“I went out to buy the human blood in the morning, and then I began the walk. It probably lasted about 45 minutes: that walk on pavement that did not burn.” Thus Regina José Galindo begins to describe her 2003 protest in the streets of Guatemala City to an interviewer for Bomb magazine. She continues: “I suppose my mind fell completely silent during that time. I was focused on the image of dipping my feet and leaving my footprints at every step along the way. But when I got to the Palacio Nacional and saw the line of police officers guarding it, I ignited. I walked more firmly, I reached the main doors, I saw the eyes looking back at me, and I left two final footprints side by side. I left the basin holding the blood there, too. Nobody followed me, nobody said anything.”
Galindo carried out this performance in protest of the presidential candidacy of José Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator who had been found guilty of genocide by the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission in 1999.
Galindo’s protest did not evoke much reaction from those who witnessed it. In a country that has been torn by war for decades, the performance may have seemed unusual, but not overly dramatic. However, the art world took notice. Descriptions and photos of the protest spread through email, and by 2005 Galindo had received the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, one of the highest-profile events for the international art community.
Not long ago, I found myself discussing Galindo’s work with a relative who wondered why her protests are considered art. Although art critics and curators refer to her work as “body art” or “performance art,” Galindo’s projects often resemble the techniques of Ghandi more than performance artists such as Chris Burden (who had himself nailed to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle) or Carolee Schneemann (who once read from a scroll as she pulled it from her vagina). Even when looking past her techniques to the subjects of her performances, Galindo remains firmly in the realm of addresssing concrete injustices as opposed to the theoretical preoccupations of most performance artists.
In a performance Galindo recently completed at Artpace, the artist, and her family — her husband and 2-year-old daughter — were locked in a mobile prison unit for 36 hours. Visitors to the gallery could look through the narrow windows of the cell, observing Galindo’s family as they tried to occupy themselves with books and drawings during their voluntary detention. The prison is still on view at the gallery, occupied only by a few drawings apparently made by Galindo’s daughter during the protest.
This work takes aim at the growing private prison industry, which thrives in Texas. (Some states even bus parts of their prison populations into Texas for detention in private facilities run by publicly traded corporations). Although there are vocal critics of the practice of turning a profit on correctional facilities, the issue has yet to break into mainstream public-policy discourse.
In a sense it seems odd that Galindo would work within the confines of a contemporary art gallery, where her performances are likely to be viewed only by a small, insular community of artists and intellectuals. But there are several reasons why the match works. I think the art community itself is drawn to Galindo because of the poetry of many of her works. Leaving a trail of bloody footsteps through the streets of a major city is a simple yet powerful image; it evokes a lyricism lacking in a typical hunger strike or protest march.
At the same time, there is a distinction to be made between Galindo’s goals and those of a political activist’s; her attitude toward her performances is more personal. Rather than trying to raise awareness within herself, by taking on the mantle of suffering carried silently by so many others.
So does this make her work art? On one hand, the nature of contemporary visual art is that it is constantly in search of ways to expand its borders. There is no particular reason why “body art” or “performance art” should not be called “contemporary theater,” except that the visual-art community isn’t quite as stodgy and dogmatic as many other disciplines, and actually seeks out new ways of working.
On the other hand, Galindo’s work does play off of the performance artists that were absorbed into the visual-art world in the 1960s and 1970s. Although her work does bear more resemblance to protest than art in terms of goals and strategies, artists such as Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys introduced the body as artistic material to the art world decades ago. At the same time, social commentary has been an important goal of artists dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
When viewed in this way, it makes sense that Galindo would find her work accepted by a community that values social progress and poetic imagery; and that she in turn would foster this support from an influential and sympathetic audience.
This performance also helps to demonstrate Artpace’s role within the local community. Artpace regularly brings up-to-the-minute contemporary artists from around the world to engage with the community in San Antonio, while giving local artists a platform for their work. The gallery thus gives us the opportunity to question and discuss what the nature of art is, and what it can become. Artpace also gives artists like Galindo a chance to engage with regional issues, allowing us to become more aware of our own community as well as the ways that the problems we face relate to those of people in distant communities. •
New Works 08.1
Through May 11
445 N. Main