The Divergent Scene
Art and Context in VenezuelaMay 18, 2014
Image: Juan José Olavarría. Ahogada
Written by Félix Suazo and originally published in Spanish by Tráfico Visual on April 1, 2014. Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.
Both inside and outside of Venezuela, many are wondering what is going on with art in the face of the high level of political conflict that dominates the country. They want to know what the artists’ position is and how they perceive the situation through their works. In general, the responses to these questions have to confront the stereotypes that label Venezuela as a nation of beauty queens and oil, considered by many as a bastion of the left and by others as the ruins of unfulfilled potential.
This commentary focuses on outlining a representative, although not exhaustive, set of examples, problems, and proposals that critically examine the social and political context of Venezuela. The subjects and examples that follow allow us to establish the coordinates and attributes that define the contextual gravitation of the diverse visual practices that comprise what we could call the “divergent scene,” understood as the conglomeration of proposals confronting and dismantling the rhetorical devices of power in present-day Venezuela.
The genealogy of divergent creative practices in Venezuela has its origins in the insurgent and countercultural tactics undertaken by the artistic and literary collective El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale), active between 1961 and 1967. Another important precedent involved the conceptual experiences that emerged in the 1970s, whose foundations were considered simultaneously a reflection of the rules of art and the mechanisms of social representation, with language being one of their preferred instruments.  As the relationship between power and Venezuelan society has become more confrontational, the divergent scene we will be referring to here has taken on a dense critical musculature, as well as ever more creative solutions and strategies.
Let us first say that in the midst of a fairly heterogeneous cultural panorama, there remains a significant portion of creative practices that are highly tuned-in to the demands of context and immersed in the critical interpellation of the primary issues of the national agenda. Notable among these issues are the acrimonious debate over the national models put forth by the country’s primary political forces, the discursive contradictions of the mechanisms of power and their manifestation in the symbols of collective identity, and the growing influence of the military sector on national life. To these, we could add the impact of crime on everyday life, the prison crisis, and lack of personal security, among other issues. These proposals have been developed in different media and languages, always chosen for their relationship to the content, with photography, video, and live or recorded performance being the most frequent.
Patriotic symbols, elements of collective and sovereign identity, have been subjected to critical re-readings framed within the debate over the uses and meanings of national symbols in present-day Venezuela. In one of the pieces from the series Ensayando la postura nacional (Practicing National Posture), Alexander Apóstol focuses his attention on the national seal through a video-based reconstruction of the work by nationalist painter Pedro Centeno Vallenilla. To do so he uses three male models whose ethnic features—indigenous, black and white—symbolize the syncretic configuration of vernacular culture. The characters flank a shield that is drawn on a wall, while they attempt with difficulty to keep the pose held in the painting that serves as their reference, as if the solemn fixity of what is being performed was nothing more than an unsustainable artifice or staging.
The typographical dismemberment of the national anthem dominates one of the proposals in the Tipo inútil (Useless Type) exhibition (ONG, 2014), a work conceived by the designer and visual artist Teresa Mulet using black plastic bags. The text, of which only the first line can be read (Gloria al bravo pueblo / Glory to the valiant people...), spreads out onto the floor until becoming a pile of jumbled letters, in a gesture of mourning for the victims of homicide who are admitted into morgues wrapped in plastic bags.
In response to another event that left Venezuelans in mourning, a landslide known as El deslave which took place in the coastal state of Vargas in 1999, Consuelo Méndez developed the video performance La vaguada (The River Bed), in which she attempts to sing the national anthem while drinking water. Her throat is only capable of producing gargles, liquid outbursts and drowned-out words.
In the polyptych Bandera madre (Mother Flag, 2010), by Juan José Olavarría, the national insignia appears without color, drawn on sheets of metal in the old-fashioned lines of ancient heraldry. Barely visible on this horizon of rusted iron are the incisive strokes of what can be seen as the foundational tri-colored national flag created by Francisco de Miranda in 1806. The artist himself, whose focus has been on remembering and disremembering, has taken his reflections back to the constitutional beginnings of the nation in the video Ahogada (Drowning Victim, 2009), in which he repeatedly immerses the 1999 constitution of the Venezuelan state in water until it expires and sinks, a metaphor for what a significant sector of Venezuelan society feels is the violation of its precepts.
Paralleling the growth of the presence of the military sector in the institutional and political structures of Venezuelan society, Pietro Daprano recreates scenes in which he combines the erotic with the tasteless in a duo of exhibitions titled Colección Marginal (Marginal Collection, Museo Alejandro Otero, 2002) and Teatro de Operaciones (Theater of Operations, Galería D’ Museo, 2003). In pieces such as Plan Ávila (The Ávila Plan, 2002) and Venganza pasional (Passionate Vengeance, 2003), Daprano replaces the battlefield with a more tranquil setting—pastel colors, softly textured surfaces, etc.—in which a crowd of plastic toy soldiers faces a battle between codes: the sober culture of warfare on one hand, and the ludic candor of artifice on the other.
Deborah Castillo also confronts the predominance of military personnel as power holders, which she responds to in her constructed staging of the behaviors of submission and idolatry in the show Acción y Culto (Action and Devotion, Centro Cultural Chacao, 2013). This project includes the video performance Lamezuela (Lickezuela) and the installation Lingotes (Ingots), the former being a sensual allegory for submission to power, while the latter questions the leadership of security forces through the erection of a totem made out of the gold-painted soles of military boots.
For his part, Iván Candeo transfers the issue of the national defense forces into a broader reflection on the circularity of movement as a pretext for staying in the same place and nullifying historical time in the video 1,2,3 Sin mover los pies (1,2,3 Without Moving Your Feet, 2010), in which a squad of uniformed soldiers obediently follows commanding voices that lead to nothing.
Opposition to the Underworld
Between political polarization and a lack of personal security, the theme of violence has captured the attention of Venezuelan society. According to official figures, total deaths by homicide in Venezuela reached 24,763 in 2013, the majority of them by firearm.
In the exhibition Plomo (Lead, El Anexo/Arte Contemporáneo, 2013), Juan Toro displays a photographic inventory of bullets extracted from the bodies of their victims. The projectiles, of diverse shapes and calibers, preserve the imprint of their impact, and in some cases contain the remains of organic fiber, elements that paradoxically convey a sculptural appearance that downplays the drama of the deceased and heightens their aesthetic qualities, even while they are in reality the symptom of a situation that is out of control.
Jesús Hernández-Guero, a Cuban-born artist residing in Venezuela, displayed a catalog of the 24 types of firearms most frequently used in kidnappings and murders in a show titled Las armas no matan (Guns Don’t Kill People, El Anexo/Arte Contemporáneo, 2013). The images of revolvers and rifles were made in actual size out of gunpowder on canvas, and their spatial arrangement recreates that of a firing range. Completing this project are some 13,000 bullet casings scattered on the floor alluding to the number of homicides in the country in 2012.
Meanwhile, the persecution and punishment of crime is frustrated by the crisis in the nation’s penitentiary institutions, with recent cases demonstrating that the authorities have lost control over those establishments. This situation provides the foundation for the exhibition Penitenciario (Penitentiary, El Anexo/Arte Contemporáneo, 2013) by Amada Granado, who registers scenes of a spa built by prisoners in a correctional institute on Margarita Island, where children and adults seem to encounter a paradisiacal location with mango trees, sun and surf. All of this wonder is owed to the power and initiative of El Conejo (Bunny), a convict who occupies the highest position in the prison hierarchy and with whom the artist had to negotiate for permission to take these photographic images. Here there are no bars, no guards and also no incidences of violence, showing a picturesque and peaceful façade behind which lies the imposition of the prisoners’ dominance over the personnel charged with upholding the strict observance of the prison regime.
The Other Side of the Coin
“Venezuela is sick for people like you” (“Venezuela está enferma por gente como tú”) is the phrase repeated in a video loop created by Conrado Pittari in 2012. The work takes as its referent a scene from the soap opera Por estas calles (On These Streets), in which a child is conversing with a corrupt politician, showing the problem of impunity and its lasting validity. The fragment in question is submitted to a process of mediated reconversion, passing from video to pixelated photogram and then to its posterior chromatic reordering, which for the artist fulfills the function of a more or less abstract social pattern.
In a video triptych that heavily features the three colors of the national flag—yellow, blue and red—José Joaquín Figueroa produces a self-portrait in which he takes on the characteristics of politicians from the country’s different historical eras. In the first section he appears with a sword and in a military jacket, while reciting quotes from Simón Bolívar; in the second, he is in flux and voraciously drinking whisky, while in the third he adopts the stance of the governing party by wearing a t-shirt printed with the silhouette of Argentine guerrilla Ernesto Guevara.
In the series Std color (Std Color, 2010) Domingo De Lucia uses pictorial practice to take on the model of the country that is brandished as official policy by the governing sector, concentrating on the chemical modifications generated by the growth of bacteria on the color red, taken as a tool for ideological standardization.
In the installation Desaceleración fantasmática de la escritura (The Phantasmatic Deceleration of Writing, 2013) Luis Arroyo offers a schizoid reading of a Marxist text whose pages have been replaced by long sheets of electroencephalograms that twist and fold like brainwaves. Between their red covers, the thoughts of the author of Capital and The Communist Manifesto is no more than an amorphous mass on which a current of unintelligible impulses is inscribed.
Money and ideology are melded in the video Reconversión (Reconversion, 2008) by Marco Montiel Soto, who takes on the task of erasing three zeroes from the thousand Bolívar bill, in allusion to the paradoxical effect of the monetary policy undertaken by the government itself, inspired by the creed of the independence-era hero whose effigy is emblazoned on the bill in question.
Confined to his room during the paralysis of the oil industry in 2002, Muu Blanco attempted to compose an image of the events unfolding as he sat in front of the television. This led to the video Paro (Strike, 2002), which consists of channel surfing through images taken from different news programs.
An Untimely Epilogue
To conclude this summary review of works and projects of a divergent character, it is essential to point out that a great deal of them were presented or exhibited initially within the circuit of independent spaces that took shape starting in 2005 in response to the decline in museum programming. Using this platform, the experiences mentioned negotiate the challenges of a country stretched thin by a high level of political conflict, the distortions of the system of production and the exacerbation of state control over information, which has had a consequential impact on cultural life and the activities of the artistic sector. May these notes serve as a preliminary approximation of the critical imaginary of the divergent scene in Venezuela.
Caracas, March 2014
 For a more systematic analysis of the historical and conceptual precursors to this phenomenon, see: Suazo, Félix. A Diestra y siniestra. Comentarios sobre arte y política. (Left and Right: Commentaries on Art and Politics) Caracas: Fundación de Arte Emergente, 2005.
* I am grateful to the author for this article.