When the Box Becomes a Hat the Man Becomes a Sea : Victor Vazquez
December 30, 2009
When the Box Becomes a Hat the Man Becomes a Sea
New Work By Victor Vazquez: A Body to Body
Humanity has always been tied to land as a source of nourishment, identity and rest. Images of the earth belie collective associations of mortality and property. Upon that earth Victor Vazquez has imposed text, tierra de nadie, tierra de todos, tierra de serres, tierra de cuerpos. In that imposition Vazquez exercises his agency, asserting power over the ground humanity is subject to. By applying those words he destroys the illusion created by the image. Suddenly it becomes a representation of earth, rather than earth itself. The text stands in the foreground, earth in the back. The fore a linguistic device—one in which Vazquez assigns order with his prescribed and dualistic interpretations (sprit/body // everything/nothing)—the back something “natural,” neutral and inhuman. With the flat surface of the fore-fronted text, the back admits its illusory depth. The text asserts power over the image, defining terms with which that earth is to be considered. In his solo exhibition, A Body to Body, Vazquez is creating a mechanism for others to assert themselves. Over and over again he captures a moment of intervention, taking photographs of metaphorical landscapes that document the influence of his hand. This work is a demonstration, a documented analysis of relationships between bodies.
Themes of power, possession and identity run throughout the exhibition as Vazquez reflects on the relationship between the body and place. Bodies are dislocated, clustered, organized; the human body is metaphorically decapitated with flags (Body to Body 2), concealed in bags, overwritten with text or, in some cases, absent save for an outline. Each piece depicts a political relationship, an abstract portrayal of power in which the body is subject. Focusing specifically on its relationship to national identity, A Body to Body investigates the significance of nationality when it is displaced, just as it investigates the power of a dislocated individual within a foreign, hierarchical structure. Beneath the premise of these investigations, there is a deeper, more general query about the self; for when it is separated from what it once identified with, what is left?
That question appeals to agency and the necessary interaction that bodies have in foreign places. “How do you feel when you go to a different place and meet a different culture?” Vazquez asked. “There is positive and negative. People have to displace themselves from one place to another to find a better situation; they discover a negative situation.” They also discover other aspects of themselves. In Trota Mundo 1, a young man lies on his back with a board raised over his head; the board creates a path for a small toy man, giving it imaginary access to the trunk of a shiny red car. The young man is in service to the toy—a symbol of systems of purchase, production and frivolity. The young man—the only living being in the frame—lies belly-up and vulnerable.
In 2009, California was estimated to have over five million noncitizens in its workforce. During the pumpkin harvest thousands of migrant workers travel over 2,000 miles to work the farms and factories of Suchilapan, Milwaukee. The final death count of 9/11’s twin towers is unknown, in part because a number of undocumented workers died in the rubble. Those instances speak only about America; there are countless migrant populations all over the world. Yet even the vocabulary used to classify those populations, (“noncitizens,” “undocumented workers,” “illegal immigrants”), denies something basic about their humanity: they do not ‘belong’ anywhere, thus they are not citizens. They have no documentation and therefore they are expendable save for their labor. Even more basic, they are ‘illegal’ and thus in direct conflict with organizing principles of the civic body in which they arrive. While undocumented workers represent an extreme case, any migrant family suffers some element of discomfort. People migrate all over the world because of inequality, the basic desire to seek out better opportunities. Like birds, those same people shimmy around and through preventative nets of political structures; magically a huge number succeed. And, when they arrive the societies in which they work, legally or otherwise, are both dependent on and exploitative of their labor. It is no surprise then that immigrants would experience powerlessness. Even in small things—it is difficult to have a sense of humor when one doesn’t speak a language, for instance. Vazquez, however, refuses to accept that. He creates harmonic relationships between himself (as the eye of the camera, the hand pointing, the hand painting,) and the world. The world is the audience; the world is a composition of immaterial bodies, or even a field of dirt. Regardless of the peculiar circumstances, Vazquez is asserting his agency through visual and often serious play.
While A Body to Body speaks to a global community, Vazquez is no stranger to these predicaments. As a Puerto Rican, he speaks from history of political trial. “I take the unique situation of Puerto Rico and transfer it [to other situations.]” Since its discovery by Christopher Columbus, Puerto Rico has been subject to outside powers of governance. Up until 1897 it was subject to Spain. Thereafter it has been subject to the United States. One called Puerto Rico a colony; the other calls it a commonwealth. The people of Puerto Rico presently possess a limited citizenship. In 1898 four bodies are outlined in chalk. Before the first outline, a real body dons a black cloth, arms outstretched. Beside that, the outlines begin. The first outline, like a ghost, lies flat on cement. The next contains a soft sculpture spelling “1898.” The next two contain body bags with bodies inside; the bodies are reaching out to touch the hand of the chalk outline. Between 1860 and 1898, Puerto Rico managed to modify colonial rule, abolish slavery and hold its first elections. In 1897 it looked as though the island had managed to shed its Spanish ruler, defining its own terms by which to live. After The Treaty of Paris, however, Puerto Rico was given to the United States. Even now, its inhabitants boast a limited US Citizenship; in the meantime their Puerto Rican citizenship is qualified by their relationship to the United States. And like any number of places in the world (particularly those with a history of subjugation), resources within the commonwealth are limited, just as the population’s general access to the world. Thus, Puerto Ricans have a high migration rate; people leave with an idea of greater opportunities abroad.
What happens to the self when it leaves its place of origin? In Flags a Japanese flag lies next to a New Zealand flag, next to a Belgium flag, next to a North Korean flag—the symbols for national identity seem idiosyncratic and feeble on a ground of dirt trodden by boots and car tracks. Except for those flags, there is no horizon line, and they become equal and abstract, just as the affect of national identity becomes peculiar when separated from its homeland. In Vazquez’s words, “Everyone is from everywhere.” Yet a sense of origin seems necessary, perhaps especially when the individuals to whom it refers are those adrift in a foreign environment.
Which is why it is so important that Vazquez demonstrates possibilities for empowerment. While on the one hand he does not shy away from darker portrayals (Flag is a Cadaver), at the same time he offers gentler works, the cotton ball cloud wedged between a crevice in bark (Cotton), or rows of feather sculptures captured on a
ground of dirt (Feather Rock) which, in the next frame have been striped like the cat in Pépé Le Pieu. Vazquez documents an indirect process whereby he creates a relationship with his environment. In doing so, he locates himself in the world, grounding his relevancy both as an artist and an individual. Nevertheless locating himself is a secondary cause of his original purpose and it is that which, above all else, demonstrates a means for self-discovery. As the adage, “You find yourself when you forget yourself,” Vazquez is most present to his environment when he is focused on the relationships around him. In Ball and Mattress he “found a mattress in the street and then completed the image by adding something to establish a relationship between two bodies. [He] creates something that is already there.” In those acts of intervention, Vazquez makes himself at home in the world. He measures his surroundings, putting particular emphasis on intimate relationships between things; it is those relationships which aid the individual, such that he or she can survive (both physically and psychologically) within the impersonal environment of hierarchy—an environment in which one’s humanity is easily reduced, if not denied altogether.
Vazquez shows this through his use of text—the way it is both something that empowers the individual (Earth) and subjugates the figure (Line that Separed). Text without punctuation resonates with the immigrant living away from a cultural of origin. On the one hand, the reader is free to read the text at his or her own pace. On the other, the text is unfettered, without the locating instructions of grammar. With text, Vazquez demonstrates the experience of power. The text divides the bodies and space it covers. It is something exclusive and inclusive, illustrating negative and positive space at once. A Body to Body reflects positive, negative and neutral aspects of the migratory experience. Just as there is hardship in the expatriate’s life, so too there is exhilaration, curiosity and transformation. There is something exuberant about Territorios; bodies sheathed in flags revel across an open field, arms open, pinnacles against the ground, triumphant. They pattern the field, aware of one another while celebrating the warmth of the sun. In other cases, Vazquez depersonalizes the body further. Passers By and Strollers achieve a parallel course with Migration, creating a visual connection between bodies and cubes. Even those cubes migrate, as demonstrated by the intervening arrows that point like text, whether as direction or illustration.
Just as Vazquez has the power to impose text, imply a directional course, create a sense of absence with outlines, he also manifests the photographed cubes in a three-dimensional context, incorporating their physical presence into the gallery setting. Here his like a magician, conjuring an illusion of space as it was portrayed in an photograph and realizing a true depth of field. Complementing its content, the installation Body to Body has also migrated over the course of its development. “I started working on it in Paris,” said Vazquez, “then Buenos Ares, then Lima, then Puerto Rico.” In each location, the piece has changed, just as an individual is affected by his or her surroundings. And while Vazquez uses text as a tool for empowerment, so he conjures bodies in a distilled, white-cube space. In doing so, Vazquez imposes the idea of foreign bodies into a contemporary art framework, intervening and pressing through the structural history of art. It is a rebellion about boundaries. A rebellion that celebrates the self.
A Body to Body is an exhibit about the individual body navigating various political structures. It is about the relatioship that manifests between individuals, just as it is about the necessary and constant change that occurs in those relationships. Vazquez attributes the same being to objects that he does the human figure, leveling the camera’s gaze—like text, itself a tool of subjugation. A Body to Body captures a series of slippery power dynamics, implying the constant material and political change in our lives; that portrait appeals to everyone. A body that is subject in one instant may, in the next, play tyrant. Text, the camera, or any tool of expression for that matter, can be used to empower or suppress. “We have to be more empathetic towards differences,” because life is ephemeral and because we could at any moment be on either side of a coin. While the context is large, A Body to Body celebrates the individual alongside the space around that individual. In that celebration, Vazquez demonstrates a means of deeper self-knowledge and wisdom, one possible only through the study of others.