The body is an archive of experience. The skin holds scars and muscles remember movement. Performance artists have been exploring the potential of the body as material for decades. Naturally, acts of body modification and rituals around tattooing have developed extensive histories through body-based performance art. Tattooing was addressed early on at Rapid Pulse during the festival’s Vernissage. Waffa Bilal gave an artist talk and shared his piece, “and Counting…”. In this 24-hour piece, the artist’s back was tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq, one dot representing each Iraqi and American casualty near the cities where they were killed. The American soldiers were inked in red and the Iraqi casualties inked in UV, invisible unless viewed under black light. Days later, Rapid Pulse audiences revisited rituals around intentional permanent marking on the body in Emilio Rojas’ performance, “Aesthetic Wounds, Heridas Esteticas”
After entering Defibrillator Gallery, the audience was greeted by Rojas sitting on a throne constructed from shipping pallets and cinderblocks. A tattoo artist sat beside him with his back facing the audience while a woman dressed in white circled the space with burning sage. The woman traveled the space throughout the performance, making gestures that were intended to “create and hold a sacred space”. Much of the performance included actions and materials that are widely recognized for their association with spiritual ritual (hand gestures, sticking out the tongue, placing stones/coins in 3’s, yogic practices, pranayama breathing, etc.) While Rojas sat upon his throne, he held a flesh colored CPR mask up to his face as a hairstylist cut the hair on one side of his head. Rojas projected an image onto the mask while two other projections lit the room. One projection on the back wall revealed an alternative angle of the installation, the other included pre-recorded video actions. As the woman in white protected the space with a candle and focused intent, the sound from the hairstylist’s buzzer mixed with the gentle hum and heat generating from the technology that filled the gallery.
After reading a quote from Guillermo Gomez Peña, a recording of the artist’s voice explained that we would be choosing a tattoo that he will carry on his body for the rest of his life. The voice asked everyone in the audience that had a tattoo to raise their hand. He then asked everyone in the room who had a scar to raise their hand. Almost everyone in the room had an arm in the air. We were told that if our hand was up, we were given the right to vote. “If your hand is not up, I don’t believe you” the voice said. The voice soothed the audience, ensuring us that we would not be asked to show our scars. This acknowledgement that scars and tattoos are sometimes kept “secret” was also an acknowledgement of the relationship between spectacle and ritual; public and private. In contemporary Western culture tattooing, is often times, a relatively private act. To be tattooed in public or amongst strangers raises questions around how ritual is consumed, commodified, and defined by the evolution of culture. How can he act of being watched shift the intention behind the initial action?
As the performance continued, the voice told us that he asked 30 tattoo artists from Mexico, Canada, and USA to write “Aesthetic Wounds, Heridas Esteticas” in the font that they found most appealing. 10 of these designs were preselected and we were asked to collectively choose one to be tattooed on Rojas’ arm. The voice gave us 10 minutes and told us we were responsible for establishing our own decision-making process. He said that he hoped for a democratic decision, but that “in a country where only 57.5% of people voted in the last Presidential election, I don’t know what to expect.” The voice went on to identify the Festival’s Director/Curator as a possible dictator, suggesting that we might feel comfortable with him choosing for us. As we listened to directions, 10 people circled the room holding pieces of paper that read “Aesthetic Wounds”.
While we established a system for voting, the voice read the preamble from the North American Free Trade Agreement while existing tattoos located on his feet were retouched. The voice described the retouching process as his “wounds being reopened” claiming that they would “bleed once more, an offering for our participation.” This romanticized language made me consider the language that we use in rituals around the body and the function of these semantics. Language can be used to dismember the body, differentiate the body from soul, mind, intellect, and ego. It also can establish empathy with others.
Some designs that circled the room included the phrase in both Spanish and English. Early in the process the group agreed on a design with both languages. The artist told us that he would only be tattooed with the English phrase. This was one indication that we were not really being trusted with the fate of the artist’s skin. The audience organized rather quickly, the natural leaders in the group offering themselves to oversee the voting process. Ultimately, we found ourselves arguing between two candidates. When the voting became heated, the audience called to our suggested dictator, the Festival’s Director/Curator to help break the tie between the two designs. During this process, Rojas donning a silver Luche Libre mask, grabbed one of the designs from an assistant and tore it apart. This demonstrated that the choice was never really ours. This broke the audience’s attention and sparked questions around our role. Why was the artist controlling our participation after asking us to engage? Was the artist intentionally manipulating us? If so, how did this choice relate to the content of the work?
The performance continued with Rojas ceremoniously showing us his arm. A video of collections of images and stories of people talking about their own tattoos was projected on a wall. While the tattoo artist tattooed Rojas’ arm, the projection stopped working. Rojas stopped the tattooing to collect his laptop. He shifted his position to accommodate both the tattooing and the improvised action of holding the laptop on his head like a crown. This technical malfunction was an important moment in the piece because it illuminated Rojas’ intent. When presented with the choice between the tattoo or the technology, Rojas refused to let go of either. The piece was less about the ritual of intentionally wounding the body, and more about creating and engaging in spectacle. This was apparent when Rojas pulled down the flesh colored pants had been wearing to reveal sparkly pants that match the Mexican wrestling mask on his head. This is how the artist is dressed for the final action of the piece. Two people from the audience lift one of the pallets and Rojas from his throne and carry him out of the gallery, as if carrying royalty.
Photo by Sandrine Schaefer
Sandrine Schaefer is a Boston-based Artist, Educator, and Independent Curator. Sandrine has exhibited her work extensively, nationally and internationally. Sandrine is a Co-Founder and Director of The Present Tense, an art initiative that produces and archives live art events, festivals, exhibitions, and exchanges. Through her curatorial endeavors, Sandrine has exhibited over 300 artists from around the globe. Her writing on contemporary experiential art practices has been published in several international online and print publications and she is a Contributing Writer for Big Red & Shiny. She teaches performance art practices through the Interdisciplinary Department at Montserrat College of Art and through the SIM Department at Massachusetts College of Art.