The air smells woodsy inside the main gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC by its Spanish acronym) in Santurce. It isn’t a musty whiff or the false scent of air freshener, but the earthy fragrance of raw wood or perhaps, the tang of newness.
It’s a tarty sweetness that evokes the aroma of carved wood and handwork. Except, nobody is holding a chisel.
The alluring scent, it turns out, stems from the salon’s hardwood flooring, from the wood that serves as an unexpected metaphor for the curatorial work behind “Anarchy and Dialectic in Desire: Gender and Marginality in Puerto Rico” (Anarquía y dialéctica en el deseo: géneros y marginalidad en Puerto Rico), a provocative tribute to Puerto Rican women artists and a project of “historical justice,” according to Marianne Ramírez Aponte, MAC’s executive director.
The exhibition also celebrates resistance as it memorializes the work of women who, despite the limitations imposed by sexism, racism, classism and colonialism, dared to create and (re)create the boundaries of art and the world itself.
Working as a sculptor of sorts, artist and curator Raquel Torres Arzola painstakingly chiseled an exhibition that weaves the work of over 120 artists -from different mediums and time periods- to reemerge as another composition with its own uncanny kind of life.
“My intention is to start a conversation among these art pieces and encourage a debate of ideas in and out of these walls. But I also want these discourses to crash. I’m interested in that collision and exchange of viewpoints,” Torres explained during a tour of the exhibition.
“I wanted to visibilize the fact that we are all different... In my research, I came across these discussions of whether or not feminism was still valid, important or relevant. But with this work I didn’t want to assume a position or give greater value to one position over the other. I wanted to gather those discussions and ‘hear’ them talk.”
The opening display, a combination of poetry and painting, delivers the artistic tension that resonates across the installation and lays the ground for the discussions of embodiment, sexuality and difference.
Alone, on the entry wall, “zero title,” a short poem by Frieda Medín, welcomes visitors. Known as a premier experimental photographer, on this occasion the artist submitted 10 words typed in lowercase on a sheet of white paper. “i am not here. it’s over. it doesn’t exist. they stole it. thank you.” (no estoy aquí. ya pasó. no existe. lo robaron. gracias.)
While Medín denounces the invisibility of women, the other pieces explore the social and cultural norms that regulate the feminized body (cuerpa in Spanish), a term Torres adopts to embrace the multiple interpretations of a woman’s body.
From the controlled femininity depicted in “Portrait of a Lady” by María Luisa Penne del Castillo, to the rumination on sexual violence in the “Rotating Barbed Dildo” by Bárbara Díaz Tapia, and the image of the male naked body in “The Green in the Room” by Myrna Báez, the first sequence of paintings opposes the stereotype of the docile woman with the strong woman fighting violence and sexualizing the male body.
“The pieces in this section dialectically demarcate the evolution of the body towards a self-aware feminized body, that sustains, discusses and reaffirms violent or passive negotiations and transgressions in different levels of breaking away from power and domination,” explains the museum tag.
With the same captivating effect, the curator repeats the artifice throughout the installation to produce a show that causes viewers to look at art anew. By juxtaposing artwork reflecting traditional notions of womanhood with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, Torres challenges the unexamined assumptions that underpin the artistic canon.
Throughout history, art has privileged the male gaze of the female body, Torres reiterates. “Anarchy and Dialectic in Desire” aims at changing that by showcasing without fuss multiple representations of sexualities, desires and pleasures. Together, these pieces embody a mosaic of identities and stories, from the jovial to the political, and from the erotic to the domestic.
“Desire is the only thing that unites us, the desire for action, the desire for creation, the aesthetic desire, the desire to become visible, the desire to speak. It’s the only thing that unites them (artists),” Torres argues.
The deeply personal and intimate work of artists like Mickey Negrón’s performance “Jerónimo” and C. Carmona Ortiz’s “In Transit”, two insights into non-conforming sexuality; Liliana Rivera’s “Susy”, a drawing that delves on a woman’s body odors after touching herself; or Chaveli Sifre’s “Aura Portrait I and II”, recast the concept of the traditional female body to enter a gender transgressive zone.
Others push the boundaries in unpredicted ways like Melanie Rivera Flores’ sculpture “Kunst”, an unassuming piece placed in the middle of the display room with a vulva carved out in the corner of the stone.
Five steps away, Zuania Minier’s installation and video projection “Participatory Liberation: masclu (small macho) IV,” which includes a dangling cluster of ceramic testicles, invites the public to imagine the possibility of breaking the artwork as a metaphor for smashing patriarchy.
The show doesn’t unfold chronologically. On the contrary, it jumps from one period to another, from one medium to the other while crafting its own narrative of change and forging a sense of community. Replicating the diversity of the feminized body, the exhibition incorporates film, video, music, comics, photography, sculpture, performance and an educational program as part of its ambitious agenda.
A collective that reflects on the scars of gender violence and the healing power of art opened recently at the MAC
The exhibition has three acts. The first part, “Dialectic,” opened last Saturday and explores body and identity discourses. It runs until April 2020. “Anarchy,” opens in May 2020 and will focus on the conceptual and experimentation methods of the showcased artists. Thirdly, “Desire” is an ongoing performance program intended to complement the exhibit.
“It’s not so much about who we are by default since we are the result of sociocultural influences. It’s what we propose to be. There’s a dichotomy where the man is considered the example of reason and the woman is associated with the body. When we speak of ‘Anarchy and Dialectic in Desire,’ we are talking about a transformation of the body and desire as an instrument of liberation. In this sense, it is not about ‘I think and therefore I am’, but rather what I desire, what I do, what I challenge, what I think and what I am,” concluded Torres.