the monster or homunculus as a classic Cartesian image separating the thinking “I” from the thought itself (141). Tirado’s bicephalous monster is a radically split subject, ignorant of itself and obsessively driven towards the phallus as its only raison d’être. Tirado explained how she set out to convey this:
I always start with a main issue, in this case rivalry between women, and then look for what I call a “mother image” that will guide the total concept... The wrestlers from Exhivilización were inspired by a pre-Hispanic codex that showed a serpent-like creature with heads facing opposite directions, like Siamese twins. This perfectly conveyed the image of schizophrenia, of the divided being (el ser escindido de sí mismo). (Interview)
From a pre-Hispanic serpent to a post-modern monster, Exhivilización stages a symbolic order that cages the split subject within its perverse game. Interestingly, the source image for this performance was a double-headed serpent, a creature both bicephalous and bice-phallus.
The phallic signifier represented by the penis-shaped sculptures is explored in a more subtle yet provocative way in the above-mentioned series of photographs projected at the base of the wrestling ring. Tirado calls them “Nichos Púbicos” (“Pubic Niches”), a play of words between the private, profane pubic area and the public sacredness of churches’ candle-lit niches. The images are so stark – exposed, pierced labia from which hang miniature toys – they are challenging to watch. The performer’s thighs are open creating an arch, and shown side by side the pictures appear as a row of arches. The artist’s intention was to “parody the Roman Coliseum as symbol of Western culture where cruelty was first performed as a circus” (Interview). The niches’ toys are defiantly displayed, some as ritual fetishes, others household appliances of sharp, metallic surfaces hanging close to the pierced flesh. They represent phallic decoys and also threatening symbols of castration. “I used objects that represented masculine power,” explained Tirado, “and I used them as toys, Mexican miniatures making fun of that great violence of power [and also] of the vagina associated with evil” (Interview). Amy S. Carroll reads these images in the context of Octavio Paz’s argument regarding the “Mexican Woman” as symbolic of la rajada, or la Chingada, the subject raped and wounded by colonialism (Paz 67-80). Carroll suggests Tirado’s images expose
…the unmistakably female body, but monumentalizing it; concentrating upon the Pazian “wound” itself, but demonstrating the “wound’s” ability to bear/bare the weight of the symbolic.
She further argues that Tirado
…creates a tension between the construction of the subject and objects (in the plural), putting into contrast the female body as that which frames objectification, posing the feminine figure as the rafters versus the foundation of national fictions. (“In ‘Los nichos públicos’…” 13)
Carroll maintains the “pubic niches” play with symbolic references of Woman and Nation, suggesting the phallic underpinnings of these foundational fictions displayed under the wrestling match. The miniaturized toys, paradoxically enlarged in the projected slides, serve to stress the phallic simulacra of nationalist imagery.
One toy stubbornly hangs in my memory: a tiny devil of the kind representing Judas during Holy Week celebrations in Mexico. These Judases are handcrafted of papier maché and full of firecrackers that are noisily ignited to commemorate the stray apostle’s self-punishment. The Judas-devil hangs under the performer’s genitals, maybe a guardian of the profane threshold, maybe a potential rapist, challenging the viewer to set him off and burn the nearby flesh. The hanging toy/fetish speaks to the ambivalence underlying Exhivilización, where love and rivalry, playfulness and violence, humanity and animality, act in suspension against each other.
Tirado’s performances address the paradoxes of contemporary women: at war against each other, but also in metamorphosis towards something else. Her biomechanical personas seek to “restore the body’s language of memory” within an exploration of “the body as machine” (Tirado, “Concepto”). She works with utopian possibilities of cyborgs as explored by Donna Haraway in her well-known manifesto. And yet, her critical stance in Exhivilización seems to caution against cyborgs “without memory” that could potentially lead to the “appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war” (Haraway 154). Tirado’s Lady Luck, on the other hand, is a cybor-goddess who masters the language of memory.
However, as the cage is still very much in place, other artists seek ways of resisting the repressive political forces operating within. Ema Villanueva is one such artist who works with a potent mixture of sexuality and politics as a disturbance to amnesia.
Ema Villanueva’s unsettling memories
Villanueva’s work may be read as exercises in what I elsewhere call unsettled memories. Unsettled memories are narratives that resist official history and challenge the “social institutions of forgetting” whose mission is to deliberately erase memories that are inconvenient to the dominant system (Douglas). Unsettled memories operate within what Chela Sandoval describes as “oppositional consciousness” (54-55) because they are articulated by subjects whose position in society is marginal, who are not only un-settled from power, but are held thrall to it. Subaltern artists and activists may chose to upset and unsettle the anaesthetized memories of their audience, in the hope of signaling paths towards politicized re-membering.
Unsettled memories call attention to the mechanisms of institutional amnesia, the way power deploys silence and absence to control a population and keep it from demanding justice. “Strong is the silence,” writes Elena Poniatowska, imposed on those whose existence is systematically erased by power: political dissidents, the poor, campesinos and indígenas, or migrants without a fixed home (11). While Poniatowska evokes an oppressed multitude silenced by power, she is mainly interested in the silence of the State, which goes deaf and mute before the injustice it generates. It is in the spirit of Poniatowska’s work that I want to examine how Villanueva’s performances address the silencing violence of power and also, obliquely, the power silence may have in unsettling memories of violence so as to mobilize an oppositional consciousness.
The performance of silence and absence would seem an impossible endeavor if by performance we understand merely audible or visible actions. But as Peggy Phelan and Diana Taylor have argued, performance may also be a powerful means of evoking what cannot be seen. Phelan maintains that “[p]erformance is the art form which most fully understands the generative possibilities of disappearance” (Unmarked 27), and she specifically refers to an “active vanishing” (19) skeptical of visibility and thus deconstructive of representational regimes. While Phelan stakes the political power of performance in its ability to unsettle the Lacanian symbolic, Taylor addresses the way Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo stage demonstrations that restore to public memory the young political prisoners “disappeared” during that country’s brutal military regime.
The paradox of performance – a visible act “predicated on [its] own disappearance” (Phelan, Mourning 2) and an action that may resurface recollections of the missing – creates a subversive energy very effectively deployed by Villanueva, who considers herself both artist and activist (Interviews), and resorts to performance as a way “to fight against forgetting” (Villanueva, “Todo se vale”). One of her first performances – Pasionaria, caminata por la dignidad (Passionary, march for dignity) – succeeded in drawing public and media attention to the unresolved political conflict at the National University (UNAM).
Villanueva decided she wanted to commemorate the anniversary by means of a performance designed by herself and partner/collaborator Eduardo Flores to coax the public to resume debate over the strike. The artist began by undressing outside a Metro station until she was down to a bikini and high-heeled shoes. Flores proceeded to paint her body one half red, one half black (the colors used during strikes in Mexico), and to write two signs with white paint on her chest and back (“No PFP” and “Libertad”). Villanueva then began her eight-kilometer trek to the UNAM’s campus distributing flyers with statements on the strike’s unresolved issues. More significantly, she invited curious bystanders to overcome their passive voyeuristic attitudes and to paint other words and phrases on her body expressing their diverse opinions regarding the strike. One female bystander painted the phrase “Mirones sin pantalones” (roughly, “Gutless onlookers”) on her thigh, challenging the men who jeered and whistled at Villanueva. Most of the slogans painted were supportive of the strike, except for two that read “Huelga manipulada” (Manipulated strike) and an ambiguous “No sirve” (It doesn’t work). As she approached the campus, photographers from the press and TV cameras began to appear paparazzi-like to capture images of this “naked activist” who was attempting to distribute flyers to the Federal Police. In spite of the fact that student activists were simultaneously holding a meeting at the campus, it’s not surprising that the evening’s TV newscasts and next day’s newspapers focused exclusively on Villanueva’s attention-grabbing act.
Villanueva’s performance belongs to the tradition of performative and media savvy demonstrations, not only of Greenpeace and Act-Up, but also of Mexican activists like Super Barrio.
In Pasionaria, the performer’s explicit body appears to go hand-in-hand with her explicit politics, and succeeds in leaving an indelible trace on an urban environment that is already highly saturated with competing signs of all sorts. She played with the viewers’ desire at a time the strike had become an ugly confrontation of radically split fractions within the UNAM and had lost much public support. Villanueva used her exposed body as bait that forced viewers to take notice again and remember the original reasons why the students had protested a year earlier. She seduced, and then forced passers by to assume a position, both ideologically and physically, when they had to reach up, bend over or kneel to paint their views on her skin. Villanueva rendered herself a sign, a walking political billboard so to speak, but one upon which the viewer could contribute her or his own reading of the issue raised. Rebecca Schneider discusses how several women artists “[manipulate] the body itself as mise en scène, [making] their own bodies explicit as the stage, canvas, or screen across which social agendas of privilege and disprivilege have been manipulated” (20). Villanueva too makes her body a literal canvas as a way of emphasizing how society not only marks the student body, but renders it a sexually charged object of surveillance.
This aspect of Villanueva’s work, along with other controversial performances such as Todo se vale and Orgullosamente UNAM, bring to the public sphere debates on how women’s bodies are viewed and concealed at a time conservative policies jostle with a much more open-minded urban population. As Jean Franco argues in her essay on public installations in Chile, “the body, long unacknowledged in political thought, is now a major site of contention” (44). Franco examines how claims to democratic modernity in Latin America are put into question by conceptual art that, by resorting to controversial public displays of the body, exposes the contradictions inherent in post-dictatorship governments. In Mexico, the quasi-dictatorial PRI hegemony was recently toppled by a presidential candidate from a conservative political party whose economic agenda is identical to that of his technocratic/neoliberal predecessors. Artists such as Villanueva and others challenge the new administration’s democratic claims by means of performances that advocate principles such as freedom of expression. Their work further suggests the body is not only a site of contention, but also a site from which the subject may think politically.
In Ausencia (Absence), Villanueva aimed to directly challenge Vicente Fox’s administration as well as to unsettle her audience into awareness of issues erased by institutional amnesia. First performed during Ex Teresa’s performance festival of October 2000, two months before Fox assumed office, the piece addressed Mexican political prisoners “disappeared” by government forces as of the 1970s to the present.
On the performative strategies used to address the issue of the desaparecidos under Argentina’s military regime, Diana Taylor discusses how the demonstrations staged by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo very soon adopted theatricality as a way of not only attracting attention, but also releasing repressed narratives into the public sphere (“Performing Gender” 286). This move was extremely effective, as Michael Taussig argues, because South American military regimes actually did not aim at erasing memory of the dirty war, but to maintain it alive, although hidden away from public debate.
The memory of protest, and the violence enacted against it by the State, best serves the official forces of repression when the collective nature of that memory is broken, when it is fragmented and located not in the public sphere but in the private fantasies of the individual self or of the family. (Taussig 48)
The demonstrations staged by the madres prevent the State from locking up recollections of terror; they liberate and mobilize that memory in plazas, avenues and parks in such a way that terror loses its ability to paralyze. The madres resorted to speech, chants, processions, organized silence, symbolic use of white scarves that contrasted with their black clothes, the display of pictures of their disappeared, and other actions. As Taylor puts it, “Through their bodies they wanted to show the absence/presence of all those who disappeared without trace, without leaving a body” (“Performing Gender” 296).
In order to create a performance that resorted to this dialectic of absence/presence, Villanueva approached Rosario Ibarra with her idea to stage a piece possibly involving several of the madres. Mrs. Ibarra agreed and presented Villanueva to members of the Eureka committee with whom she began to brainstorm.
The first performance was held on October 20 in the newly-inaugurated Laboratorio de Arte Alameda which, like Ex Teresa, is housed in a colonial church downtown Mexico City. The space used was a huge nave devoid of chairs. The audience, with no instructions of where to stand, entered to find the floor full of altar-like collections of objects placed around candles that served as the only source of light. An elderly woman sat silently to one side, dressed in black with the portrait of a young man hanging over her breast, and holding a candle. Villanueva entered the space naked and completely painted in black. Uttering no words, she approached each individual altar and examined the objects: toys, photographs, and personal souvenirs belonging to the political prisoners. The performer picked some pictures and tied them to her body, then slowly moved among the audience to the other altars and finally up to the seated woman to whom she gave the framed portrait of her son that had been lying at her feet. She then climbed a scaffold and sat at the top where pictures of young women and men were projected. The soundtrack mixed the voices of people giving testimony of the kidnappings with nondescript trance music. As the images followed each other, Villanueva took dried roses and began dropping their petals to the floor. The projections were followed by a text describing what is a desaparecido (“Not a dead person, but someone illegally held in a clandestine prison”), the names of the presidents under whose administrations these kidnappings took place, and the fact that in Mexico already 200 missing have been found and returned alive to their families. The text concluded with the phrase “El silencio es cómplice de la ausencia” (“Silence is complicit with absence”).
While several of the people I spoke with after the performance said they enjoyed it and found the issue to be relevant, months later the festival’s curator criticized Ausencia for being overtly “pamphletary” (Alvarado). These opinions speak to the conflicting responses that Villanueva’s work receives in the performance art world. For some, Villanueva’s explicit politics compromised Ausencia’s status as a work of art, a view that appears to have left the artist unfazed, for her ultimate goal was didactic, in her own words, “to help raise awareness” (Interviews). Villanueva told me that she was interested in addressing the topic of the desaparecidos because she found it was virtually undiscussed, especially in the contemporary art milieu. Staged in the context of a performance art festival, Ausencia betrayed a conflicting tension between the conceptual artist and the activist, especially when Villanueva’s phantasmatic intervention is replaced by a text that lists facts about the political prisoners, as if her silent act were not enough. Indeed, one could ask: why end a performance of silence with the slogan “silence is complicit with absence” (in obvious resonance with Act-Up’s “Silence = Death”)? Silence has historically been used as an act of resistance, for example, during 1968’s memorable “Manifestación del Silencio” (Demonstration of Silence), when families of the students being repressed and arrested by the government staged a multitudinary march in down Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue wearing tape over their mouths. It would seem more conceptually challenging to go beyond the classic assumption that visibility and speech always equals power, to explore the many ways silence and invisibility may also be rendered empowering (cf. Phelan, Unmarked 6-10). This is a possibility Villanueva’s piece suggested at the outset, but then abandoned in favor of hard facts. She appears to have been overcome, as in Pizarnik’s poem quoted at the beginning of this essay, by “the fear of not knowing how to name what does not exist.” For the hope is, against all odds, that the missing will reappear.
The next staging of Ausencia took place the night of December 9, 2000, in the central plaza of Coyoacán, a southern section of the city known for its bohemian atmosphere. This time it was Villanueva who got invited by the Eureka committee to participate in the context of a meeting called “Contra la impunidad, la memoria” (“Against impunity, memory”) organized by the Red de Derechos Humanos Todos Para Todos (Human Rights Network “All for Everybody”). The performance had essentially the same structure, although this time three madres participated, among them Rosario Ibarra herself. In light of the fact that Vicente Fox assumed office as President a week earlier, Mrs. Ibarra suggested adding to the background video the phrase “Todo gobierno que no libere a todos los desaparecidos el primer día, se convierte en cómplice del crimen” (Any government that doesn’t liberate the disappeared on the first day is accomplice to crime). After the piece concluded, Mrs. Ibarra took a microphone and gave a short but impassioned speech on the continuing urgency of fighting for justice and for the return of the political prisoners. The moved audience – casual onlookers who happened to be in the plaza that night – enthusiastically applauded and later approached both Ibarra and Villanueva to express their amazement and concern on an issue of which some were completely ignorant.
Somewhere between conceptual performance and agit-prop, Ausencia resists rigid classifications. Moreover, any attempt to assign a fixed authorship is problematic. Villanueva conceived the piece in collaboration with her partner Eduardo Flores (both of whom by that time began using the collective name “EDEMA”), and with input from the Eureka committee. Ausencia incorporated the madres’ discourse, along with their demonstration paraphernalia: black dresses, their disappeared family-members’ portraits, candles, etc. This way, Villanueva wove a pre-existing performative tradition into her piece. In turn, the Eureka committee members wove performance art into their demonstration.
The artist’s naked body was again painted jet-black, simultaneously attracting and deflecting the gaze. Villanueva explained that her decision to appear that way:
During my research for this piece, reading and talking to families of the disappeared, I constantly came across references to how the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and tortured naked. The color black to me represents the body stripped of identity, also the absence of these bodies. I wanted to address the humiliation these people suffered (Interviews).
Black is conceived in the West as the color of absence and mourning, but can also be seen as the color of possibility and shelter. During the Coyoacán performance, Villanueva acted as an embodiment of the night’s darkness, moving from one madre to the next and gently kissing their hands or giving them flowers. Her shadow-presence contrasted with the candle-lit faces of the seated women, and the bright pictures projected on a screen above the kiosk. She became disappearance materialized, the negative in search of the positive, a symbolic absence reminding the audience what’s missing may become present again. Theperformance enacted loss as Phelan discusses it in another context:
[L]oss acquires meaning and generates recovery - not only of and for the object, but for the one who remembers. The disappearance of the object is fundamental to performance; it rehearses and repeats the disappearance of the subject who longs always to be remembered. (Unmarked 147)
Ausencia was ostensibly an attempt to render loss into remembrance and hope. The solemnly expectant women dressed in black, the candles, and objects belonging to the disappeared also strongly evoked mourning. However, this wake is closer to the tradition of indigenous Día de Muertos commemorations (albeit sans sugar skulls) than that of a Western-style funeral. If Phelan argues that “theatre and performance respond to a psychic need to rehearse for loss, and especially for death” (Mourning 3), I posit that Ausencia was not a rehearsal for death, but a mobilization of memory as it is put into circulation during Día de Muertos, when people return to the cemeteries to commemorate their dead as living presences that return to feast with them. The madres are in no funeral, but rather in a vigil where they silently protest demanding justice, and challenge the States’ own indifferent silence.
Ausencia works with the mechanics of abjection as played out by a State capable of trampling on legality and of disappearing bodies. The State has disposed of its inconvenient citizens, deploying an abjection that would have the families of the disappeared forget their kin, to the point of banishing “even the shadow of a memory” (Kristeva 5). The Eureka committee and artist/activists like Villanueva refuse to accept the State-imposed abjection, and through their work resurface the shadow of memory so that the hope of restored kinship is never lost.
Over 30 years ago, Julio Cortázar described the conceptual Happening as it was being practiced in the 60s as “a hole in the present” (119). To a certain extent, performance art continues to be an evasive gap in the midst of commodified cultural production, difficult to document, classify and critique. But it is precisely this “undocumentable” quality that makes performance art an ideal way of staging disappearance. Ausencia addresses the continuing presence of loss, the hole left by people kidnapped by government forces and never to be seen again except in the reiteration of their existences through performance. The performance may work on one level to address trauma by means of resurfacing the repressed narratives of disappearance, but it is not aimed at cathartic cure, nor is it a rehearsal for death. Ausencia is a politicized ritual that reiterates unresolved crimes all too easily sucked into the void of amnesia. It cannot fill the “hole in the present,” but may unsettle public memory into never forgetting it’s there.
Ema Villanueva’s performances discussed above subscribe to the historical avant-garde’s use of art as a political, awareness-raising vehicle, while on the other hand Katia Tirado thrives on staples of postmodern art: parody, irony, the collapsing of high and low cultures, hybrid imagery. However, both may be posited within a specific trend in postmodern performance that, as Philip Auslander argues, engages with the political (58-72). Auslander takes after Hal Foster in suggesting that postmodern politics can no longer be transgressive in the sense of breaking out of discursive and ideological codes in order to critique them. Given how multinational capitalism collapses the limits between cultural, economic and political practices, Foster calls for “an understanding of political art as ‘resistant’ rather than transgressive” (quoted in Auslander 60). Still, I find that the work of the performance artists addressed here is both resistant and transgressive, insofar as it subverts conventional notions of gender behavior (women are not “supposed” to be wrestlers, to publicly expose their genitals, to mix sexuality and politics…). Their performances not only share feminist strategies of exposing the construction of the body in culture (Wolff 137), but also expose bodies de-constructed and split by phallocentric rivalry (Exhivilización), and bodies disappeared by State repression (Ausencia).
Tirado and Villanueva respond to a historical juncture in which nationalism crumbles and the narratives of citizenship – in Mexico and elsewhere – undergo a severe crisis. Swimming among the flotsam of modern identity discourses, they struggle to articulate new ways of perform not only gender, but also citizenship (e.g. Carroll “Postmodernizing…”). In the midst of chaos, they advocate a consciousness that is oppositional and also propositional, where acts of resistance go hand in hand with acts of subversive parody (Tirado) and politicized remembrance (Villanueva). A propositional consciousness not only helps critique a dominant regime, but is a frame of mind that encourages the creation of alternative ways of performing the self and of performing citizenship. This is a stance that proposes – not dictates – paths of action, while inviting the viewer to assume a position regarding a given issue. While Mexicans today negotiate their increasingly complicated identities before the onslaught of globalized capitalism, Tirado and Villanueva affirm that agency – both political and sexual – is possible.
These artists belong to a conflictive and diverse Chilango civil society that, as Poniatowska and others have documented, is increasingly mobilized against silence and oppression. In this context, the performances of Tirado and Villanueva seek to unsettle tranquil consciousness into remembering the “phallic war” we willingly wrestle in, and the unresolved political injustices that keep on grating the social and individual body.
Villanueva performs displaying a silent, marked body that coaxes viewers to actively re-inscribe those signs, especially in Pasionaria. Hers is an oppositional consciousness that disturbs her audience into assuming critical positions and mobilizing their memories in the midst of silence. Her work attempts to articulate a rhetoric of silence as speech (Sandoval 185), a non-narrative rhetoric that privileges imagery over spoken words. Although perhaps unsubtle in their articulation of a political message, Villanueva’s performances suggest ways resisting amnesia and putting memory it into circulation by means of the generative “silence” of images, sounds and gestures that involve her audiences’ recollections, and thus also their diverse ideologies and identities. On the other hand, Tirado’s critique in Exhivilización is not aimed at an oppressor “out there,” but at the oppressor within us. The wrestling match makes us whistle, jeer, and be accomplices to its grotesque game. The abject is us, we are axolotes trapped in the cage of phallocentric violence.
Contemporary Chilanga performance artists wrestle, march and dis/appear in order to rattle the cage of representation that imprisons contemporary Mexicans.
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