Artist Profile / History / Travel

The Body Begs to be Written: The Written Word as an Agent of Ownership

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Xu Bing, Above: Cultural Animal, Below: A Case Study of Transference (Images from the Artist’s website)

Let’s start with Xu Bing’s pieces Cultural Animal from 1994 and his earlier work A Case Study of Transference from the previous year. Two works that confront us with the brutal collision between two cultures. Cultural Animal presents us with an even more harsh reality than its predecessor when the artist replaces the female pig with the sculpture of a male in a sexualized position, while the male pig tries to “own” it from behind. An image that can be as crude as bestiality. It brings to mind Peter Greenaway’s movie “The Pillow Book” and its opening frame featuring a beautiful naked woman whose body is being covered with writing in a ceremony that holds an incisive and almost religious quality. In the movie, the lover of the obsessive female protagonist later becomes the book. He has been written as a novel all over his body. He is then murdered and from his skin the murderer creates a book. Is it skin more visceral than paper? How do we see the act of writing in the skin? Is it ceremonial? What is the difference between writing on the skin and tattooing on it?  The Yakuza, Native Indians, and certain tribes in Africa know something about this. It is because the print is left there to tell a tale, it has value, not only for the person but for the society where the individual lives.

To analyze the problematic nature of colonialism I bring you two pieces from Puerto Rican artists Carlos-Dávila Rinaldi and Marina Barsy. Both artists represent some kind of mark on a body and with it, a colonial condition. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, but we are a cultural nation with all the complexity of history that implies. Within this history there is a violence that political incorrectness can offer. It is important to affirm that Puerto Ricans do not see themselves as part of United States. This is crucial to understand our culture and the art it manifests.

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Davila Rinaldi, Esa mancha ‘e platano no la quita nadie: La Gringomatic

The first artist is Dávila Rinaldi, with his painting titled Esa mancha ‘e plátano no la quita nadie: La Gringomatic (Gringomatic: No one can wash away that plantain stains) from 1998. This work shows us a bald white naked guy who is being washed in a vintage manual washer. The title gives us an important, it is the plantain stain. Every “Boricua” has a symbolic mark on their bodies that we relate with a stain. It is a cultural note where the symbolic enters the physical. I do not think I have it but that does not means I am not “Boricua,” it means that my stain resides inside me. The significance of the stain comes from the islands of the Caribbean where massive producers of sugar cane, tobacco, coffee and most importantly bananas and plantains grow their wares. When you cut off the fruit, a liquid substance leaks from the plant it becomes sticky and turns somewhat yellow then later brown. That liquid becomes so difficult to clean, that it can ruin a knife. So the very fact that Puerto Ricans consume so many plantains means we must be stained by it. When a child is born with a formless patch of brown colored skin for no apparent reason, the child is “stained”. A mark so filled with meaning it is as beautiful as it could get.

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Plantation Stains (Provided by Barbara Diaz-Tapia)

In the painting the male figure has a tattoo of a heart and the name Ana on it, he also has some piercings, but like with me the allegorical stain is not visible. That non existing stain is essential for the reading of the piece because it says that the North American government has tried for the past 118 years to “clean us” from our culture. In Spanish the word “gringo”, is a derivative from “green go” –related to desire to expulse the militia from the island. It also means person natural from North America, is very similar to the word “yanqui” or Yankee. We say, they are trying to “gringuisarnos”, meaning to North Americanized us, it can be contemptuous. The piece, which is on permanent exhibit at The Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, is presented simply hanging without any stretcher or frame. The lack of traditional structure makes a stronger impact on the viewer because it echoes the figure from the composition who is being hung to dry by the shoulders. That droopiness is reactivated by the canvas fabric.  In this artwork the idea of the written word is represented by the invisible spot.

Another piece with the same reading is the performance of the female artist Marina Barsy, titled (De) Colonial Reconquista -(De) Colonial Reconquest. The performance starts with the artist wearing only an oval mirror on the back of her head, a long virginal white shiny skirt with black repetition of outline maps of Puerto Rico and what looks like a standing body with a tattoo machine on it. The artist invited seven women, each symbolizing a letter from the word “colonia” (colony). Each female owns legally the letter the artist was about to get tattooed. Each women took a turn to sit beside her while a female tattoo artist began to tattoo the letter onto her back. Later she walked out of the museum through the streets of Santurce accompanied by the seven women.  There was a lot to this piece, especially if we look at it in conjunction with the text by Brandon Taylor, Other Territories: 1992-2002. In the text there is a passage that reveals well with what happens in Puerto Rico.

“Araeen argued that Third World artist’s mimicking of Western artistic styles ‘not only uproots them from the reality of their own culture and history, but leads them to an alienated situation which cannot question the domination of foreign values, thereby also denying them any opportunity to develop their art indigenously.’”

This has been an interesting theme happening in Puerto Rican art from the beginning, yes our artists always try to see beyond the coast. In every decade artists continued to work with political themes no matter what. Revealing the need for recognition of this cultural problem. Those “foreign values” and “the question of domination” are constant. Barsy explores and condemns colonialism. The most powerful element of the performance is that she will bear our situation on her back “forever” and in so doing she is appropriating that word so we can re-colonize ourselves. She is taking back our nationality. Hers is a courageous act of self-recognition of refusing alienation forever more. For me the question becomes how will I make visible the stain I wear within?

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by Barbara Diaz-Tapia

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