Regina José Galindo: Tierra by David Murrieta Flores
Regina José Galindo: Tierra
Regina José Galindo’s Tierra is striking in a way that is perhaps uncommon in the artist’s work in general: the aggression in the performance is not directly aimed at her nude body, but to her surroundings. Based on narrative material that was part of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s trial for genocide in 2013, the work explores a form of landscape in which her figure is isolated, carved out of the dirt by a mechanical, noisy and systematic violence. The story it is based on can be banally summarized as follows: military men – who were representative of the kind of power that was in place in Guatemala in the early 1980’s – operated a digger in a recondite field, then, they would bring trucks full of enemies of the state they’d rounded up, starting to kill them over a hole not unlike the one we can see in the piece, only to then dump the digger on the bodies to flatten them. This anecdote is, of course, one of many, many instances of the atrocities that Guatemala underwent at the time, and what, for now, matters in this particular instance, this particular artwork, is that the artist processes it as an abstraction of death. However, in one of her poems she says “death has no metaphor”, “it is simple and clear”(1), just like the landscape before us. Therefore, the abstraction that takes place is perhaps not meant to evoke the grave being carved into the ground but the one being carved out of it. José Galindo stands completely still as we can see cars and trucks moving in a highway at the very back of the video; the death that is being portrayed here is everyday life, the stillness of subjection to a power that, like the JVC, seems coldly uncaring. After all, the driver, like the Guatemalan president, was just doing his job, and it is the relentless, droning quality of the operation undertaken by the machine what enacts power’s closeness to the simplicity and clarity of death.
This is, perhaps, why the violence that is common to the artist’s works(2) does not directly involve her body: this is a history that can both be read, through her stillness, as that of a bare, brutal survival in a noise-filled landscape that remains indifferent, as well as that of a passive fierceness that refuses to fall, to give in to a path that leads out of un-life, embracing the silence of becoming one with the dirt. If we collapse one reading into the other, just as the work collapses death and power together, the idea that results is self-destructive, in the sense that there is simply no way out, no human voice to beat the motors of the JVC, and what remains is an existence that cannot ever know being. It is a parody of life, coming to be reduced to its mechanical, oppressive opposite, and such is the existence of many in the world still. This is why context is crucial, and Guatemala’s bloody experience of the late 20th century is at the core of José Galindo’s ouvre.
In 1982 there was a coup in Guatemala that put General Ríos Montt in the country’s presidency, which had, in any case, been in the hands of the military ever since the 1950s. He had been active in the late 70’s in the operations against common dissidence and Marxist guerrillas alike, a never-ending war that had become a staple of policy in the mid-1960s and which by the time of Ríos Montt’s coup was still going strong. Financially supported by the United States, this policy soon extended to include the incompatibility of indigenous ways of life and a burgeoning neo-liberalism, effectively turning many indigenous groups into enemies of the state. Ríos Montt made use of various instances of para-military organizations, many of them composed of civilians and indigenous people displaced from their homes who were recruited by force, to deal with these threats, effectively setting a large part of the population against itself (3). A pro-Ríos Montt pamphlet of the time read: “It doesn’t matter who falls in this fight, as long as we achieve our sacred mission of liberating Guatemala from communism. We will do so at any price. As proof that we speak with the truth we have thirty thousand peasant and clandestine tombs as witnesses.” (4) In 1983, while he was visiting an American aircraft carrier his minister of Defence undertook a coup that deposed him and gave way to Guatemala’s last military regime, which lasted until 1986 and which was just as violent. More recently, in 2013 he was taken to Spanish courts on the charges of genocide by the efforts of a number of Guatemalans that include Nobel Peace prize Rigoberta Menchú, but the case was eventually overturned and he was let free. However, he never left the world of politics, and in 2003 he even ran for the Guatemalan presidency, obtaining 19% of the votes, ending in third place. This is the subject of one of José Galindo’s most famous works, ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas?, in which she walked across the Guatemala City centre with her feet drenched in blood.
This is quite the history of violence, and José Galindo constantly references it as part of wider practices of harm born from relations of power. Like the clandestine tombs bearing witness, her expressionless face hints at all the things we know but which seem to remain hidden; in Tierra we can see the machine and its implicitly terrifying work, we can see the artist’s body, but what we cannot see becomes just as important. Be it the psychological suffering she might be undergoing, the grave filled with invisible bodies, and our own reaction to all of it, there is a ghastly component at work that reflects all the dirty aspects of governmental secrecy, of power as conspiracy. The word ‘tierra’, after all, can be translated as ‘dirt’, not only ‘earth’. Thus, if for the sake of the argument we maintain a certain dualism, the deadly aspect of power might be clear and simple in the way it ends bodies, in the way it deprives the body politic of its senses, but in the way it breaks the will, the very psychology of its subject, it moves and grows through the obscurity of dirt. Even in public, even with the force of a public act and the value of documentary evidence (such as this piece), there is an opaque flow at the heart of power that allows for a suspension of judgement. At first, around the time of ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas? José Galindo would say that “art does not save the world, it saves me” (5), and that her being an artist meant a certain distance from the ‘public’, proportional to the immersion in herself. Viewed in this way, her work is expression, experience, perhaps even therapy. She said she did not want to be identified as an activist, or her art as form of protest, and indeed, Tierra itself keeps that vision by making no demands, by putting ‘action’ and a commitment to the public sphere way out of its aims. By neutralizing its meanings and letting nihilism through, it does away with the possibility of doing. However, in a more recent interview she states: “Every action is an attempt to show an aspect of reality, they are acts that want to denounce or question. I maintain a critical attitude and perhaps through it the political term comes to be, as social commitment. They are little acts of resistance. The individual body in confrontation and resistance as metaphor of the global body.” (6) Tierra also keeps that vision in the sense that it might not make a demand, but it does reveal, it unearths the conjuncture of the genocide that took place in Guatemala, it makes, like ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas?, a very public appeal to see and to feel what might not be seen of Guatemala’s terrible recent history. I cannot say with any certainty that this is an ‘action’ instead of a ‘performance’, but what I can say is that the public plays a key role whether it attempts to denounce or not; there is an urge here to be heard and to be seen, to engage in a collective process of thought that, in communicating the experience of suffering, is trying to clarify the workings of power, to reduce its industrial noise to something intelligible. This is inherently political, a rationalist purpose born from an articulation of ideas that express the physical and psychological pain of ultimately not being in control of our own bodies, finding ourselves at the (absent) mercy of a mechanical, muddy set of relations that tends towards abuse. The political element of her work is not so much a personal view, as she maintains in the above quote, but a shout that in its openness and intensity attempts to break through the public sphere’s shroud of darkness, letting the light of reason in; an act of resistance that is not a direct confrontation, an activist’s device, but an act of resistance that indirectly attempts to unravel ideology.
Finally, I would like to point out another part of this political, public element in José Galindo’s work, one that is present in Tierra but that extends to many, perhaps most, of her works. It is the idea of Latin America, of trying to transmit what it is to be not only Guatemalan but Latin American. While she’s found a considerable audience back home, arguably she has an even wider ‘presence’ in European art circuits, evidenced perhaps in her numerous performances, invitations, and presentations in several European countries, including the UK, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. Julian Stallabrass, writing about a work entitled Confession (which is about waterboarding at Guantánamo prison), says that the violence of her works attempts to circumvent the categorization of ‘Latin American’ art that is closely associated with a version of exoticism that projects a patronising, distant and chaotic Third World image onto the region, building instead a link between histories of violence that speaks to the ‘here and now’ of the average European or Anglo American (7). In a piece presented in the Netherlands in 2008, the artist said: “it is always about violence, even here in Arnhem. My performance here is cold because the First World is cold. The violence here is masked, passive.”(8) This is, of course, a generalisation that underlines an unspoken dialogue, an implicit communication between two poles of hot and cold, between the First and the Third World, in other words, between Latin America and Europe, embodied in the artist as the place where their ‘opposition’ plays out, in violence that differs only in kind. Such generalisations, though, can only be made from the point of view of a reverse exoticism, one in which the rules of identity shift and turn around the question of what it is to be a Latin American that enters an international art network and is constantly shown in the European context. In this sense, her performances of violence are always qualified, and they compose a presentation of a certain “Latin Americanness” to an audience that is not even sure to readily identify with the concept of Europe, but that is assumed to do so. If the key question of this non-stated dialogue is one of mutual understanding, it is important to consider the possibility, the probability even, that it is something beyond the terms of a generalisation of violence through identity. In a smaller piece from 2009 presented here in the UK entitled Action: Calentamiento (Warm Up), she lets a group of people walk into a room that intends to replicate a generic set of “Latin American” weather conditions. Of the piece she said: “I wanted to create a space that would place the audience in Latin America, where it is hot, humid, and suffocating.” (9) Even without considering the enormously varied terrains and weathers of Latin America, being in it is, of course, exactly not like a hot humid room, but the performance of climate conditions recalls a strain of 18th century empiricism that asks: how are you constitutionally different from others such as Europeans? It is a question that perhaps essentializes something that is historical at core, turning identification into a political end that dangerously hints at a ‘clash of civilizations’.
Tierra, which was filmed in France, breaks, or perhaps expands, this mold, realizing what the artist would refer to as a ‘cold’ kind of violence while making a direct connection to the ‘hot’ aggression of a Latin American group of men (and make no mistake, it is always men) that enact the power of governments. It is much more subtle than previous works in this regard, and it brings together those two poles in the same way it might seem to collapse into a sort of nihilism: it is both an expression of pain and a denunciation, it is both therapy and treatment, Latin American and European, which could be condensed under the wide umbrella of Western culture. It is a violence that, if thought about for a while, we are all probably familiar with, regardless of where we’re from.
– David Murrieta Flores
(1) Regina José Galindo, “La muerte no tiene metáfora”, in http://www.poemas-del-alma.com/regina-jose-galindo-la-muerte-no-tiene-metafora.htm ; accessed on October 20, 2014.
(2) See, for example We don’t lose anything by being born (2000), Himenoplastía (2004), Social Cleansing (2006), Confession (2007), Games of Power (2009), Third World (2012), and so on.
(3) For more information on this history, see Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. London, Duke University Press, 2000. Also Victoria Sanford, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
(4) See Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, “Terror and Violence as Weapons of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala”, in Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2/3, 1980. Translated from Spanish by John Beverly.
(5) Odile Biec and Evelyne Toussaint, “Regina José Galindo”. Parvis Centre d’Art, exhibition document, 2006. Available at www.parvis.net/intranet/upload/liens/centredart/centredart_265.doc, accessed on October 19, 2014.
(6) Yolanda Peralta Sierra, “Regina José Galindo o la performance como pequeño acto de resistencia”, in http://www.m-arteyculturavisual.com/2012/10/10/regina-jose-galindo-o-la-performance-como-pequeno-acto-de-resistencia/; accessed on October 19, 2014. Translation mine.
(7) Julian Stallabrass, “Performing Torture”. London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2007, p. 4.
(8) Marjan Terpstra, “Interview with Regina José Galindo”, in http://www.krachtvancultuur.nl/en/current/2008/May/galindo; accessed October 19, 2014.
(9) N/A, “Regina José Galindo: The Body of Others”, in http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/1800/1/regina-jose-galindo-the-body-of-others; accessed October 19, 2014.
Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. London, Duke University Press, 2000.
Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Aguilera Peralta, Gabriel. “Terror and Violence as Weapons of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala”, in Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2/3, 1980. Translated from Spanish by John Beverly.
Stallabrass, Julian. “Performing Torture”. London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2007.
Biec, Odile, and Toussaint, Evelyne. “Regina José Galindo”. Parvis Centre d’Art, exhibition document, 2006. Available at www.parvis.net/intranet/upload/liens/centredart/centredart_265.doc, accessed on October 19, 2014.
José Galindo, Regina. “La muerte no tiene metáfora”, in http://www.poemas-del-alma.com/regina-jose-galindo-la-muerte-no-tiene-metafora.htm ; accessed on October 20, 2014.
Peralta Sierra, Yolanda. “Regina José Galindo o la performance como pequeño acto de resistencia”, in http://www.m-arteyculturavisual.com/2012/10/10/regina-jose-galindo-o-la-performance-como-pequeno-acto-de-resistencia/; accessed on October 19, 2014.
N/A, “Regina José Galindo: The Body of Others”, in http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/1800/1/regina-jose-galindo-the-body-of-others; accessed October 19, 2014.
Terpstra, Marjan. “Interview with Regina José Galindo”, in http://www.krachtvancultuur.nl/en/current/2008/May/galindo; accessed October 19, 2014.