Notes on Contemporary Venezuelan Art in ExileTuesday, July 30, 2019
Traditionally, Venezuela has not been a country of emigrants, but rather one that has welcomed those from beyond its borders. There is proof of this in the warm reception of different waves of European and Latin American migration over the course of the 20th century, thanks to which its “culture,” as well as its cities and ways of life, have come about as the complex product of diverse influences and multiple encounters. That welcoming impulse was always marked by a persistent admiration for “the other”—the alien or the foreign— as well as a strong desire for novelty, thanks to which Venezuela was characterized (at least since the mid-20th century) as having a relationship of detachment or inattentiveness toward the past (what has been). On the one hand, this has allowed for the continual reinvention of the country’s spaces and traditions, but on the other hand it has had the consequence of causing many of the nation’s products and elaborations to be abandoned or left unfinished, giving way to successive intractable transformations where that which had already been completed was frequently fragmented and discarded. In this sense, modern Venezuelan culture possesses a sort of “port contexture”: its desiring gaze points toward that which exists beyond its borders; it awaits that which will come, the unknown and foreign that might arrive; it is accustomed to modifications, to transitions, to things that do not last, to disappearances.
The fleetingness that has marked Venezuela’s history and cultural production points to a kind of “blame” that has been translated into the construction of a “mythology of amnesia”: a reiterated narrative—perhaps somewhat inconsiderate—that reproaches the Venezuelan social body for its lack of activity on issues of tradition and memory, its open disposition toward changes and transformations, its capacity for demolishing and reconstructing, its talent for always somehow being the different one, for ignoring and for neglecting. That “mythology of amnesia” has supposed, and proposed, that this attraction to change and novelty, to permanent modification, gives way to an existential evolution that ends up manifesting itself in the loss of content, in a kind of “void,” whether in reference to the social and political aspects of public life or in reference to different spheres within the overall framework of culture. For example, this “mythology” explains the way urban growth has taken place in Caracas, demolishing pieces of its own constructive history, or highlights the fact that no particular “histories” have been elaborated in correspondence with the artistic disciplines, thus leaving significant gaps in knowledge regarding what has been created or what has taken place.
In this way, “memory” has been a recurring theme in Venezuelan culture, whether through the denunciation of its absence or the demand for its practice, and it has always been linked to its condition as a port—waiting for the other—which has defined the nation’s trajectory. It is a recurring theme that would seem to be a symptom of the difficulties and deficiencies of the Venezuelan process of modernization, especially the way that “modernity,” on the one hand, was installed through the reception of formulas and projects oriented toward a cosmetic modernity that disposed of its own objectives in favor of the constant incorporation of novelties, and on the other hand, it was fundamentally an infrastructure-related operation in constantly cohabitation with a rural and pre-modern “Venezuela.” In this way, “memory” has always been one of the country’s concerns, as a target for critique during the years of the republic, and as an emblem of the exercise of power during the years of the Bolivarian Revolution. Indeed, the transformation of Venezuela from a host country to a nation of emigrants—the reality of decrease and desolation—and the “monumentalization” of memory—its conversion into a political instrument—would seem to respond to the same issue: a crisis in “public life”—in what is shared, what is common to all—that has been resolved in favor of a way of life locked up in the “private,” confined to a series of “refuges” separated from civic duties and public life.
Exile, the experience of exile and of the losses it implies, is thus not only a physical reality, but an emotional reality as well. In this sense, it is something that takes place not only for those who leave but also for those who stay behind: the former arrive to unknown places and attempt to understand and comprehend them, while the latter remain in a place that is becoming more and more unknown to them, characterized by a slow but progressive evacuation. This “exile,” experienced by some as longing and by others as a progressive un-knowing, has had an important impact on both the “port culture” that has defined Venezuela’s course of action, as well as the “memory” that is being exercised and cultivated today. We can see examples of this situation in contemporary Venezuelan visual works, which we will analyze in the remainder of this essay.
In contemporary Venezuelan visual art, the temptation of “exile” (of life in other lands) had been a recurring attitude starting in the 20th century, a seductive horizon that implied the possibility of “acting” within the “centers,” of confronting that seductive exteriority and inserting oneself into it, entering into global scenes and establishing unforeseen connections. Most of the time, exile had been voluntary and unhurried, an “exile” which meant existing in transit—displaced, passing through—, and elaborating a nomadic way of life through which to enrich one’s “practice” with ever more distinct and distant experiences and formulas. Following the first waves of modern “dissidents” who attempted to articulate a dialogue with the primary currents of European art, we have important contemporary artists such as Alexander Apóstol, José Antonio Hernández-Diez, Javier Téllez and Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck, who in spite of distance—or perhaps because of it—have developed a body of work that circulates complex critiques, generally political in nature, regarding those spaces that have been forgotten or marginalized within the dominant culture, highlighting the shadows and fissures among the schemes and projects of national modernization in diverse areas, showing their contradictions and incongruencies. In this way, for the Venezuelan visual arts scene, “exile” and migration signified a shift in the locus of enunciation that allowed for the development of a critique of national reality which, circulated in terms of an analysis as well as a lucid and solid “commentary,” confronted perspectives, experiences and discourses from distinct contexts.
On the other hand, accompanying the great migration that has come about in recent years, a growing number of artists have abandoned the country in an urgent “exile” necessitated by ever more precarious living conditions (another group has stayed behind, in “exile” from their own reality). This imminent and necessary “exile,” which transcends practice, is manifested in works of art and artistic efforts in ways that are notably divergent from earlier moments in the 20th century. Indeed, this “exile” would seem to have abandoned critical space in order to revitalize problems and issues concerning “memory,” making it a fundamental and recurrent theme.
Thus I believe it is important to ask: to what type of “memory” do these works allude and appeal? It is not a memory of traditions or a cult of the past, nor is it a “Benjaminian” memory attempting to settle cultural debts or exercise some type of critical mechanism. Rather it would seem to be an intimate and telluric memory, an exercise which attempts to recuperate the abandoned place or site and reconstruct it, which attempts to reestablish and rescue the contexture of existence itself. A private memory, which operates as a mark—a signal, a call—through which to gain the capacity to “appropriate,” to bestow limitations and horizons upon those unknown and strange spaces, imbuing them with territoriality. In other words, it is not memory understood as a critical view of the past, as a reinterpretation, nor as the persistence of a form of life or existence, of a culture, but rather it is a “use” of memory that operates as an almost forensic mechanism, as an investigation or inquiry, through which to re-encounter that place or “home” that has been lost and dissolved (inside and out). Indeed, it is a practice that uses small signs and “clues,” minute details and gestures, in an attempt to reconfigure a reality that is constantly being remade from and through subtraction.
This urgent “exile” no longer has to do with the dialectics of the self and the other, inside and out, center and margin, here and there, but rather with the dialectics of presence and absence, corporeality and virtuality, construction and dissolution. It is an experience of “exile” characterized by instability and transience, through an uncertainty that drives—or necessitates—the establishment of networks, systems of recognition and connection, with which to consolidate one’s present condition and one’s own presence. In this sense, it is a “memory” similar to that involuntary “giving up” of memory attempted by Bergson and Proust, and which takes shape as a narrative of the search for the self, a “phenomenological” memory that seeks to function as a substrate of the interweaving of experiences, of the configuration of the self.
In some way, many of the works that are produced out of this urgent “exile” operate as an extension of the processes of dissolution and evacuation that are dismantling the country and its social fabric. Thus, for example, withdrawal, refuge in the private, which has taken on a function as a survival mechanism among those who “stay behind,” prevails as a common theme among those works that seek to find a “place,” and perhaps also a way of life, in contrast to that memory-turned-monument and political instrument that has symbolically reshaped Venezuela’s history, identity and traditions. Likewise, it seeks to recover that dismantled nation that would seem to be located just beyond the horizon, outside any possibility of phenomenological comprehension, and which returns in the form of inquiries that reconstruct events in order to show their textures and imbue them with meaning.
There are many who are exiled (internally and externally) who deal with that forensic memory which attempts to reconstruct itself by reconstructing its own place. Thus, to name just a few, the works of Emilia Azcarate, Mariana Bunimov, Muu Blanco, Marcos Montiel-Soto, Juan José Olavarria, Julia Zurilla, Christian Vinck, Alexandra Khun and Luis Arroyo play with the phantasmagorical interweavings of that reality which seems to be constantly falling apart and which needs to be given a body, materiality, territory, which must be manifested and made visible. They are all works that are distinct from one another, resulting from divergent operations and visual strategies, but that come together by mutually addressing the will to look after what stays behind, the residue, signs and ruins that remain after death, which are a means of “survival.” In so doing, they undertake a critique of violence that foregrounds that reality of a shared “exile” among the bodies that go and those that stay, among those that perish there, those that disappear, those that will be forgotten, and which point to the demystification of the imagery of loss and absence.
Together, and thanks to the differences among them, these works perturb us because they pose questions and reflections: Could it be that this nation of memory is an absence, and that its recovery depends on the power to reformulate its articulation? Could it be that there is a task being laid out: the task of dismantling these long-established representations? Could it be that the future requires the invention of a new kind of articulation, singular and as yet unforeseen? Has the social body been dilapidated and decomposed past the point of no return? Can its wounds and fractures be mended, or is it beyond salvation? How can we get back to a body, and in the body, a collective space—public and political—in which something shared prevails and incites, something shared that is capable of rebuilding histories, of bringing us together?
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
 The “monumentalization” of memory that has given way to the establishment of a political “use” for it and all that it implies, a use that is at times paradoxical, which has erased pieces of our recent history, which has fictionalized and falsified the remote or recent past, and which has turned “memory” into a selective forgetting, a way of constantly reconfiguring that which has constituted its own evolution.