A slight young woman in a black dress walks barefoot through the streets of Guatemala City, carrying a white basin filled with human blood. She sets the basin down, steps into it and then out, leaving a trail of bloody footprints from the Constitutional Court building to the old National Palace. The corrupt Constitutional Court had recently allowed the former military dictator, General Ríos Montt, to run for president despite the Constitution’s barring of past presidents who gained power by military coup. A Guatemalan who didn’t know that it was a performance titled Who can erase the traces? —or even who had never heard of performance art—would have had no trouble understanding the symbolism: the ghostly footprints representing the hundreds of thousands of civilians murdered, overwhelmingly by the Army, during the long years of war and after; the persistence of memory in the face of official policies of enforced forgetting and impunity. I’ve read (and have contributed) plenty of words, a surfeit of words, about violence and injustice in Guatemala. That trail of bloody footprints was the most powerful statement I’d encountered in ages.
I’d never paid much attention to performance art, but I do always keep an eye out for anything having to do with Guatemala. Regina José Galindo came to my attention when I read that she’d won the Golden Lion award for the best young artist at the 2005 Venice Biennale. She was awarded the prize for Who can erase the traces? as well as two other video presentations and one performance. In the latter she crawled inside a pale gray cube and whipped herself 256 times, one for each woman murdered in Guatemala so far that year.
Internet research revealed a prolific artist (Galindo writes poetry too) of astonishing imagination and conviction, who uses her body to create powerful visual metaphors and symbols that are never just obscure. In a group show on the theme of what it means to be a Guatemalan, she repeatedly injected herself with valium. In another performance, she put herself inside a garbage bag and was deposited at the municipal dump; crawled into the ring to fight with a professional wrestler; made a five-day journey from Guatemala to Lima, Peru, and back—blindfolded. That is a tiny selection. I’m awed by the economy of her work, by her courage, by the spectacle of her self-devouring and obsessive seeking. Galindo expresses the Guatemalan experience with searing intimacy, its pain and horror and daily humiliation, but also its resiliency and peculiar vividness. As her Venice Prize recognizes, she also speaks universally; outside Guatemala, she must often seem like an artist from a Kafka story, on a riveting and terrible quest whose meaning seems both inexpressible and unbearably true.
¿Quien Peude Borrar Las Huellas? A Walk from the Court Of Constitutionality to the National Palace of Guatemala, leaving a trail of footprints in memory of the victims of armed conflict in Guatemala, 2003.
Francisco Goldman I imagine that we should begin with a few words about what is happening today in Guatemala. Hurricane Stan, the flooding, the terrible loss of lives, the general calamity that is going to sink people even deeper into lives of inescapable poverty. What did Guatemala do to deserve so much suffering?
Regina José Galindo To me this question feels too deep, too heartrending. As you say, my country has suffered an eternity of calamities of all shapes and sizes: a mortal conquest, the maltreatment of indigenous villages and the negation of their rights throughout our entire history, the Gringo intervention, an infernal 36-year war, evil governments, spine-chilling levels of corruption, a murderous army, histories of violence that are a daily nightmare of inequality, hunger, misery—and now this, which unlike the aforementioned things is a natural disaster. How is such karma even possible?
But you ask what Guatemala did to deserve all this. Perhaps the proper questions would be: What haven’t we done? Why have we been so afraid, and tolerated so much fear? Why have we not woken up and taken action? When are we going to stop being so submissive?
I feel impotent, unable to change things, but this rage has sustained me, and I’ve watched it grow since I first became aware of what was happening. It’s like an engine—a conflict inside me that never yields, never stops turning, ever.
FG If someone had asked me if I thought a performance about Guatemala’s violence, past or present, could be something as moving and surprising, as direct and effective and simply poetic, as your Quién puede olvidar las huellas? (Who can erase the traces?), I guess I would have said no. (And I say that despite the fact that I can only “see” it via the Internet—maybe that’s not such a bad definition of how conceptual art works, when it works: you see an image, a trace, a link or a “footprint” on a screen, read a bit of text, and then imagine the rest!) The other two works that you presented in Venice were of equal impact and eloquence. And they seem related to the spirit of your poetry, though your performance artworks are grand public gestures, and your poetry is intensely personal. Where did Who Can Erase the Traces come from? What were your hopes for it? Who thinks of doing something like that, and why?
RJG It emerged from rage and fear. When it was announced that Efraín Ríos Montt had managed to win acceptance as a presidential candidate, I was in my room, and I suffered an attack of panic and depression. I cried out, I kicked and stomped my feet, I cursed the system that rules us. How was it possible that a character as dark as this would have such power with which to bend everything to his will? I decided then and there that I would take to the streets with my shout and amplify it. I had to do it.
FG What was the experience of performing it like? When you were walking barefoot through the streets carrying that basin of blood, stopping, dipping your feet in it, leaving your prints, going on and doing it again, what were you thinking about? Were you aware of people watching you? Is that personal experience, the interior space—even the memory of having lived it—part of the work? Did you learn anything unexpected from the public’s reaction? And what did you do that night? After doing something like that, can you just sit down to dinner with your family, then go to sleep?
RJG Every performance requires a different energy, and in each of them I have experienced distinct sensations and thoughts. The process of this performance was a bit cold, clinical. I went out to buy the human blood in the morning, and then I began the walk. It probably lasted about 45 minutes: that walk on pavement that did not burn.
I suppose my mind fell completely silent during that time. I was focused on the image of dipping my feet and leaving my footprints at every step along the way. But when I got to the Palacio Nacional and saw the line of police officers guarding it, I ignited. I walked more firmly, I reached the main doors, I saw the eyes looking back at me, and I left two final footprints side by side. I left the basin holding the blood there too. Nobody followed me, nobody said anything. I quickly walked across the street, washed my feet off in the park fountain, got something to eat, and then went back to my job that afternoon.
FG In the Guatemalan context, it is a profoundly political work. Did it have a political impact? And how is it different to present it, even on video, in Venice?
RJG To present it on video is simply to show a document. In this case, whoever sees this document can come to know the history behind it.
As for the performance itself, it was all over in a moment, and I felt as I always do, that it hadn’t done any good. But a group of artists began the necessary work: spreading word of the performance and the message. A curator friend of mine, Rosina Cazali, sent out images of the performance alongside a text declaring Ríos Montt’s candidacy unacceptable. I say that these efforts were necessary, because Guatemala is a country without memory. The people, with little access to education, are easy to mislead with promises and the little gifts that politicians hand out during election campaigns. The official party, to which Ríos Montt belonged and belongs, made a huge effort and had all the power to reach the Guatemalan minorities, who had difficulty connecting the actual Ríos Montt (the presidential candidate) to the past dictator-president who was guilty of the greatest crimes against their own people, their own blood. Every effort was necessary, any help at all, it was all needed to shout out the truth, by whatever means. After they were published online, the images of the performance were then published in newspapers that reached various groups.
FG Guatemalans, for all their collective psychosis, sometimes live in a state of negation; they’ve certainly become used to hearing denunciations of the human rights violations, the violence and massacres, etc., that occurred during the years of war. That doesn’t lessen the valor of your work on the subject—but Regina, in Guatemala, a work like Himenoplastia (Hymenoplasty) must have been unprecedented. It must have hit like a bomb. Obviously it’s an act of rage that many—the majority even, myself included—can’t help but contemplate with a sense of incomprehension, perhaps even paralysis. It moves me almost to tears to think about what could have brought you to such an extreme. Please, talk a little bit about that work.
RJG One day in April I was reading the newspaper, and I saw an article about reconstructing the hymen. Then I saw a classified ad purporting to restore virginity. I went to the advertised place, which was a bit seedy, and interviewed the doctor. At that time I was working on an idea for a group show organized by Belia de Vico, which was titled Cinismo (Cynicism). I went back to the place with Belia, we spoke with the doctor, I showed him my work, and we broached the idea of filming the process. He agreed to do it for a certain amount of money.
I went to the clinic several times to observe the women who were patients there. I spoke with the doctor several times too, and he told me the stories of many of his patients. The majority of the patients want to regain their intactness for their wedding. They do it to gain a certain social status. In other cases, children and adolescent victims of sex trafficking are operated on so that they will fetch a better price. It is preferable to buy a virgin girl not only because of her virginity but also because it is considered better protection against STDs.
On the day of the operation, I went with Belia and Anibal Lopez, an artist and good friend. The operation was quick. Half an hour. Painful. Chaotic.
We left, feeling happy that it was over. We talked about what to have for breakfast. I wanted pancakes. In Belia’s car, I began to feel a warm liquid between my legs, flowing more and more with every passing second. We drove back to her house and I put on a sort of diaper, but nothing could stop the flow. Then we went to my gynecologist’s clinic—my doctor there had been seeing me for years, and had asked to examine me after the operation—and from there to the hospital. Everything happened so fast. They dressed me in a gown, laid me on a bed, stuck an anesthetic in my arm, and as I was fading into sleep I could hear the nurses talking among themselves, feeling sorry for me as they had for the many other girls who had been admitted to the hospital bleeding from a botched medical procedure, be it an abortion or a hymenoplasty.
The video was edited within a few days, and a week later it was exhibited as part of Belia’s show. So many things must have been said about it. I didn’t pay any attention to any of it, not at any time. It was already done, and I knew that I’d had to do it.
FG Who was this work done for?
RJG I suppose that—like everything I do—this was done for me.
FG What expectations did you have for this project?
RJG I never have any expectations after completing something. What I do have is a certain amount of nervousness and anxiety before every performance. But after that I have no expectations. It’s done.
FG Do you still write poetry? Obviously, with the preoccupation with the feminine—and masculine—body that you express in your poetry, it’s easy to see the link with some of your performances. I am especially impressed with the powerful simplicity of your poetry. And some of it is surprisingly funny. Did you write poetry before you began practicing visual art?
RJG Writing was the first thing I did; I’ve written since I was a girl. I kept little diaries filled with lamentations, complaints and rants. I began keeping a diary when I turned nine, which is when I had my first period. The first page of it is a tormented narration of my bleeding body.
Though I still do it from time to time, writing is for me a land filled with great fear. For a time, poetry was of supreme importance to me, and I valued it quite a bit, in the same way that I now do my work using the body. I participated in poetry workshops, and I gave readings anywhere I could, anywhere I was invited to.
I still write, embarrassingly enough. Knowing full well what my limitations are as a writer, I do have some new poems or vignettes that are so very, very bad that they even make me sad. I have started up a blog where I can vomit out a steady stream of purely cathartic words. I know that barely anybody has read it; nobody ever visits the website. I’m just doing it as an exercise.
Is it funny? I hadn’t thought of it like that.
FG Well, maybe that’s just me. There is something sharp, something picante in your poems—maybe it’s the shock of truth, or the bluntness, that makes me laugh. Well, at least in a poem like Si fuera José (If I Were José): If I were José / —only José— / I wouldn’t have this atrophied penis / my tits would vanish / I’d be full of hair. // I wouldn’t fuck them at will /nor would I always look at their asses. // If I were Jose / I’d be just as vulgar / and I wouldn’t fall in love with Regina.)
There’s definitely a spirit of satiric playfulness in your performance Angelina. When you did Angelina, you worked as a maid, or at least you went around dressed in a maid’s uniform. It is difficult for someone from the US to understand what it means to be a domestic servant in Guatemala.
RJG I dressed as a domestic servant and went about my normal life. The experience was extremely interesting right from the start, but as the days went by it became quite difficult indeed. Guatemala is a racist, exclusive, completely divided culture. Being a servant has many disadvantages. You’re a woman, and a poor woman at that, generally with little education and dubious origins. You aren’t worth a thing, and so they look down on you, and you go around with your shoulders always slumped, and they speak to you always with that disparaging tone in their voice. They barely deign to notice you, they won’t let you into many places, and when they do let you enter, they stare at you disdainfully. At the end of the month, my self-esteem was in the dirt.
FG What is your own background? Are you from the city? Where did you study? In your family—your parents for example, or your grandparents—was there ever much interest in art or literature?
RJG I’m from the capital, from the populous Zona 3, born and raised near the notorious barrios of La Ruedita and El Gallito. When I was a teenager my parents and I moved to a better zone, Zona 13, but when I had the means I moved back to Zona 3.
I studied in middle-class schools; in the early years they were all-girl schools. We barely ever received any instruction in art or literature. To make matters worse, I got a degree in administrative assistance. I enrolled at the university several times, and I withdrew just as many.
My mother was always a super passionate reader. I remember her sitting in a chair for hours, completely engrossed in what she was reading, always talking about Vargas Vila, García Márquez, and novels like Tambor de Hojalata (The Tin Drum). She was fragile to the core, and very submissive to my father’s attitudes, which is something that has stayed with me my entire life.
My father was a lawyer, very strict, and with a despotic and violent temper when I was young. During my teenage years, his behavior began to change. He was a wise man, always searching, and always in spiritual and emotional conflict.
I have an older brother who studied philosophy, with whom I talk quite frequently. He currently lives in New York. I also have a warm and brilliant uncle—my mother’s brother—who also lives in New York and who sends me books and takes me to the opera when I visit him.
FG I read somewhere that you enjoy reading fiction. It seems that you aren’t—or at the time you weren’t—a fan of Guatemalan poets or novelists. How have your literary tastes changed over the years?
RJG I like many Guatemalans, from the unquestioned greats like Monterroso and Cardoza and Aragón; Roberto Obregón, Isabel de los Angeles Ruano, all the incredible women writers like Ana María Rodas, Alaide Foppa, Luz Mendez de la Vega. Also writers of my own generation like Payeras, Jessica Masaya, Maurice Echeverría, Alan Mills, and Juan Carlos Lemus.
My literary tastes, I must admit, are rather limited. I start with what I have on hand, and I end up with what touches me the most. At the moment, I’m reading works by Jodorowski, Carlos Castañeda and Galeano, and the Argentine writer who always accompanies me wherever I go: Alejandra Pizarnik.
FG I’ve been struck lately by how many people say that they especially love Alejandra Pizarnik.
RJG I find myself in her, in every ironic and obscure word. Her pain includes her entire being.
FG Your poetry is written in first person and takes on a confessional tone. How would you compare the process of the poetic act with that of the performative act?
RJG The similarities lie along two lines. On the formal side I find it to be an obsessive search for cleanliness and for synthesis, as much in writing as in doing a performance. Conceptually, I find thematic similarities, like my dissatisfaction with the world and the system in which I happen to live. There is a cathartic effect in both my exercises, but it has different results for me, as do my experiences of life. When I write a text, I make an effort to not involve more than my brain and my emotions: my cry is not powerful enough to leave me exhausted. In the act of writing, energy is diluted into a passive being. Whereas in the moment of realizing a performance, something in which I am completely involved, it’s not only the intellectual process of developing the proposal but also principally the energy that I gather to carry out the performance. In performance art, everything is real action: the energy explodes, reaches unexpected boundaries. The experience involves my entire being and sometimes even the beings of the people present.
FG I am very interested in the remark you made to me over the phone last week about how people on the streets react when they see your performances: whether or not they understand it as “art” or as more of a protest, they don’t find it stranger, more frightening, or more offensive than what they see in the streets every day. (And I’m not talking about “magic realism.”) Could you say more about this?
RJG My head is filled with hallucinated, surreal, tragic, and inconceivable images. I have seen many faces, characters, moments and places in my country. It is part of what it means to be Guatemalan. It is, in part, what makes us.
In Guatemala, though spirits are generally gray, color abounds. Blue sky, green mountains, red blood. It’s not uncommon to see an armed clown holding up a bus, a yellow canary picking slips of paper out of a pocket, a body drowning in its own blood on the asphalt.
I did a performance in 1999 called Lo voy a gritar al viento. I hung from the arch extending across the street from the post office in downtown Guatemala City, a heavily trafficked area, and read my poems without a microphone, alluding to the fact that no one listens to women’s voices, that they’re effectively lost in the wind. With this piece I was confident that I would be seen and analyzed from a general, popular perspective, not a formal, artistic one. This was a woman on the verge of throwing herself into space, a woman protesting violence, one more crazy person. My long walk of the bloody footprints was not initially understood as a performance, but every step was indeed understood as memory and death. As Guatemalans we know how to decipher any image of pain, because we have all seen it up close.
FG Everyone has heard about the horrific, unpunished and largely unexplained murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. But it seems that nearly as many women die violently in one year in Guatemala as have over 10 years in Ciudad Juárez, but almost nobody pays any attention to this. (Though just last week there was a strong editorial in the New York Times about the murder of women in Guatemala and the utter lack of an official or police response.) What is happening in Guatemala, and why? But maybe that’s too big a question. . . . Your response as an artist, in your performance 279 Golpes (279 Blows), was very moving. You enclosed yourself inside a gray cube, and flagellated yourself. One blow for every woman murdered in 2004. Terrible. The performance protests the violence of men—but it also has a monastic element, a sense of self-blame and penitence, almost fanatical, and riveting.
RJG There are many theories for why so many women are killed in Guatemala. Not all deaths originate from the same direct causes, but all murders are committed under the same premise: that it is done, it is cleaned up, and nothing happens, nothing occurs, nobody says a thing. A dead woman means nothing, a hundred dead women mean nothing, three hundred dead women mean nothing. The difference between Ciudad Juárez and Guatemala is that in Guatemala women are not only killed, but first they are subjected to horrible forms of torture, cut into little pieces and decapitated. I saw the hacked-up legs of a woman near my home one day, and nobody paid any attention to them at all.
I cannot separate myself from what happens. It scares me, it enrages me, it hurts me, it depresses me. When I do what I do, I don’t try to approach my own pain as a means of seeing myself and curing myself from that vantage; in every action I try to channel my own pain, my own energy, to transform it into something more collective.
FG We don’t have the time to talk about all of your works. You are incredibly productive. Is there much support for this type of art in Guatemala? Are there other artists doing similar work? Tell me about “the scene.”
RJG The support isn’t there, but there are many people working very consistently and seriously. Guatemalans have always been fighters, and that extends to their art. In Guatemala, there aren’t any options for studying art, yet even so, there are artists there working and questioning without fear.
FG What do you do in the Dominican Republic? What is it like being a Guatemalan in a Caribbean country?
RJG I work in publicity. I’ve been doing it to support myself for many years now. It’s a contradiction that I have not been able to escape.
I went to the Dominican Republic for a good salary, and I stayed for the tranquility that comes from being always near the sea. The warm air is stunning, bewildering, but it also relaxes me. It is a new air, a great change, and all changes are part of a learning process. Perhaps that is what I am doing there: learning of the sea.
Translated from the Spanish by Ezra Fitz and Francisco Goldman.
—Francisco Goldman, a writer living in New York and Mexico, began his career as a journalist covering the politics of Central America. His award-winning novels include The Long Night of White Chickens (Grove Press, 1992) and The Divine Husband (Atlantic Monthly, 2004). He is currently working on a nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Didn’t Kill the Bishop? due out in 2006 from Grove/Atlantic Press.