by Yenny Hernández Valdés
Febrero 8, 2023
Let us briefly review Hannah Arendt’s ideas on the importance that for her the philosophical postulate of “humanity” has taken on for current generations, inasmuch as it has become an urgent reality due, among other issues, to the impact that the West has had on the rest of the world, not only because of an evident saturation of its products and technological development, but also because it has “exported” its recipe on the construction of the nation-state as the only possible form of government.
At the same time, it has sought to justify the existence of a natural nation-state, perhaps transparent -intenuously thinking-, delimited by natural borders. This has led to the formation of imperial, rather than natural, states, where diverse communities are grouped under the same centralized authority, which come into conflict due to their differences, especially enhanced by a notable economic depression.
Undoubtedly, decadence subjugates the present time and humanity goes through dark moments in its decadence. The totalitarian authority proclaims itself to be the leader of this humanity and has led to a hegemonic dimension, brimming with an excessive ego, which administers a mass stripped of (its) identity.
Is it possible to reverse this authoritarian effect on today’s society? Is it possible that the gregarious subject jumps out of the lethargy of blind subordination and recognizes itself as a thinking and acting subject, no longer an automaton and passive one? To what extent will the authoritarian exercise of power go beyond the limits of imposition, exclusivity, disdain and hurtful segmentation?
Between Hannah Arendt’s ideas and these questions I debate in critical reasoning with the installation work “La morada de Leviathan”, by Cuban artist Ernesto Benitez (Havana, 1971), exhibited at the Zambrano Hall of the Hispano-American Center of Culture in Havana, from January 13 to February, which gives curatorial body to the personal exhibition La morada de Leviathan (Leviathan’s abode).
Once again Ernesto Benitez activates the neurons with a work as critical and questioning as his own system of thought. An artist who makes use of a strong philosophical foundation, with an exquisite and measured dose of the sharp and questioning, with a singular mastery to translate analytical thought into art, could not offer us something that does not respond to that creative and hermeneutic exquisiteness that has always characterized him.
This artist “bets on an artistic discourse that assumes our own weaknesses, the splits and fractures of all kinds that result from our existential experience, emphasizing an uncontainable need for religare”.
Let’s remember that Benitez is part of the 1980s generation of Cuban artists: unabashed questioners, satirical in the right proportion, stripped of mercantile networks, defenders of a critical, dialectic, provocative artistic language. Antonio Correa exquisitely defines their operation when he emphasizes that:
The ontological is, for Ernesto Benitez, the pretext to shred the apocryphal assertion about our existence […]. Benítez discards any reminiscence, as well as the cultural modes on which we have established a narrative as status […].
Ernesto Benítez opens and digs into the scars of historical discursivity, the fields of art and thought are his delirium, his deepest obsession. He lashes out against them, but he lashes out above all against the aberrant exclusionary naturalization of Western culture. The wounds that have healed falsely, bleed, and only with blood is remedied what with blood has been imposed by decree of armor and sword. The dichotic causalist and teleological structures, the sclerotic binariety, the time of the clocks, the beautiful, the methodical, the canonical forms and figures acquire in Ernesto Benitez’s work a relevance from what I like to call the genealogy of lucidity. Perhaps the notion of genealogy is definitely the precise concept to show the work of this man who, from art, has entered into thought, with the sole purpose of “reproducing” the primordial order of things before the existence of a language. The work of Ernesto Benítez, who, from art, has entered into thought with the sole purpose of “reproducing” the primordial order of things before the existence of a language.[i]
Specifically, “The Abode of Leviathan” unfolds in a single installation of ephemeral character in which dozens of black garbage bags inflated with air are grouped together, which is gradually being lost, piled up like a tumult of waste with no apparent schedule for collection or cleaning.
Conceptually, the work is based on the thought of Thomas Hobbes, considered one of the fathers of modern political philosophy and author of the essay Leviathan or The Matter, Form and Power of an Ecclesiastical and Civil State (1651), in which he unfolds an analysis of the creation of an ideal state and the multiple social dynamics.
As an expository proposal, Ernesto Benítez’s Leviathan brings up some sociological reflections that go beyond political and even ecological conceptualisms.
The work, in addition to its Hobbesian support in which the English philosopher intelligently relates the biblical monster with the centralized, omnipresent and unique power structure, reflects on the tensions that the concepts of authority and power in different societies, now analyzed from the balcony of contemporaneity, have generated in sociological analyses since ancient times, the atrocious influence of technology and the life experience that Ernesto has had as an artist during his stay in Europe -or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it “the West”, according to Hannah Arendt’s ideas- and Havana -his birthplace and a context that still wallows in the nostalgia of a failed social project.
This becomes the artistic and symbolic representation of a universal social reality that has hit bottom in the authoritarian ways in which power has been projected and (self-)imposed. In the words of Ernesto Benítez:
[…] Authority constituted in the times of Augustan Rome -and constitutes today in the West- a sort of recognition that does not allow self-imposition, but rather, must be granted or bestowed. But when and under what circumstances does the exercise of authority degenerate into authoritarianism? What leads us, once in power, to confuse discipline and obedience to rules with blind meekness? How do we overcome consensus to end up in imposition, exclusion, scorn, denigration of the different and the dissenting, or repudiation of the dissident? On what arguments is the violence of those who only seek to cling to power justified? From these and other questions Leviathan is born as an exhibition project […].
“The Abode of Leviathan” reflects, then, on power without authority and on the authoritarianisms that emanate from absolute power, power without limits, greed and excessive ego. It reflects on the quasi-divine connotation and the dogmatically religious character of all “coexistence” based on the absolutist theism of totalitarianisms. “The Abode of Leviathan” reflects on the power that authorizes itself through the discourse of the Hobbesian “popular sovereignty” represented in the figure of the monarch, of a caudillo, a leader (openly supreme or diligently in the shadows), a chief… a power without authority that is no longer obtained, not earned, not deserved, but exclusively held in the same way as private property is held […] (press release).
In addition, the work alludes to a subject reduced to anonymity, to the gregarious man, to the stripping of his personality. Hence the association between the individual and the garbage bags, condemned to waste, to the residual of its “content”. It is the metaphor of a mass that loses not only air, but also its own identity and will.
The supposed homogeneity of this amorphous, anonymous, obedient mass is represented in a sea of black bags, all the same, all marked by the same numerical code whose real meaning is known only to the artist; while the rest of us can speculate on the possible reading of this numbering and whose combination or symbolic matrix is as polemic/polysemic as the work itself.
This Leviathan provokes, without half-measures, reflections on a sociological reality of a universal nature. Note that there are no explicit references to one or another social reality:
[…] there is no interest in any identity discourse, much less in resorting to localisms, he dissents from any banal apology or explicit opposition to any social system. Benítez reacts, first of all, to what is supposedly immediate and, disregarding claims, goes to the beginning of an anthropological interest that has long gone beyond social militancy. Because Benítez is a political artist, but from the horizontality that constructs the political as a guiding medium of the extra-individual interactions of the original human being; and he is interested in breaking narratives, but in the order of the toxicities that make up that “political” mass between person and person […][ii]
He is an artist, moreover, who defies stale discourses to offer a reflexive proposal, in accordance with his operational, creative and philosophical system, with the will to activate a critical thinking system in whoever approaches his Leviathan.
Published in the Art, Literature and Society Platform Hypermedia Magazine