Saturday, July 21, 2012

Regina José Galindo: Vulnerable

An imposing man violently grasps a petite woman. He holds her by the back of her hair and unleashes a series of threats. He tells her she is helpless, powerless, that he could take off her clothes and attack her, torture her if he wanted. She remains mute and immobile, as the man takes a needle and pushes into the delicate skin of her face.

While the above may sound like the recollection of an assault, it is a description of the video documentation of Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo’s 2009 performance Games of Power currently on view at the Museum of Latin American Art. In this performance, Galindo is hypnotized by an overbearing man who repeatedly humiliates and threatens her. At one point he pushes her to the ground and makes her drag her body along the floor in pursuit of the water he keeps just out of reach. It is painful to watch the the obvious imbalance of power and the heedless exploitation of Galindo’s vulnerable state. 

The manipulation of women under the influence of hypnotism is nothing new and was a frequent folly among the doctors who treated hysteric patients in the late nineteenth century. In her book Medical Muses Asti Hustvedt describes multiple instances of physicians who instructed their anesthetized patients to enact humiliating, erotic, and sometimes criminal actions. These women’s bodies became the site of violence at the hands of the men who were entrusted with their care.

Himenoplastia, still from video document, 2004

The distressing notion that the doctor may harm instead of heal is present in Galindo’s horrific video Himenoplastia (this work is not included in the MOLAA show). The work presents graphic up-close documentation of the artist’s botched hymen reconstruction surgery. In a 2006 interview with BOMB, Galindo discusses the cultural and political significance of the operation:
The majority of the patients want to regain their intactness for their wedding. They do it to gain a certain social status. In other cases, children and adolescent victims of sex trafficking are operated on so that they will fetch a better price. It is preferable to buy a virgin girl not only because of her virginity but also because it is considered better protection against STDs.
Galindo places her own flesh under the surgeon’s knife to suffer a literal and metaphoric violation of the body, not unlike the invasive performances of Orlan.

The endangerment of Galindo’s body is a constant theme through out the exhibit currently on view in MOLAA’s Project Room. The centerpiece of the show is the new work Third World. Galindo performed the work for the exhibition opening and a video remains along side the plywood platform where the work was enacted. In this performance, Galindo stood still, facing forward on the stage as a workman hand-sawed through the floor around her. Like witnesses to a perverse disappearing act, the audience waits and watches until the floor releases and Galindo drops beneath the stage.

Images from performance Third World, 2012

The audience is even more directly implicated in Breaking the Iceperformed in Norway in 2009. In a reversal of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Galindo sits naked in an extremely cold room with clothes laid out on the floor in front of her. She waits in the frigid space, surrounded by viewers who are bundled up in heavy parkas and woolen layers. At least fifteen minutes go by before a woman steps up to wrap Galindo’s neck and body in a long knitted scarf. Viewers slowly move forward to dress the artist in socks, a hat, panties, a bra, and gloves. Next, a man emerges from the audience and strips Galindo down to socks and panties, leaving her like a model in one of those salacious American Apparel ads. At this point two women come forward and purposefully clothe Galindo, like mothers dressing a helpless child.

Breaking the Ice, still from video document, 2008

While Galindo’s work is a reaction to conditions in her homeland, the work speaks to the universal dangers of the abuse of power, especially in concern to women. A single wall of the exhibit lines up three performances which all suggest a distinct threat to female agency. The first, We don't lose Anything by being born (2000) shows Galindo’s naked body encased in a plastic bag lying in a field of trash at the city dump like a discarded fetus. On the next monitor she sits silently in the cold room, waiting for someone to offer her warmth and comfort. In the final image Galindo’s aggressor throws her to the ground and leaves her face down, abandoned like a sullied victim after a sexual assault. Galindo is a fearless artist who uses her own flesh to paint disturbing images of the violence that threaten women in Guatemala and all over the globe.

We don't lose Anything by being born, still from video document, 2000

Again from the 2006 BOMB interview:
There are many theories for why so many women are killed in Guatemala. Not all deaths originate from the same direct causes, but all murders are committed under the same premise: that it is done, it is cleaned up, and nothing happens, nothing occurs, nobody says a thing. A dead woman means nothing, a hundred dead women mean nothing, three hundred dead women mean nothing. The difference between Ciudad Juárez and Guatemala is that in Guatemala women are not only killed, but first they are subjected to horrible forms of torture, cut into little pieces and decapitated. I saw the hacked-up legs of a woman near my home one day, and nobody paid any attention to them at all.
 I cannot separate myself from what happens. It scares me, it enrages me, it hurts me, it depresses me. When I do what I do, I don’t try to approach my own pain as a means of seeing myself and curing myself from that vantage; in every action I try to channel my own pain, my own energy, to transform it into something more collective.
Regina José Galindo: Vulnerable is on view at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach until September 30, 2012

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