A Disobedient Body on the HorizonAugust 26, 2020
If we long for freedom as an embodied expression of the human will, if we take back the body for itself, we must own up to ethics. Freedom implies taking on the responsibility of managing one’s own excrement, meaning the responsibility for the body and its expression.
That is the challenge I have taken on in my work. In 2018, I did a photo-assault in Caracas, just before I left Venezuela. I went to the Lion sculpture, a symbol of the city located on O’Higgins Avenue at the entrance to Misión Vivienda—one of the housing projects promoted by the government. There were five of us there, in a car and on a motorcycle, while two others waited for us in a nearby hideout. We spent a great deal of time planning an image composed of the profile of the Misión building, dotted with its DirectTV antennas, the lion and my nude body on top of it.
Within two minutes, the National Police arrived in a white Jeep. The officers drew their weapons, but they were highly confused. Traffic stopped and the police were unable to identify our vehicle. I came down from the statue and hid by the pedestal, on the side facing Misión Vivienda. I covered myself up, ran to the entrance of the Misión, and waited for the patrol to leave. When I saw them drive away, I got in the car and fled. I made it to the nearby hideout where our accomplices, the photographer and the motorcyclist, were safely awaiting us. I changed clothes, and we celebrated.
I performed this work on three different occasions. I’ve reconstructed it in order to recapture the changes in the landscape. The first time I did it, the Misión Vivienda didn’t exist, then I did it with the whole Misión Vivienda in the background, but the bust of Chávez wasn’t there and neither were the antennas—it had been recently built. I don’t know when I’ll go back to Venezuela, but I will try to return so that I can document the building’s decay, which is surely comparable to that of my own body. This final intervention was the one that scared me the most. Fear is very important in all of this. Fear is the measure of a work’s value. If there is no fear, if there is no instability, if there is no risk, there is no art. I am referring to the risk of death, of being imprisoned, of being abused by the police or by passersby. These images are loaded with political content, with history, with references, but it is the body in space that rises up as a gesture of freedom that is at the same time an exhortation. The struggle itself is over the body, which has been hijacked in so many ways, and that is the reason for the nudity, the reason for the public space, and the reason for the monuments.
Nobody is exempt from the ethical challenges of the body and its expression. Rules put in place by ancient powers still wreak havoc, even among individuals who seem to be unwilling to accept these norms. Nobody escapes from alienation, from compulsory estrangement; not even the wise, the philosophers, the great teachers, seekers of the truth, ascetics, atheists. We all drink from the spring that makes the dead speak through our own mouths.
Rising to the occasion is not enough. We inherit structures that are castrating and shameful, which is why simply and reluctantly conforming to our own historical moment is mediocre. We must imagine other paradigms for deciphering reality, the ones we are using have expired, and the ones that we are building are destined to perish. In our lives, we must take on the call to engage with those who have yet to be born, and recognize that we are immersed in a present that has a date of expiration.
I deeply admire those spirits that are constantly fighting for their autonomy, constructing and deconstructing themselves in a critical and self-critical way. If autonomy is something we desire, we must remain alert to how the mechanisms of repression act upon us. It is only in this way that we can truly free ourselves.
Art is the place to aspire to freedom and autonomy.
Art is a call for the construction of one’s own judgment. Art does not emit a message, it offers a series of meaningful clues, open to interpretation and debate; ambiguous clues that run counter to any Manichean logic. Language—and above all speech—models, constructs, and designs behavior. There are phrases that become roots for behavior—which we could say is just the stem—and everything branches off from there.
Having lived in the Venezuela that Chávez destroyed has made me alert to doctrines and the changing hegemony of the oppressor and the oppressed. Alarms go off when I read or hear phrases emulating words that I have heard before in speeches recycled by the authoritarian leaders of my country: they always attempted to shift the responsibility for their own mess to the Spanish crown or to U.S. imperialism. The public chest-thumping, which might appear to be a legitimate tactic, is transformed into an excuse and a shield for the simple instrumentalization and manipulation of dissident groups. With time, it has been revealed that those who claimed to be redeemers were upholding the same colonial objectives that they appeared to reject: money and power.
I am a pessimist.
We speak and death comes out of our mouths.
We make a gesture, a gesture of rage, of pain, an authentic gesture, authentically connected to our deepest selves. And it is a borrowed gesture.
We do not speak for ourselves. We are here like reproducing machines, saying the same words, experiencing the same rage—the same ancient rage.
With the passage of time, groups that were previously an excluded minority have become hegemonies in power. I am conscious of this, and I deduce that recently-empowered communities of indigenous, afro-descendent, queer, feminist, mestizo, inter-species and cyborg individuals, among many others, will go on to form the next hegemony.
Although this could ultimately seem to us to be the rightful vindication—and it may well be so!—I regretfully foresee our decay.
I have always experienced the dizzying vertigo of falling, the breaking of promises, the fracturing of social projects. This sudden emergence, the rise of those who have suffered discrimination, is astonishing. I will continue to be alive as long as it continues to rise, but when it reaches its zenith, I will be dead and I will be grateful for having passed away.
Erika Ordosgoitti (Caracas, 1980). Performance artist, audiovisual artist, and poet.
Notes for a Horizon-tality: Toward the Possibility of Becoming Together as an Assemblage is a project that responds to our multiple and seemingly multiplying emergencies. Since the growing uncertainty of living in a world in crisis seems to continuously threaten the possibility of the future, this editorial initiative seeks to contribute to the growing scholarship on this topic from the perspective of Latin American contemporary art.