"Absurdo," Aug. 15-Sept. 25, 2008, La 15, Calle Ernesto Cerra #703, Santurce, Puerto Rico
"Absurdo" was a small but magnificent satirical group exhibition about political corruption in Puerto Rico -- it seems to be something of a regular pastime down here -- which takes my vote as the island’s best show of 2008. It was based on a manifesto written by a pseudonymous island character, Dr. Pitt von Pigg. Despite his obviously bogus bona fides, von Pigg has nevertheless become a local cultural icon, and even has a fan page in Facebook. The "Absurdo" exhibition was held at La 15, a storefront gallery in the Santurce district of San Juan overseen by Jose Jorge Román.
As a stylist, Pigg favors nasty diatribes loaded with sexual innuendo and packed with attacks against the evil colonial force up north, the USA. He’s irresistible.
"Absurd are all the tricks and antics that the colonial artist is forced into as a way of showing or publishing his work here on an island," von Pigg writes, "with all the dissipation, commercial ostentation and ignorance of a little banana republic." When Pigg talks about "tricks and antics," he is referring to the ways that the perennial colonial status of Puerto Rico affects the collective psyche of its citizens, promoting a certain anxiety and victimology, not to mention moral corruption.
What gave "Absurdo" its special kick, however, was the fact that the artists in the show are all involved with a local network of blogs and independent publications that have arisen in part as a reaction to the blind eye the main media has turned towards recent scandals concerning local museums, art professionals, galleries and the government. The network has been a success, in the sense that it directs the critical conversation onto subjects that more traditional media have ignored. "Art blogs have changed the panorama," says Warren James, a Puerto Rican architect who works in New York. "They provide a window into newly minted art and artists."
One such blog is TranceLiquido.com, overseen by Lilliam Nieves and Arnaldo Román, who point out that the computer screen offers a new window into human intimacy. For "Absurdo," they show a photograph of a man whispering into the ear of a woman, who in turn has an expression of awe and seduction. Titled Networking the Pleasure, the image is overlaid with hip icons from software applications and web forums.
Another photo, called Decontextualizing Human Software, is a black-and-white image of Román’s face breaking up into pixilated squares, as his identity literally morphs from the 19th-century photographic representation into the 21st-century digital one. Here, the information highway leads into some dangerous territory, as the two artists point out that the web can carry attacks, rumors and general annoyance. New technologies produce new crimes.
New technologies also have made images more available than ever before -- for nefarious purposes, often enough. Carmen Olmo, an artist who recently had an exhibition at Galeria Guatibiri in Rio Piedras (one of the best shows of the year) and who also organizes web exhibitions via dondeveoarte.com, her own website, steals several zoological images from the web to create her multimedia work, 1931 Savage Sex (from the "Exploitation Lovable" series). A banner for the exploitation film hoax poster Ingagi, which shows a rather sleazy-looking gorilla holding a bare-breasted native African woman, is inset with a digital video screen, which shows a loop of monkeys copulating. The tagline on the banner reads, "Wild Women, Gorillas, Unbelievable," which seems to imply that a touch of bestiality can be found in true love.
Ingagi was made in 1931, earlier than King Kong, which debuted in 1933. The producers of Ingagi were sued for their unauthorized use of footage from an authentic ethnographic film that had been released 15 years earlier. Olmo’s work is a new loop in the historical string, reproducing and reinforcing a sexual taboo, which is sometimes taken as a harmless joke, and other times as a pornographic fetish.
The digital artist Teo Freytes, who runs msa-x.org, a site that documents exhibitions, uses the iPhone as a tool in a group of works titled Hot Morcilla. A veteran of the San Juan art scene, Freytes has produced two traditionally painted watercolors after a digital study drawing he made on his iPhone. The subject is blood sausage on a hot dog bun, a hilarious hybrid that serves as a metaphor for the cultural mix between the nations of U.S. and Puerto Rico. The painted text that adorns the larger painting ("Morcilladog") is made of letters that look like skinny parasite worms. The Puerto Rican meat product coexists nicely with the North American bollo blanco, probably because food in Puerto Rican culture is part of a social ritual. To escape and to forget we indulge in food.
Carlos Fajardo’s La Muñeca is a spray-painted caricature of a wide-eyed, smiling redhead, who looks out at the viewer and signals with her right hand. "I propose a national day for dolls," reads a blocky text in the background, a collage of magazine and newspaper clippings, all within a tacky decorative frame. The work seems to be a portrait of the television character La Comay, for which a man dresses in a life-sized puppet costume to relate local social and political gossip every weekday evening. La Comay is so popular that many of our corrupted senators, who travel like statesmen to Miss Universe beauty pageants, would rather make an appearance on this gossip show than answer more straightforward questions from the press. Fajardo’s Muñeca is a sharp social critique of the power of gossip.
If gossip wins ratings, then Strange Connections by Teresa López is a kind of subdued gossip for intellectuals. The publisher of the magazine Orificio, which features projects by artists, López has designed a series of posters that look like that old children’s matching game, with a list of names on one side and a column of pictures on the other, to be linked with a drawn line. Richard Nixon, El Ché and Rasputin, for instance, all correlate to a banana. Guevara? Banana? Phonetically, it could all make sense. Strange Connections is more about absurd visual poetry than anything else.
The young artist Norma Vilá, who is generally known for her installation works, here contributes a small color photo that bounces nicely off of the rest of the show. Taken by chance, the image shows one man and three women, all morbidly obese and all wearing blue outfits, standing in a parking lot. One of the women holds a bat and wears a custom-made T shirt that reads (in Spanish), "I’m as loose as a shoelace," a phrase loaded with sexual connotations that derive from Reggaeton music. In this picture, reality meets head on with folklore and fantasy. The question is: are we part of this collective, or are we apart from it?
The absurdity of it all is channeled with theraputic justice in FR, a great sculpture by duo W&N. The severed head of a mannequin, wearing a black wig and with long colorful cotton strings attached to the neck like blood and veins, lies on broken marble tiles on the floor. The face shows multiple cuts and a swollen eye, made delicately with paint and graphite. As if these cosmetics weren’t freaky enough, the artists have given the mannequin the look of a local former art dealer known for his obsessive lying.
In the work, the broken marble is a symbol of decadent aristocracy and wealth, expressed in the phrase "you come from la Loza," which is similar to being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. The dealer has become subject matter for several artists lately, but W&N treat the subject as a prop to describe decadence and injustice in the island as well as a marker of a vigilante counterculture engaged in collective vengeance via esthetics.
In the end, the head of FR not only represents individual tragic failure, it also stands for the scandalous state of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico, which has been paralyzed by a year-long controversy that has included a funding crisis, threats to close, demands for the resignation of the museum board and, last but not least, the appointment of a new director. The organization currently stands at the crossroads -- either it will close or transform itself into the progressive institution it has never been.
FR is a breakthrough piece in contemporary Puerto Rican art because it memorializes, without fear, the collapse of a golden era into ethical and fiscal corruption. And at the same time it signals a new beginning full of hope with new ideas and attitudes.
The show ends on a happier note with a video collaboration by the late Art Kendallman, aka KMAN, and Museo el Barrio curator Elvis Fuentes. Though KMAN is with us no more, the performances and sculptural works by this artist and habitual blogger survive through the very blogs he nurtured and loved.
A vid of "Absurdo" can be found on msa-x.org here.
PEDRO VÉLEZ had a great five years vacationing in Puerto Rico. He has now relocated to Chicago, where he is hard at work on The Comercial Years: The Lazy Days of Art, a memoir of his time on the island.