The Anatomy Lesson
Not through blows,
Hundreds of white larvae
watching us from the bottom of empty sockets
more painful than a thousand kicks.
Regina José Galindo
In the beginning was the word. Regina José Galindo’s performances began their journey with poetry. She belongs to the generation of Guatemalan artists who grew up during the most violent period in the country’s history and whose careers developed in the years of political liberalisation and modernisation after the end of Guatemala’s Civil War (1960–1996).
Despite there being only a single precedent for performance art in Guatemala—that of Margarita Azurdia, who did several art actions during the war (although they are not well documented)—the medium became an important form of artistic expression towards the end of the 1990s, thanks to the new openness in the political climate, the restoration of civil rights, and the reclaiming of the public space.
Regina José Galindo’s involvement in the world of performance came naturally, under the influence of other writers and artists she knew and from a need to express herself, to realise the strong poetic charge of the body as a way “to put an image to words”.
Galindo’s transition from poetry to performance is hardly an isolated case. Many who started as writers have gone on to explore—in visual art, music, and performance—the possibilities of poetry beyond poetry. As a catalyst for crafting the intended message, performance art presents a number of formal and functional connections with poetry—in the materialisation of the subject, the object, and the action itself. This expansion in search of a different kind of reception thus seems natural. The formal connections between poetry and performance are many, but perhaps one of the most prominent is that of rhythm and, by extension, energy. Rhythm is fundamental to poetic language and is responsible for a coherent distribution of energy. Formalist poetics, in particular, stressed its importance, going so far as to assert that every poet possesses a unique and individual rhythm. As Charles Olson wrote in his manifesto Projective Verse, where he argued for a poetics based on sound and perception rather than syntax and logic: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it …, by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.… Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” Just as the poetic system is formed to reach an audience through the creation and selection of syntactic structures, words, and inflections, the mechanisms in performance art work similarly, with the same processes influencing the structure and function of the elements. This opens up a space where action becomes embodied in rhythm and energy. And when this energy reaches a certain intensity, a state of identification is created and the possibility of interaction on different levels is reaffirmed. The conceptual world associated with the possibilities of poetry—beyond aesthetic pleasure and didactic or utilitarian goals—and notions about the poet as the transmitter of the collective heritage, or as a social subject, help to materialise the intentionality of a socially and politically committed poetry through action.
These principles can be seen in the way Regina José Galindo first presented herself. This was in February 1999 in the group show Sin pelos en la lengua (Not Mincing Words), today considered a landmark because it introduced the main practitioners of performance art in contemporary Guatemala. In her work El dolor en un pañuelo (Pain in a Handkerchief), Galindo, tied to a vertically positioned bed, denounced the rapes and abuses committed against women in Guatemala while newspaper articles about these atrocities were projected onto her body. This work was followed by her first solo performance, produced with the help of the commissioner Belia de Vico, El cielo llora tanto que debería ser mujer (Heaven Weeps So Much It Should Be a Woman). Here the artist held her breath under water in a bathtub, forgoing speech and putting her body to the test as a way of expressing the asphyxia of women’s silence. That same year, in the performance Lo voy a gritar al viento (I’m Going to Shout It to the Wind), Galindo had herself suspended herself from the archway of the main post office in Guatemala City and read out poems into the air, then tossed these unpublished texts down to onlookers, as a way of protesting social repression in the public and private spheres.
Guatemalan poetry in the second half of the 20th century was characterised by political engagement in the 1950s, with new themes such as the body, sexuality, feminism, and the urban experience introduced in the following decades. Poetry in the years since Civil War has been influenced by the development of new technologies, neoliberalism, and globalisation. This post-war generation has introduced sculptural imagery and visual rhythms, looking back on the collective history from the vantage point of the start of a new century. At a moment when “fiction was regarded by many as an apolitical position, a way of avoiding the urgency of working towards change,” when it was impossible to separate the political and social contexts and a process to recover civil rights had begun, some Guatemalan writers decided to expand their poetic experience by approaching it from various perspectives that included visual imagery and performance. In this way, artists became involved with performance art, using it as a new way to explore the disturbing consequences of 36 years of war, genocide, and the violation of human rights. The poetry of the generation born in the 1970s, while marked by the vestiges of defeated revolutionary hopes, extreme violence, and the complex transition process, does not directly reference that history but instead denotes disenchantment, irony, scepticism, boldness, and provocation. These same emotions are distilled in Galindo’s works.
In her early performances, the relationship with poetry was made clear through the presence of words and the exploration of the body’s poetic charge—a body often rendered motionless. In later works, however, she began to interrogate the mechanisms and practices of performance itself, informed by the work of such artists as Jessica Lagunas, Aníbal López, Rosemberg Sandoval, María Teresa Hincapié, Marina Abramović, and Chris Burden. Other references later appeared—such as Ana Mendieta, Teresa Margolles, Gina Pane, and Santiago Sierra—and Galindo ended by asking questions based on the supposed absence of the corporeal. In works such as No perdemos nada con nacer (We Don’t Lose Anything by Being Born, 2000), Galindo wrapped herself in a clear plastic bag and was thrown into Guatemala City’s sewage system, where human remains sometimes turn up unnoticed. The poetic remains a constant in her development, independent of her expanding themes and use of different devices and strategies.
The poet’s function in Guatemalan poetry as a social subject, whose object was the reality of the country’s political and social context, re-emerges in Galindo’s performance practice as a subject and object that are one and the same, with their respective functions changing throughout her artistic career—from a coinciding of subject and object; to a subject that becomes an object, or that becomes an object only to become a subject again through the gaze of the observer; to the objectification of artistic practice itself. The goal of all this is to construct metaphors for social injustice, the fragmentation of identity, the discontinuities of collective memory, social pathologies, the paradoxes of systems of power, and their repercussions in different environments of the globalised society.
Galindo’s performances are charged with a symbolic content in which the body stands for the fragility of individuals, the painful irrelevance of others, and the systematic harassment of the authorities. Because of this dissected otherness, her work produces anything but indifference. The others are always the others, but for some reason they ends up being us, because, despite what makes us different, there is always something that unites us, even if the only thing that makes us feel united is our own human nature.
In the years before peace, repression created the social perception of the naked body as a symbol of punishment, associating it with torture, rape, and abuse. Galindo breaks into the world of art using her body as a tool to represent marginality, even in the sense of the individual identity in the face of the others. In all her performances, Galindo explores different combinations of individuality and collectivity, examining them with the subtlety of a scalpel. As Foucault argued:
Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political ‘double bind’, which is the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures.
Galindo’s dissection of the individual and society reflects Foucault’s thought on two levels. On the one hand, her performances continually interrogate our present condition and demand a specific attitude towards it. On the other, her work reveals the conflicted bipolarity to which we are subjected by our own submission to the ideological apparatus, which, even as it individualises and isolates us, places us in the framework of collective categories.
The strategies Galindo employs move back and forth between two poles: poetic language and bodily action; the individual and the collective; the global and the local. She seeks to expand our experiences, whether through her practice or through the sum of these practices. Galindo reveals what we do not see, although it exists, or what exists behind what we see, as in the performance Punto Ciego (Blind Spot, 2010), where the artist displays her naked body in an exhibition space that only blind people are permitted to enter. The performance provoked a series of reactions which revealed the contrast between the weakness of human nature and the problematic foundations of social structures.
Galindo’s early work vivisects identity in all its facets, analysing such issues as gender identity, cultural identity, and social identity. She questions the parameters of individuality, the feminine, and marginality, and denounces male violence, the social position of women, and the way power classifies individuals. These issues are reflected in a number of her works: in Esperando al príncipe azul (Waiting for Prince Charming, 2001), she was covered by a wedding-bed sheet with a small opening for the vagina; in Angelina (2001), she spent a month as a domestic servant and watched how her day-to-day activities changed; in Perra (Bitch, 2005) she inscribed the title of the work on her body to memorialise similar inscriptions made on the bodies of tortured women; and in Mientras, ellos siguen libres (Meanwhile, They Are Still Free, 2007), she denounced the systematic rape of pregnant indigenous women during the armed conflict in Guatemala. The horror and indignity reflected in such an ‘aesthetics of violence’ (to use Anabella Acevedo’s term) speaks to us, through signs, of fragmented identity and hopelessness, while the effects of violence are revealed in artistic practice, not mimetically, but by turning the historical into metaphor in order to speak of conflicts of a more existential nature.
In 2003, when the Guatemalan Constitutional Court approved the presidential candidacy of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (who 10 years later would be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity), Galindo decided to make the performance ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas? (Who Can Erase the Marks?). She walked through the streets of Guatemala City, from the Constitutional Court to the Presidential Palace, carrying a basin full of human blood. Every so often she would stop, dip her feet into the basin, and take a few steps, leaving bloody footprints on the pavement. This was subject as both victim and victimiser; the lacunae of memory, resurfacing to remind us that they are not so far away; a plea against discrimination, against the slavery of the mind, against terror and abuse and the methods of the authorities, whose primary tactic is to ask questions but never provide answers. Uneasiness assails us in other works, too, such as Hermana (Sister, 2010), where an indigenous Guatemalan woman slaps, spits, and punishes the artist’s mestizo body; or the installation La conquista (The Conquest, 2009), where human presence is evoked through absence—the presence of women, the victims of the black market, who sell their hair in order to survive; or Limpieza social (Social Cleansing, 2009) where the artist is subjected to a high-pressure shower similar to the one given new inmates when they arrive in prison or the water cannon used to suppress public protests.
The subject is objectified in Galindo’s work through strategies such as isolation, confinement, and disqualification, and these are what produce identification, as Foucault reminds us: “I have studied the objectivizing of the subject in what I shall call ‘dividing practices’. The subject is either divided inside himself or divided from others. This process objectivizes him.” In this process, human beings are given a social and personal identity. The subject objectified in the body of the artist is a collective body, the body as an object of power, as the social body, which, as Foucault also noted, “is the effect … of the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals”. The artist’s analysis of the origin, causes, and effects of power transcends individual reality, the reality of identity and geographic context, to reach a global audience and create experiences of catharsis. In certain works, she directly involves others as part of the collective. In Pelotón (Platoon, 2011), for instance, she assembled a convoy of private security police to denounce the population’s scepticism about national security bodies and the appearance in Guatemala of armed but untrained professionals—such as private security police. In Marabunta (Throng, 2012), meanwhile, she hired a group of men to take apart a car and make it disappear in the centre of the city.
The artist continues to dissect society, power systems, and the paradoxes of globalisation, with identification and recognition as key tools in her process. In Looting (2010; the title is in English), the artist had her teeth inlaid with pure Guatemalan gold, only to have the gold removed in Germany. In Juegos de Poder (Power Games, 2009), she obeyed commands while in a state of hypnosis. In Clase de disección (Dissection Class, 2011), under the attentive gaze of a group of anatomy students, she explored the rise in the professionalisation of violence.
Awareness of the heterogeneous collective nature of the various social identities is what allows the viewer to identify with the object, in one way or another, through the different stages that take place in identification. This process can involve the viewer’s direct affinity with the object, or it can be a state of partial fusion that arises in a moment of confusion, when, under the blurry perception of a denial produced after observation, the viewer comes to identify once more with the object, even if this means relying on the identification reinforced by a third party (whether ourselves or someone who joins us in the experience). This translates into a process of localising the viewing subject once more in relation to the performance and the surrounding reality. The other, ultimately, is the self, as reflected in that other, which is now not only the object but also the subject with which the viewer identifies—a single image in which we see ourselves reflected, bounced back to us, because, “in a way, all of Regina’s actions work like a mirror, but they are also like a shot hitting its target”. And what hits the target is the same energy Jacques Rancière discusses in The Emancipated Spectator: the intelligence that is constructed when subject and object consent to power, with the object maintaining the action and the subject reactivating the power.
If the effectiveness of the reflection is inversely proportional to distance, Regina José Galindo is that ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ who dismisses the distance between her knowledge and our ignorance, our inexperience being what we still don’t know in contrast to what the master has mastered. In this case, distance is not an absolute evil, but rather the normal condition of all communication. As the artist herself notes, “Performance art raises questions, it does not give answers,” which is why she is interested in creating experiences “where linear relations between the audience and the work of art may be modified or may shift. It is important to break the moulds in any transfer of information so that knowledge does not stagnate”.
We could say that, in fact, there is no protest in Regina José Galindo’s work, but only the firm invitation to live an experience. The artist does not show us some previously made experience, the paths of her own knowledge; instead, she reveals her willingness to offer us the tools we need to find our own path, to abandon the apparent passivity of one who contemplates and be carried away so as to activate the capacities of our senses, our emancipatory experience. As the Serbian author Danilo Kiš wrote in The Anatomy Lesson:
The world does not begin today, and we know, we see, that this is not the first anatomy lesson under the sun, but it is still possible to learn new things through observation, dissection, vivisection, practice and the sum total of the experiences accessible to us.
The lesson may begin.