“Acción y culto” was a solo exhibition by Venezuelan visual artist Deborah Castillo, presented in Caracas in 2013. Upon entering the exhibit, the spectator had to pass through rows of machetes embedded in the walls to reach a group of works that take stock of military symbolism and populist performance: busts of Simón Bolívar, army boots, recordings of the national anthem. The body was involved in many of these pieces (which varied in format to include video performances, installations, and photography), and was used to challenge the sacredness of figures making up the Bolivarian and Chavista imaginary by kissing them, licking them, and destroying them. It was an artistic intervention that for some confirmed the artist’s mastery of and insight into visual techniques as a form of critiquing the country’s history (López 2013, González 2013, Straka 2013); for others, such as some in certain Chavista circles, it was a scandalous, outrageous exhibition that profaned the figure of the nation’s founding father, Simón Bolívar. On the program “Cayendo y corriendo” , aired on one of the many state television channels, two videos from the exhibition were shown, and the program’s host, Miguel Pérez Pirela—a well-known Chavista journalist—reacted to the images with a reading whose literality was disconcerting but also essential, as I will show, for understanding the effect of Castillo’s intervention as a critique of the current Venezuelan situation. Pérez Pirela, visibly emotional, notes:
Over and over again in the gallery a video is projected in which the artist Deborah Castillo herself licks a statue of Bolivar over and over again. But as though this were not enough, in another video a man appears with a chisel breaking off Bolívar’s face. An account of these events was sent to us this Holy Thursday by Romer Machado. He writes to us that the exhibit is an organization organized [sic]—it’s worth repeating—by the Venezuelan opposition and he told us that he considers the action abominable.
Pérez Pirela describes El beso emancipador —a video in which Castillo kisses a gold-colored bust of Simón Bolívar—as repetitious to the point of excess. Indeed, this piece is a three-and-a-half-minute loop, although in Pérez Pirela’s program, he shows a still image. It is telling that for this journalist the performance––made up of many elements––is above all a repetitive act, and that the offence it causes is based on, in his words, its repetitive character. Having carefully watched the videos, I have concluded that the repetition here exists on two levels (and perhaps for this reason it strikes Pérez Pirela as excessive): first, in the obvious repetition that characterizes the technique of looping, quite common, as we know, in this type of format; second, and this brings forth the more specific message of Castillo’s intervention, in the repetitive acts that make up the kissing. That repetition can also be observed in several works in the exhibit.
Here, I will argue that this “excess” is a carefully constructed effect in Castillo’s work, which offers a critique of the current Venezuelan regime that dominates all spheres of Venezuelan life and whose images are repeated infinitely in every street, mural, and television screen in the country, forming part of our most quotidian, habitual, and daily actions. Castillo puts into practice actions that suggest repetition so as to make visible certain social manifestations that, turning to several theorists, I will define here as habitus (I will also consider some reinterpretations of the concept as “habits” in other authors). Habitus is understood in authors such as Pierre Bourdieu (1998) as a series of repetitive structures incorporated into everyday life through which the state exercises total control over people even in the most ordinary practices, such that this control may even be imperceptible. I believe that the effect of repetition in Castillo’s work produces an effective critique of Chavismo through the use of the body to show how such practices translate into invisibilized mechanisms of control due to their banality. The key question is whether Castillo, in addition to exposing these practices through the shock caused by her work, manages to transcend those habits imposed by the state that she unveils. With regards to this agency, Judith Butler (1990) reminds us that it is important to ask if performance can achieve a reconfiguration––in her case of gender––when it consists of rites that reinforce power and become naturalized. But for Butler, it is in fact through the repetition of these rituals that one can conceive of an escape: “a repetition of the law which is not its consolidation, but its displacement” (30). Castillo proposes a new discourse about this escape, in part through her exposure of the fragility of habitus: she is able to hint at the fragility of Chavismo as an “ideological movement” that “convinces” people to act in a certain way (and in this sense, she responds to a posthegemonic reading of the situation, as I will demonstrate further on). Beyond the context of social control, the artist emphasizes the importance of seeing that the same physical faculties used for this control (the body that practices the cult, that body that intones the anthem, the enslaved body that reproduces these habitus over and over again) can contribute new meanings that instead rebel against power. In this sense, I will focus on her artistic production understood in a much more intimate dimension, in the relationship of the body to daily practices rather than as a “workforce.” Perhaps that excessive “over and over again” that Pérez Pirela observed is nothing more than the vertigo he feels upon seeing Chavista practices reduced to their concrete reality, loosened from their political context. In this article, I will focus on the video performance El beso emancipador, and in my conclusion, I will also refer to other pieces from the exhibit that I consider fundamental for understanding how Castillo is challenging power through quotidian, banal practices that also involve the use of national symbols, like the national anthem, and elements that allude to mythologies of power taken up by Chavismo.
El beso emancipador
In El beso emancipador, a sensual crossing of categories commences. On the screen, we see the lips and tongue of the artist that alight on and warm the golden bust of Bolívar, which she designed, in a ritual that is both ancestral and vehement at the same time.
Lorena González. “Deborah Castillo, or the Critical Variables of a Contemporary Passion”
When Deborah Castillo arrives, enthralled, before the effigy of the founding father of the patria, she half shuts her eyes, possessed by her veneration, her gestures
become those of Saint Teresa in ecstasy, she draws closer little by
little, timidly at first, then with more assurance, and finally she
begins to kiss him once, twice, three, ten times, each time she flings
herself forward more resolved, more intense, more excited, until she
can no longer contain herself, it is a burst, and stampede, she sticks
out her tongue and starts to lick him, runs it all over him, reaches
her own ecstasy; she is demonstrating her love, or, at least, representing the love that an entire society professes to have.
Tomás Straka. “Licking the Liberator”
A golden bust of Bolívar seen in profile against a black background is alone for the first fifteen seconds of the video. From the opposite side, the artist enters the scene; her face approaches the bust in slow motion. A kiss timidly initiates contact of her lips near the bust’s chin, barely below his left lip, followed by small approaches: lips, nose, chin, the dip over his upper lip, the corners of his mouth, cheeks. In circles, from bottom to top, and back again. The face draws back, eyes still closed, as in an instinctive act. The golden color of the bust might give the spectator pause: power and abundance, vulgarity and excess, just as it appears in the cult of Bolívar in schools, on the walls of institutions, in the consulates, along highways, in the country’s new name. But the kiss is what stands out: the tongue running the length of the bust’s profile and marking Bolívar’s face with fluids, with saliva, that same face that watches over the entrances to airports, keeps vigil along highways, on billboards, and on neighborhood walls.
At first reading, it is obvious that the artist is signaling the exaggerated cult of the figure of Bolívar under Chavismo. Simón Bolívar (1783-1830)—soldier and politician who played a key role in the liberation of Venezuela and other Latin American countries from Spanish colonization—has been an essential figure in the country’s nationalist narrative, which Hugo Chávez picked up on in a spectacular and dramatic way. Richard Gott believes that Chavéz’s cult of Bolívar can be compared to Fidel Castro’s cult of José Martí, both equivalents to the anti-imperialist struggle against Spain and later against the United States. For David Smilde (2011), this cult allows us to best understand why Chavismo has also been interpreted as a leftist version of the Romantic tradition incarnated by Simón Bolívar: “Eighteenth-century Romantic ideas of the fusion of individual and collective interests in an emerging, democratic general will were influential in Bolivar’s political thought, as well as Karl Marx’s later elaborations of socialism” (11). In this way, much of the Chavista ideology and its national and international political agenda are effectively based on this Bolivarian rhetoric.
Thus, a quick look at the recent history of Venezuela accounts for the importance of this figure—in addition, of course, to the importance of his thinking—in the country’s politics: institutions, projects, and organizations all bear his name. His presence dominates everything from official acts—national holidays, presidential speeches, national chains with huge portraits—to more informal settings—his face framed in homes and appearing in the graffiti and murals that honor Chavismo. The founder of the Bolivarian Revolution, as Hugo Chávez is known, made use of a constant equivalence between the triumph of the country’s independence, led by Simón Bolívar, and the triumph of Chavismo in Venezuela, led by, of course, Chávez himself. This operation also facilitates an instantaneous connection between Chávez and Venezuelans, since just as the figure of Simón Bolívar has been represented as the “supreme” incarnation of the people, as Rafael Sánchez rightly points out, so too is Chávez now. It is little wonder that one of Chavismo’s most well-known slogans has been “Chávez is the pueblo.” Given this chain of equivalences, it is worth asking: whom does Deborah Castillo kiss?
In the widely known and frequently reinterpreted myth of Pygmalion, the king of Cyprus falls in love with a statue he has created. One day, he finds that his statue seems to be alive. Incredulous, he kisses it and touches it until he is convinced that his plea to the gods has been answered, and the virgin statue that he so loves, now human, finally looks him in the eyes. Although in Ovid, the statue’s first signs of life are manifested through the warmth of her skin, through the color found in what was once a work in marble, there is a significant moment in the story that describes the appearance of a light when the two lovers recognize one another, when they see one another. Interestingly, in Castillo’s performance, not only does she back away with her eyes closed, but the slow tempo of the action allows us to observe the bust’s eyes in detail, and they are nothing but two lifeless, opaque golden shapes. In another of the pieces in the exhibit, called Sisyphus—the second one pointed out by the Chavista journalist mentioned above—a bust of Bolívar is destroyed with a chisel, making it clear that the process here is the opposite: the bust that barely manages to recreate the liveliness of a face is chiseled away at until it loses any resemblance to humanity. As in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the three-minute loop repeats over and over again the “process of the stone,” and one of the last vestiges of that face, shortly before it is completely destroyed, is one of its eyes.
From among the entire gamut of Chavista heroes depicted in graffiti, on billboards, and in propaganda in Venezuela, the famous design of Chavéz’s eyes, used in one of the Chavista campaigns, stands out —eyes that are repeated endlessly. This design, according to Rafael Sánchez, had the intention of reminding us that Chávez is not dead, but, he says, it has had the opposite effect:
Chávez’s eyes only mimic the living, in order to make clear that they are not of this world. The ghostliness of the eyes is underscored by their always being represented monochromatically, in either black and white or homogeneous red, so that they lose all life-likeness (or, better perhaps, “like-thatness”), becoming instead reduced to their bare outline. (330)
For Sánchez, Chavéz’s eyes expose the phantasmal quality of sovereignty (see Derrida), which, accompanied by the also infinitely repeated image of Bolívar, envelops the precarious life of Venezuelans. Even if we know that this cult has marked the country’s history and that today it penetrates life beyond official measures, excess circulates along the same pathways as though it were not an unsettling disturbance. Castillo’s kiss, on the other hand, is perturbing, startling. The provocation here goes beyond ridicule, beyond the sacrilegious treatment of a national figure. A habit has been inscribed outside of it its everydayness, in the estranged and strange realm of the work of art, and it is no longer invisible.
Taken together, the airports, polling sites, and the slow unfolding of working days, are all what Bourdieu, in his “philosophy of action,” identifies as incorporated structures, which he defines as habitus, and he does so with the aim of revealing the mechanisms by which power controls people’s actions for its benefit. Bourdieu goes beyond historical materialism by emphasizing the existence of cognitive factors not simply as the “residue” (see Althusser) of the material subject. His concept has points in common with such significant readings as Deleuze’s virtuality or Foucault’s micropolitics—as Jon Beasley-Murray (2010) suggests, and it is from here that we might make connections with other concepts such as biopolitics, to mention only one that is fundamental. Regarding habitus as unifying practices of state control, Bourdieu (1986) writes that:
Through the framing it imposes upon practices, the state establishes and inculcates common forms and categories of perception and appreciation, social frameworks of perceptions, of understanding or of memory, in short state forms of classification. lt. thereby creates the conditions for a kind of immediate orchestration of habitus which is itself the foundation of a consensus over this set of shared evidence constitutive of (national) common sense. (54)
Jon Beasley-Murray picks up on this Bourdieusian notion and studies it in the current context that he defines as posthegemonic. He sustains that through the habitus, bodies’ immanent potential can manifest itself—as authors such as Hardt and Negri (2001, 2004) have also suggested—and emphasizes that the habitus not only reveals the control mechanisms but also offers the possibility of constituting something new; that is, it is the possibility of rebelling against power through the same mechanism (bodily actions) through which forms of control are exercised. As these are collective practices that respond to institutional norms, it might well be said that “our habits are not our own” (204): “our bodies become accustomed to waiting in line, to passing through metal detectors, to iris scans and security pat-downs” (175). Not even with the effort of our bodies do we entirely own our habits, let alone choose them. The economic and social crisis that in Venezuela has forced many to adopt and reproduce new habits in order to survive, which include waiting in long lines to acquire basic consumer products and following the curfew established by citizens during night hours to avoid crime. Habits are therefore not just that which make us citizens, but are also, here, evidence of state crime.
Taking these practices, emptying them out, and presenting them in their most corporeal form so as to expose them may bring to light a message that in other contexts would be more difficult to transmit—thus the “shock,” as Beasley-Murray refers to it, of avant-garde forms. Today, reflecting on a government that has defined itself as ideologically radical, Deborah Castillo explores those instinctive, involuntary mechanisms through her body, framing her work as a critique of Chavista hegemony that goes beyond the mere reproduction of Bolivarian discourse. In this way, the artist reveals a possible escape from state supremacy that can be found in its own domain: through those very workings of the body that make possible daily practices of control, we can also exercise resistance. Castillo has displaced a sacred object and her intervention has taken a form that for some is not only uncomfortable but despicable. Her action reminds us of the presence of a figure, which though its omnipresence, goes unnoticed in the daily lives of Venezuelans. By kissing that figure, she adds the body to the equation: the immaculate figure carries on depicted along the streets where daily life––existence––has become impoverished and vulnerable. Thus, I believe that Castillo not only draws attention to the cult of Bolívar, which is so often referenced, but her body’s intervention in the work also speaks to the body that has been mediated and controlled by the state and its heroes. There is always something that does not obey absolute control, which escapes from the body. The body may serve the state, but it also serves creations like Castillo’s that rebel against it.
In another video performance in the exhibition “Acción y culto,” a man sings the Venezuelan national anthem in another language. The shock makes us aware of the existence of lyrics that we are barely conscious of, even though we hear them regularly. Do we really think about the lyrics of the national anthem when they come out of the lips of soccer players, the camera panning the field, the song bursting from the television? What about when the anthem precedes a school function? As a banal practice, it is perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations of state control that has withstood the passage of time. And in Venezuela, its lines have been adopted, taken out of context, and reused all over. We are the “Brave people” (“Bravo pueblo”––one of the most repeated lines in the anthem). Its lyrics flow freely in political marches, in the names of political parties, in campaign hashtags, in slogans. They then stream into the most habitual, constant practices: conversations, tweets, cries from balconies when the president’s message interrupts the nine o’clock telenovela. In Castillo’s video, a quite obvious interpretation emerges, which points to the ever-increasing commercial dependence of Venezuela on China (as it is also increasing on Russia). However, I am interested in an underlying meaning that I believe relates more organically to the bodily interventions, which in this exhibition, signal the daily and vital control of state sovereignty. As Billig has proposed (1995), nationalist practices—which in the national anthem we see in a pure form—are reproduced “in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times” (6). Nationalism, from this perspective, is “far from being an intermittent mood in established nations” (6). Deborah Castillo takes as her point of departure the manifestation of a very clear nationalist performance, but by creating a sense of estrangement, she makes us think about the reproduction of a similar rhetoric that goes beyond protocol or national events. For it is not a question of recognizing the nationalism present in the national anthem, which would be too obvious. Rather, it is about reminding us of the daily triumph of state control, whatever links it may have with China, Russia, or nineteenth-century Romanticism.
As part of the exhibition, Castillo presented the video of a performance carried out in 2012, in which the artist repeatedly licks a military boot. This image, in which Castillo is kneeling with her arms crossed behind her back, was reproduced as a stencil in Venezuelan protests (Castillo, Ordosgoitti and Tiniacos 2014). In another piece, a stack of 180 soles from military boots painted with gold enamel form a column, which Castillo titled Lingotes. Again, the gold suggests the state’s accumulation of wealth in opposition to the precarity of ordinary Venezuelans, this time multiplied by 180 and rendered in the form of one of the clearest symbols of military ideology, which is also characteristic of Chavismo.
The possibility of taking elements from the imaginary of power, which are imposed and then normalized in daily life, and then transferring them into a radically different context so as to critique that very subjugation exposes the fragility of those very same elements. This is what Beasley-Murray alludes to regarding the creative potential of the habitus. Hardt and Negri have suggested something similar:
Habits are living practice, the site of creation and innovation. If we look at habits from an individual standpoint, our power to change may appear small, but as we said are not really formed or performed individually. From the social standpoint, in contrast, from the standpoint of social communication and collaboration, we have in common enormous power to innovate […]. Habits are not really obstacles to creation but, on the contrary, are the common basis on which all creation takes place. Habits for a nature that is both produced and productive, created and creative—an ontology of social practice in common. (Multitude… 198)
Hardt and Negri cite various examples to demonstrate a significant tradition of the idea of habits as a counterpoint to subjectivity, a way of showing the importance of bodies (they suggest, for example, that modern philosophy has attempted to separate itself from traditional philosophy with regard to where subjectivity is to be “found”). In the face of the current ideological extremism of some governments, this observation is valid, as Castillo has shown it to be with her artistic interventions. Her work goes beyond the Venezuelan political realm dominated by Chavista ideology, although I do not mean to say that it is entirely outside the realm of the political. It challenges frameworks of control through mechanisms similar to those habits that are our socially shared structures. Castillo reveals the forms that these habits take through a process of estrangement. She proposes that the body has autonomy in executing these habits and thus reclaims and defends the ability to liberate oneself from state control. While national allegory erases bodies and the identity of bodies––while the sovereign unites bodies as part of his regime of control––Castillo, through the body, “reaffirms existence,” as Beasley-Murray puts it. This habit, stripped bare by the artist, signals something much greater, and may be an analogy for something much more all-consuming, which is no longer only the extreme nationalism of the present. The analogy points to the invisible, quotidian crimes of the state, an enforced precarity that, as Judith Butler (2015) has shown, is a condition differentiating a certain segment of the population and leaving it exposed to state violence.
It is true that the references Castillo makes in her work signal a broader Venezuelan and Latin American tradition, as with the cult of Bolívar. However, they are also hugely pertinent to a context in which we find not only extreme nationalism and Bolivarianism, but also the persistence of habits that foreclose the possibility of a dignified life, and by extension, bodies subjected and driven to utmost precarity. For behind the walls covered in posters, graffiti, and Bolivarian images, there are empty hospitals, grocery stores, and pharmacies. Castillo’s defiant gesture therefore asks us to consider how this precarity is not only sustained by an ideological proposal like Chavismo. Rather, she shows us the “diffuseness” of politics, which make us obedient in the most far-fetched of situations, and reminds us that we must insist on seeking out all possible ways to show how inhuman and unjust practices have been naturalized. Perhaps the reaffirmation of existence, in artistic interventions like Castillo’s, continues to reveal that the body can be not only the repository of habit but also a visible way of stripping power of its mythic status.
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