For an aestheticization of violence: Borderline, the radiography of the contemporary subject.
By Piter Ortega Núñez
To Mailyn Machado.
“The self-alienation of the human being has reached such a degree that it allows him to live his own destruction as an aesthetic enjoyment of the first order”. This famous Benjaminian sentence, expounded in his anthological text “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility”, was the first idea that came to my mind when I visited Ernesto Benitez’s Borderline solo show, exhibited from May to June 2006 at UNEAC’s Villa Manuela Gallery. Benitez has managed to establish in his poetics a sort of aestheticization of violence, since it is considered a catalyst for the most unsuspected pleasures and aberrations. In this sense, the knife has become the fundamental iconographic symbol of his work, although not the only one, since in previous exhibitions the guillotine, the scissors, the axe, the sickle, the lance, among others, have been frequent.
This time the creator opted for a sui generis museographic-curatorial conception that allowed him to transfigure the gallery into a simulacrum of a “Clinic”. Thus, the space was divided into three compartments, rooms or sections: the Crisis Room, the name usually given to the on-call corps in psychiatric hospitals; the Diagnosis Room or Transit Room, designed to determine the patient’s pathologies; and the Religation Room, intended for the exorcism of evils.
The first room is made up of three large-scale installations, in which the author dialogues symbolically with realities very close to the experience of death. The most striking of them is entitled Metamorphosis, and presents a life-size human figure modeled in clay and wrapped up to the armpits in numerous bandages or ropes, like a chrysalis that will soon be devoured by tarantulas. “In my work -comments the artist- the bandages enunciate the same double meaning that in the Egyptian hieroglyphic system refers both to the first wrapping with which the newborn is received, and to the shroud with which the deceased is deposited in his final resting place.”[i] On both sides of the piece are two photos -taken in the morgue- that resemble X-ray plates, and in which the heart and brain of the figure represented can be glimpsed, as if from a Negatoscope.
Both in Metamorphosis and in other of the works exhibited, a vitally important feature of Benítez’s poetics can be observed: I am referring to self-referentiality. In the first place, the artist has once again taken his own body as a model for the conformation of the phenotypical features of the figure in question. On the other hand, the sculpture contains in its interior bodily fluids, hair, epithelial and other physical detachments of the creator that must give the piece -according to the author’s own testimony- a special energy.
Another significant work among those that make up the Sala de Crisis is the one that presents a knob of serum with its respective hose, the latter describing the record or route of an electrocardiogram, until it reaches the heart -already non-functioning- on the far right. Here the sadistic, quasi-terrorist, anthropophobic breath is evident: the inside of the serum bottle has been stripped of the usual life-saving substance, and several table knives have been placed in its place. Again a pronounced atmosphere of menace, danger, tearing, pain becomes apparent.
In all cases we are dealing with limit situations for the human being (the clinical-surgical imprint of the sample emphasizes this idea), situations that are nevertheless carriers of a morbid, seductive excitement, so that suffering and delectation are interwoven, enhancing self-flagellation as an intense source of fruition[ii]. But undoubtedly the ideas set out above are not the only ones that are presented in this exhibition.
But undoubtedly the ideas exposed above reach their climax on the healing table in the Religation Room, from which emerge a number of sharp rivets and seven knives in vertical position, which are distributed in such a way that they directly affect the chakras -energy centers of the body- of the alleged “patient”. However, beyond this association with the chakras, the interesting aspect of the work lies in the perverse gesture that involves the conversion of the room intended precisely for rescue, in an ideal place for amputation and suicide. It follows that immolation and death are considered the only way of salvation.
Such an apocalyptic and skeptical tone responds to an epochal logic marked by the impossibility of sustaining any kind of teleology. After a strongly utopian Modernity, the contemporary or postmodern era has been distinguished by the breakdown of utopia; it is a time of total nihilism, in which there is only talk of the death of… (history, the subject, art, the author, etc.). This exhibition, like the others conceived by the creator, stands as a metaphor for the crisis of the subject in these times: splitting, decentering, paranoia, uprooting, dislocation. “People do not think about why their existence is given to them or where it will lead them. There is no connection between the fragments of everyday life, we find in them no dramaturgy, no culminating point that could be foreseen or reached (…) It is simply a different mutation of culture (…), deliberately devoid of any fixed coordinates, without a system of reference to what would be the alpha and omega of individual and collective existence”[iii]. It follows, therefore, that the realizations of the “everyday life” are not the same as those of the “everyday life”, but rather the “everyday life”.
It follows, then, that the artist’s realizations, with a solid philosophical and anthropological foundation, escape any localism or exclusively insular condition and acquire a universal character. This seems very healthy to me, especially in the context of a national art that has not been able to shake off the ties that come with the anguish of being under the -already millenarian and arch-mandated- “damned circumstance of water everywhere”. It is time to accept once and for all that we live in a globalized world, in which an unavoidable transnationalization of cultural experiences has taken place, to the point that the very concept of “nation” has entered into crisis. Then, why continue to engage in the ancestral demarcation and definition of a “Cuban art” at a time when frontiers are increasingly blurred? For better or for worse -I refrain from adopting an ethical stance on the phenomenon- we must admit that the definitive expansion of the Western project on a global scale is already a fact; the so-called “Westernization of the planet” is an inevitable, irreversible reality, so we urgently need to learn to live with it (something that also concerns art, of course).
In relation to what I called above the aestheticization of violence in the creator’s work, and to conclude, I will conclude with some words of the outstanding American thinker Hal Foster -an essential theorist to understand the avatars of the subject in current times-, which serve me in some way to evoke the overwhelming and disconcerting effect that Borderline provoked in me:
(…) Of that kind was for me the real CNN Effect of the Gulf War: repelled by politics, I was captivated by the images, by a psycho-techno-narrowing that locked me in (…) When the screens of the bombs went dark, my body did not explode. In fact, it was supported: in a classic fascist trophy, my body, my condition as a subject, was affirmed in the destruction of other bodies. And, again, I don’t think I was the only one to experience that atrocious affirmation.[It is] (…) a moral split, the paradox of aversion undermined by fascination, or of sympathy undermined by sadism (…)[iv]
[i] Ernesto Benítez. Borderline. Theoretical Project (unpublished).
[ii] See, among the works that mimic medical X-rays in the Diagnostic Room, the one showing a hand pierced by three long stingers.
[iii] Stefan Morawski. From aesthetics to the philosophy of culture. Selection and translation from Polish: Desiderio Navarro. TEOR/ética, Centro Teórico-Cultural CRITERIOS, Havana/ San José, C.R., 2006, p. 362.
[iv] Hal Foster. “Postmodernism in parallax” (photocopied material).
Published in Revista Extramuros, Havana, Cuba. Issue No. 21/2006, Pp 58-59.