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In Conversation with

Regina José Galindo

“Art is art and politics is politics”, says the Guatemalan artist. And yet, more often than not, the aesthetic impact in her work is a blow of political defiance. C& sat down for a conversation with this exceptional artist.

C& América Latina: In your performances you often come close to the limits of what the human body can endure. In 2005, you carved in the word “bitch” into your thigh. For Autophobia (2013), you fired a 9mm bullet at your own shadow. These are works which, beyond their political undertone, allow for an interpretation toward auto-aggression.

Regina José Galindo: To be perfectly clear, I am not a masochist. In my private life, I, Regina José Galindo, don’t go to such physical extremes as I do for example in the performance Confession. There, I subject my body to a method of torture called “waterboarding”, but I am not a victim. Instead, I am the intellectual proprietor who has researched and conceived this act down to the smallest detail. This is a very important point for me to make. Autophobia is not a suicide act. No. In Spanish, we have the expression “to be afraid even of one’s own shadow”. This is the metaphor I am interested in. As a woman in Guatemala, one is permanently exposed to the danger of attacks such as rape or other forms of humiliation. I want to find an image which recounts this everyday conduct as well as the fears it provokes.

Autophobia addressed exactly this fear, which also plays a prominent role in Bitch. In 2005 there was a series of murders of women. The killers carved the words “Death to the Bitches” into the corpses. Here, there might be a point of self-reference, because I remember thinking: “I inflicted this pain onto myself, now you can’t hurt me”. Moreover, it was important for me to use my art to disclose this series of murders and initiate a conversation. Bitch was an important experience which strongly influenced and altered my artistic work.

C&AL: How was the experience of making Bitch? What did you learn from it?

RJG: I did the performance in Italy. During the performance, I had the impression I was making the audience feel compassion but not empathy. They regarded me as “the other”, “the stranger”, the poor woman from Guatemala who has to live in these terrible conditions. Notwithstanding, in Italy, as in many other places in the world, there is a vast number of violent acts being committed against women. To me, the compassionate gaze from the outside, together with the conviction of not being in any way related to the issue, is a passive position and, ultimately, inefficient. We need to activate the spectators, make them feel involved and confront them with something familiar, something they tend to normally ignore or silence.

Open your eyes and see – with the strength that comes from reflecting yourself in the other – this to me is empathy, this is the origin of change, and it also means to connect instead of divide or separate. To avoid that passive posture, I decided that whenever I work abroad, I make reference to local issues.

C&AL: Like for example in the performance The Objective (2017) in the documenta 14 where you worked with an assault rifle G36, manufactured by the German weapon factory Heckler und Koch.

RJG: Exactly. In this performance, the visitors at documenta 14 in Kassel – the city is an important center for the weapon industry – they could take aim at me and at my Guatemalan body with an assault rifle of German manufacture. The visitor becomes a potential victimizer and at the same time, the real victim. For this performance I studied the movement of the weapons and the illegal arms trafficking closely. The thing is that Germany is one of the leading arms traders in the world, it manufactures weapons which are not used inside the country. The weapons are used in the Third World with a violence which is hard to control, not just in Guatemala but in other Latin American countries as well. In 2014 in Mexico, 43 students were killed when protesting against the Mexican government, and they were killed with these exact rifles from Heckler und Koch.

In Germany there is a law against exporting arms into conflict areas. Between 2006 and 2010, thousands of weapons were exported to Mexico, a country currently submerged in a serious war on drugs and where 200.000 people have already lost their lives as a result. More than half the arms exported into Mexico have disappeared… and ended up on the black market. Why is Germany exporting these arms to Latin America? Where do these weapons travel once they leave German territory? These are questions that need to be asked, both with regards to the arms industry as well as to the politicians responsible for the arms trade treaties. Because obviously, the objective of the weapon industry is to make money.

C&AL: Last year, in different performances, you approached the political situation in the United States.

RJG: In the United States I performed Pig’s Blood and Make America Great Again. These pieces deal with the alarming situation in which many citizens of this country find themselves. In Pig’s Blood I am in a small room, and above me is a bucket filled with pig’s blood. I am standing and waiting for someone to pull the rope. The room is so small that all the spectators will also be covered in blood, including those who haven’t pulled at the rope. In order to clean the blood of their hands, they have to take action, there is no other option.

 

Judith Waldmann is an art historian, curator and author. She has worked with the Kasseler Kunstverein and written for magazines such as Monopol.

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