The Venezuelan artist who once replicated her apartment in a Caracas museum revisits key performances, discussing her personal measurement unit (the anto) and the fauna she researches in her apartment.
The Venezuelan performance art pioneer Antonieta Sosa was born in New York in 1940. In the late ’50s, while studying ballet, she audited at the art school Escuela de Artes Plásticas Cristóbal Rojas in Caracas. She studied psychology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in the early ’60s, and, in ’66, graduated from UCLA’s Department of Visual Arts. In the early ’70s she was back in Caracas, where she was a founding member of the group Contradanza. From then on, she continued investigating performance and corporeal expression. Her breakthrough as a performance artist took place in the early ’80s at the seminal festival Acciones frente a la plaza, which took place in Caracas’ Plaza Bolívar with the participation of other leading conceptual and performance artists including Pedro Terán and Carlos Zerpa. In 1990 her own body became the measure for her surroundings. She established her personal measurement system based on her own height: the anto (a contraction of her name) measures exactly 163 cms. (5’4”). A dedicated teacher, she has been teaching at IUESAPAR (now the University of the Arts in Caracas) since 1994. Check out her project The Sky over Caracas: What I See upon Leaving my House in BOMB 110.
Franklin Fernández Antonieta, according to Joseph Beuys all human beings are potential artists, but that word tends to double back on itself, and an expansion of the conception of the artist tends to evade us. Is that term, that concept, incomprehensible?
Antonieta Sosa I prefer to call myself an art investigator. I dislike the Kantian concept of the artist as a genius, since that often results in total megalomania accompanied by many frustrations, when someone believes themselves to be a genius and does not achieve the level of recognition they believe they deserve. Beuys was referring to a sensibility. A sensibility can manifest in many ways: not necessarily within some kind of framework, or in sculpture. A housewife who makes a beautiful salad, or who arranges the objects in her house in a lovely way, is manifesting her sensibility in relation to space, color, textures. For Joseph Kosuth art is a game for which the artist sets the rules. I often see myself as playing, making decisions about what the rules of my game will be.
FF It’s often said that artists make the invisible visible, but from my perspective, a true artist makes the visible visible. That is, they see in the interior (or the exterior of things), an “other” side. Don’t you agree?
AS You’re quite right. I think that your reflection comes from your experience in working with found objects, which exist in the everyday world. They come alive for you and you’re able to see potential new meanings you might extract from them, as you place them in relation to other objects. An intense dialogue is produced between you and these objects. Invisibility refers more to people’s perception, not to the fact that those objects might be invisible.
I’m always struck by watching people when they first walk into my apartment in San Bernardino (which isn’t really mine, it’s rented)—each person observes a different thing. In other words, we only see what we’re trained to see, all the experiences and lived moments during the course of our lives combine to open our field of perception.
FF Antonieta Sosa’s apartment is an intimate space, but at the same time, it’s a space for everyone. What is an apartment for you? What, in essence, is a house, a room, a bedroom?
AS Look, when you take a chair and you locate its primary form, you obtain a volume called a vertical parallelepiped. I’m an urban being, and, as such, I live in a building, and as such I live in a parallelepiped like most people. Some are larger, some are smaller, but they’re boxes, in the end. My box is about 900 square feet and I’ve lived in that box since 1969, which is to say that I’ve been in a relationship with this space for more than 30 years. Of course in my mind there exists a dream house, since dreaming doesn’t cost anything. That house would be made of very simple materials, but it would have a garden and lots of light. But I’m fine as I am, the most important thing for me is my privacy, and silence, to be able to concentrate on my own thoughts, on what I read, on my work. In 1998, when I reconstructed my apartment for the installation Cas(A)nto at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas, I sometimes felt confused, and suddenly didn’t know where I was. While I was arranging my house in the museum for others, my real house sank into total chaos. If something went wrong in my real house, I had to wait until the house in the museum was finished since I had to have the installation ready by the opening date. Surely the apartment in the museum was a game between reality and fiction.
When I was a girl I made little furniture for my dolls. Once I made a tiny bed and I found, without knowing what it was, a sanitary napkin that belonged to Carmela, the señora who took care of me, and I used it as a mattress. When she saw it, she said: “Girl, what’s that? Give that to me, don’t touch that box again.” Later when I became an adult, the incident made me laugh. I think I’m still playing with my dollhouse, but in my own way, and I enjoy the simple acts of daily life very much. I value them enormously, because I’m always thinking about people who don’t have a house, who don’t have food, who don’t have a bathroom. And this is of great concern to me; I’d like to live in a world where everyone’s basic needs were provided for as the most normal thing in the world, and human energy might be devoted to creation in all areas of life: music, dance, science, philosophy, architecture, visual arts, literature, agriculture, design.
FF If I remember correctly, in that reinterpretation of your house there weren’t any paintings on the walls, but there were scenes with actual details: for example, the dust from your bedroom. I also remember the lines you traced to simulate the path of the ants in your kitchen, along with a precise date: 1999. The dust in your bedroom might be interesting as an approach to art, but nobody would want to put that in their own living room. What makes you able to see a work of art in the dust you collected?
AS When I was invited to exhibit at the Museo, one Saturday, cleaning my house, I had the following thought: was it really the case that because we were talking about a museum, I should do things differently than I do in my real life? And at that moment I decided to begin collecting the dust from my bedroom each time I cleaned, putting it in a plastic bag with a little piece of paper with the time and the date, and setting it aside in a special drawer solely for this project. Something quotidian slips toward another zone, another level of reality that demands a high level of consciousness. It’s not the same to sweep a room as it is to sweep it thinking that you’re doing a research project: you reach another level of consciousness. The same thing happened with the ants. I was having a conversation with a friend who was going to the jungle to do research, and said to myself, This type of thing isn’t within my reach, I’m an urban being and I accept that: my fauna are the little animals that exist in my house. One day I came into the kitchen and saw a very beautiful curving line, and it was these ants all lined up looking for food in the spot where I have a bag for organic waste. I traced two lines making an effort not to bother them, and then they started straying from their path and going into other spaces, and I continued marking their trails and writing down the dates—this was from 1997 to 1999. Then, when I decided to take the floor plans of my kitchen to the museum, I recorded the ants on video and set up a television screen there, where you could watch them crawling. I don’t like to sell my works, as I think of them as personal test tubes, as if my house were a laboratory and these were the tools of my trade. I don’t see any decorative use for them at all. When the museum exhibition ended, I was asked to donate two works, precisely these two—the ants and the dust from my bedroom.
FF Some say that a painting isn’t made to decorate a house: it’s a weapon of war. What do you think about this?
AS Phew! What questions you ask! I began my work doing what people call painting, a term within which pretty much anything fits: painting fingernails, lipstick, house painting, figurative painting, abstract painting… Nowadays, after years of contemplating two paintings I have in my house, which I made in 1965 when I was studying at the university, I’ve come to think that the only thing that makes them paintings is that they’re hanging on a wall. They have black acrylic as a background, with white lines. One is titled Finito (Finite) and the other Infinito (Infinite). They’re asymmetrical cubes that create an unstable spatiality; they seem to be identical, and the only difference is that the finite painting has a line along its edge and the other one does not. For me it wasn’t important whether there were paintings or not; more than anything, it was my way of making manifest what was, for me, the concept of finitude and infinitude.
One day I found myself taking the square off the wall and putting it on the floor, increasing its dimensions to 6.5 by 6.5 feet, with a height of 90 inches. It was divided into 9 squares that were supported from underneath, so viewers could walk on it and feel the instability of their bodies in space, their kinesthetic sensations, the loss of static balance. Once I moved out into real space, my projects related to the body: stairs, slides, chairs, until, in 1978, I arrived at my own body and in 1998–1999 I came to the house. There’s nothing more corporeal than a house, and here I’m talking about my project titled Cas(A)nto.
FF Now that you’re talking about centering yourself or structuring yourself, my understanding is that an anto is the measurement of your body. Could it also be the measurement of your spirit?
AS The anto is the measurement of my body: 5’4”. It’s an imaginary line that passes through the center of my body. The idea is to measure the world with a female body, with my body. If we analyze the measuring systems that human beings use in the world, we find that the first were rods that used the measurement of a part of the king’s body, and were then distributed among the inhabitants of the region. From there, the English use feet and inches… As you can see, measurements come from the human body. Later the French wanted to find a more objective measurement and they created the meter, which relates to the circumference of the earth. The meter-length rod is in a space in Paris, placed in a vacuum-sealed room so it won’t expand or contract due to the atmosphere. Of course this measurement isn’t all that precise either, since planet earth is organic and every time it shudders or wrinkles a mountain is formed. I imagine it no longer measures the same as it did at that time, but, regardless, it’s a convention, an operational system that allows us to communicate. My apartment measures 7 by 4.5 antos. The first anto was made out of wood; the second was metal and was part of my Museo de Bellas Artes installation titled Un anto es igual a 163 cms. a la medida de mi cuerpo, ni un centímetro más ni un centímentro menos (An anto equals 163 cms., the exact size of my body: not one centimeter more nor one centimeter less).
I suspect that measurements were invented by men and that behind them lurks some manipulation of power. Countries that were dominated by France use the meter and countries that have been dominated by England use inches and feet. I seek to create my own measurement that is feminine and to remove myself from systems of power. Then, in 1998, I created Anto de luz (Anto of Light), which is inside an iron capsule, and you can see it through an oval window like the ones used in the gray electrical boxes on the street. The idea is to protect the anto made of light from external violence, since it represents what’s most internal within us—might we even say, perhaps, that it’s the soul?
FF How did you move from painting to the body and from the body to the object?
AS At one time, regarding my trajectory, I would say the following: “From surface to volume/ From volume to object / From object to chair / From chair to body.” Perhaps now I might say: “From the body to the house / From the house to the street / From me to others.”
When I learned about the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark from my friend Victor Lucena and began to devote time to researching her work, I found that Lygia too had experience with problematizing the flat plane of painting. She began to divide that plane, to move it, to articulate it until she declared “the death of the plane” and finally ended up working directly with people’s bodies, in therapies in which they’d use objects she had designed called “relational objects.” Of course, in Lygia’s case, she constructed experiences that involved the bodies of her students, and eventually of her patients, unlike in my case, where I have worked with my own body through corporeal actions or performances. To break with painting is not easy, and it’s a practice that’s part of an immensely long tradition.
In 1965, I made my paintings with the asymmetrical cubes in black and white; 20 years later I brought the structure of the plane into real space with scaffolding and introduced myself into that structure via my body and my voice in my 1985 project Del cuerpo al vacío (From the Body to the Void), Part 2. I can clearly see the relationship, though perhaps others don’t see it.
FF During those years, in your work, there’s a genuine interaction between the artist and the audience. I’d like to ask you: did installation come before performance? Or vice versa?
AS I had asthma as a child, and that connected me early on with the interiority of my body. The medicines I took made my heart beat very strongly and that made me more mindful of what was inside my body. Breathing is our connection with the air outside, which we introduce into our bodies in order to stay alive. If I ran and horsed around a lot I’d get asthma, so I couldn’t move around too much. Nonetheless, I liked to balance on top of pipes or climb trees or mountains. And then I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get down. When I became a teenager, I grew out of my childhood asthma, and when I was well again, I began to study ballet with professor Lidja Franklin. At the university, I took classes in modern dance, and at the beginning of the ’70s I was a founding member of the group Contradanza. This experience was based in part on Grotowsky’s techniques, in which both the body and the voice are engaged in dance-theater. In 1978, I had my first experience integrating the objects I made and my body. It took place in a space called La Trinchera (The Trench). That’s where I showed my chairs for the first time. I engaged in corporeal dialogue with my chairs, allowing them to speak to my body and to tell my body about themselves. There’s a video called A través de mis sillas (Through my Chairs) that gathers these experiences. And then in 1980, at the Galería de Arte Nacional, I did a performance titled Conversación con baño de agua tibia (Conversation with a Bath of Warm Water), and in 1985, Del cuerpo al vacío (From my Body to the Void). In this work, I had begun to apply my knowledge of corporeal expression and voice, and of installation art. To answer your question, the body and the objects came to the fore simultaneously—and above all the chairs—and performance came before installations. First there was the body, and that body left its mark on objects, like chairs, tables, beds, houses, etc.
FF Chairs, tables and stairs—what do these represent for you?
AS They’re all objects linked to the body. Chairs appear when I bought a drawing table from the anthropologist José María Cruxent and had it restored. Before then I had been working on an easel, but now my body was in the position an architect’s might be in, sitting at a drawing table—suddenly I started drawing with Prismacolor crayons and what I was drawing, almost unconsciously, were strange chairs. Then I asked myself if it might be possible to bring these into the real world, and with the help of an artisan I was able to construct my first chair, which I later called Silla cubista cerrada (Closed Cubist Chair) since it’s completely distorted. It’s from 1970. Before the chairs appeared, I had my first solo show in Venezuela, at the Ateneo de Caracas in 1969, titled Siete objetos blancos (Seven White Objects). It consisted of a platform on which people could walk, a slide, some unstable-stabilities, a staircase I called Escalera real e irreal (Real and Unreal Staircase). The first step has the dimensions of a real staircase but as it rises, the steps become more and more compressed against the wall, so that the body would have to dematerialize if a person attempted to climb it. The table appeared for the first time in 1998, in the part of my house in the museum called El salón de té (The Tea Room), which had a table with a transparent tabletop, suggesting that the cups were floating in space. The two chairs were aggressive—one more than the other—and on the wall there was the doubled shadow of my body, where in silhouette I could be seen having tea with myself. An audio piece was coming out of the wall and my voice could be heard in conversation as I was doubled in two Antonietas: Antonieta A speaking of the external and Antonieta B speaking of the internal, of what she feels.
This work thematically addresses the solitude produced by urban violence. In order to be calm, you isolate yourself and you prefer to be alone, so you listen to your own head in an interior monologue. After many years of working with chairs, I have a range of interpretations, one of which is this: when a person is standing in a vertical position, they are subject to the force of gravity in a way that involves a huge waste of bodily energy, and that’s why you get so tired when you’re standing for a long time. When you sit, your body fragments into three parts: a vertical segment on top, a horizontal segment in the middle, and a vertical segment on the bottom. In this way, you save bodily energy and it can move into your head. That’s why, when we want to think about complex things, we sit down. In this way, for me, the chair is an object that induces reflection, but, at the same time, is interpreted by the entire body, as I said earlier. As it’s a familiar object for everyone, it’s easy to achieve a very fluid form of communication with the viewer. It’s a polysemic object with many levels of signification.
FF There’s a photograph of you, standing, in which you’re seen dancing with your arms held high, while you balance a glass on your forehead. You walked across a path of broken glass that led you to the exit. Twenty-eight years later, would you still travel that path?
AS You’re referring to my project titled ¿Y por qué no? (And Why Not?), from 1981, which I performed at the Gobernación del Distrito Federal as part of the program organized by Marco Antonio Ettedgui called Acciones frente a la plaza (Actions in Front of the Plaza) in which almost all the performance artists from that early generation presented work. It’s true, as you can see in the photo, I balanced glasses on different parts of my body and then let them fall. It was a sort of anti-circus. In circuses, the charm is that no one falls, nothing breaks. But in my case, everything (except for one glass) broke. I was looking for a name for the performance around that time, and the idea came to me while I was at a concert. I like the phrase “¿Y por qué no?” because it sparks you to move beyond your fears and decide to do something you’ve been thinking about doing but which you’re scared to do. Then, a number of years later, I found in one of my working notebooks that many years earlier I had filled an entire page writing the phrase “¿Y por qué no?, ¿Y por qué no?, ¿Y por qué no?” in various kinds of handwriting. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a break in order to be able to continue moving forward. To break with prejudices, to break with habits, to break with the limitations that we impose on ourselves, or that fear imposes on us, to break away from our own limits. When we break, an energy is generated.
Now, it’s true that I worked with broken glass, but I was careful to wear rubber shoes with a very thick sole, since it wasn’t my intention at all to cut myself or hurt myself. I’m not Gina Pane, the performance artist whose practice consisted of self-wounding herself. I love life, and I consider the body to be a temple we must nurture.
FF I remember your classes at the Reverón Institute. Specifically, I recall one in particular. I can see myself in front of you, reinventing my world with a bunch of explosives in my hands. What were you thinking at that moment?
AS Look, Franklin, I’ve found myself recounting what you did that day to many people, and I even included it in my texts about art pedagogy and in my visual language workshop, where I describe the experience we had before you. We were all surprised, and frightened. You were there, wearing a hood, and on the table you had pipes, springs, bullets, and blueprints that indicated how to construct these homemade weapons that could function as a revolver or shotgun. You were explaining that they could be short-barreled guns, or long-barreled guns, and you were putting them together in front of us. Little by little I started realizing what was happening: this was something really dangerous, and that if you loaded a gun with a bullet, you could shoot and wound or kill one or more of the people in the workshop. You’ve said that when you saw the fear on our faces you decided to stop assembling these weapons. This was a huge learning experience for me in relation to a reality that I knew nothing about. Now I know that those weapons exist, and that violence in many neighborhoods in this country manifests in multiple ways. The project was autobiographical for you—this was a reality that was all around you in the neighborhood where you lived at that time. You demonstrated that your concept of art was expanding constantly; for you, art wasn’t just located in an object, there could be art in an action. It was only your second performance.
FF The situation, the installation, the drawing, the time it takes to travel, the time that passes during the course of a day, contemplation, reflection, social forms of interacting with the work—are these the sculptural elements of your work? Are your sculptures also constructed in that other space that exists between an object and the person looking at it? Do you think that an aesthetic act can be achieved via an encounter and not via an object?
AS Everything you mention in your question relates to my work. I don’t separate my pedagogical work from my artistic work. Part of my work is observation and reflection about my own personhood, but I’m conscious that we are, in some way, constructed by our interactions with others—others are our mirror. Teaching is, for me, the problem of the Other: it is my social and political work. My class is my community and I find the acts of respect and generosity that I observe among my students to be enormously valuable. This past academic year I implemented a process of co-evaluation in which the students evaluated each other. Only one person got the top 20 points. He exhibited all the qualities that inspired admiration in the group: he was responsible, attentive, reflective, creative and, above all, generous. He had also helped nearly all his classmates on their project presentations in the most organic way, without boasting at all about his skills.
When I studied art, we tended to utilize modernist thinking. The object was the important thing: color, form, space, composition, texture, and the like. We never talked about the subject; being—as Heidegger says—was totally forgotten. My personal practice, my reading, my life experiences, led me to revise this model. Before considering the object, I call on the author-subject and the audience-subject and the relationship that exists between the two. Get to know yourself, that’s what I seek with autobiographical work that becomes more relevant to me every day. There may or may not be an object, depending on the expressive needs of the subject.
FF For you, a creator’s education is very important. From what space should artists be attentive to the reality that surrounds them?
AS It’s precisely my role as an educator of artists that allows me to be in contact with the reality that surrounds me. My model of an artist is not one where you shut yourself up in a glass tower, make your work, have a gallery that sells it so you get rich and you can buy yourself a house. Teaching is of no interest whatsoever to that type of artist. My project as an artist has to do with my country, with Venezuela and all its circumstances. I find it fascinating to witness the process of all the different artists who study with me.
FF John Cage was not a musician and Marcel Duchamp was not a painter, yet they were both full-time artists. Is Antonieta Sosa a full-time artist?
AS As I said at the beginning of this interview, I consider myself to be an art investigator, through both non-verbal and verbal languages. When I talk about the artist as subject, I say that we have to problematize that role. Up to now we’ve always asked, “What are you?” “I’m a painter.” “I’m a draftsperson.” “I’m a sculptor.” But I know artists who say: “I’m a communicator” (Marco Antonio Ettedgui); “I’m a visual operator” (Víctor Lucena), and so on. Sometimes I think that from a semiotic point of view we’re signifiers: we take a sign or signifier that has a certain meaning in daily life, we remove the meaning from that signifier, we leave it empty, and then re-signify it by introducing a new meaning into it. I made a chair with glass in the spot where you’d sit, it’s titled Silla en registro de dolor (Chair Registering Pain). Through this work, I express my anguish over the violence that’s occurring in Venezuela due to unchecked crime. I myself don’t go out at night, as I feel extremely afraid. I love life and I take good care of my nervous system. How to stop that horror that threatens us all—older people, adults, children? Perhaps we should sit down and think about this, hold a conference and call on all the thinking beings in the country to look for solutions that might be alternatives to repression.
Translated from the Spanish by Jen Hofer.