CLOSE DISTANCES: THE POETICS OF DEPARTURE IN THE WORK OF ANABEL VÁZQUEZ RODRÍGUEZ
“a discovery of home as a place of exile”
– Édouard Glissant
Reflections on a performance by Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez at the closing reception of her most recent show Auto Galáctica en el Tercer Espacio at Área: lugar de proyectos.
It’s the 27th of September. A mild, Saturday evening in Caguas, a city about 32 km south of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.
We are inside a converted industrial space, which since 2005 has been the home to one of Puerto Rico’s most innovative project spaces, Área: lugar de proyectos. Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez, born in Guayama, Puerto Rico and currently based somewhere between that and Boston, MA, is completing her month-long residency at Área, which features work from her recent solo exhibition Retropical at Yellow Peril Gallery in Providence, RI and new pieces in varying media created during her time in Puerto Rico.
The italicized “Re” in the original title was meant to evoke the popular Argentine prefix which has the effect of rending subsequent words with a “supreme” quality. Spanish speakers might pick up on this and read the title as an investigation of the “hyper tropical“, while English speakers tend to pronounce all of the letters in one breath, forming a phrase which sounds like a “tropical retrospective“. Both of these meanings are intentional and delicately grappled with in Vázquez Rodríguez’s closing reception of Auto Galáctica en el Tercer Espacio.
In this show, Vázquez Rodríguez is not so much emphasizing the exotifying quality of normative North American representations of the Caribbean Other, as she is pointing out the ambiguities that result from uprooting and continual back and forth migration. Auto Galáctica en el Tercer Espacio quite literally spells out Vázquez Rodríguez’s feelings of being a constant Other – even when back “home” in Puerto Rico – as well as her interest in the common Puerto Rican colloquialism “alla fuera”, or “out there”, to describe anyone or anything hailing from outside the island. For Vázquez Rodríguez, the isolating remoteness of this linguistic designation carries with it a psychological distance akin to the galactic.
Tonight, standing on the second floor of the expansive, former warehouse space that is Área, one indeed feels a welcoming sense of physical and (later) psychological (dis)placement and (dis)location. Vázquez Rodríguez has intentionally taken the temperature control unit to its lowest limits, making the room unusually cold for Puerto Rico at any time of the year. High-speed tropical winds and heavy rain (both pre-recorded, ambient sounds) appear to lash the building we all “know” to be resting under clear skies. Approaching her section of the exhibition space, viewers might notice a gradual dimming of the lights right before picking up on the blissfully-toxic scent of still-drying oil paint.
Actually, one might smell the large wall murals even before noticing them visually, but this has more to do with the powerfully subdued lighting than an overwhelming olfactory experience. The artist has created oversized, black on black reproductions of two historic, wartime items from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library: Province of Massachusetts Bay and colony of Rhode Island, with part of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont 1782, and Military map, island of Puerto Rico 1898.
The Massachusetts Bay map, greeting visitors at the entrance to the gallery space, is cropped in such a way as to focus on the emblematic “strong arm” of the Massachusetts Cape and the surrounding harbour islands. The foundation of the map (the land and the water) being blackest black, the outlines of the coasts and some decorative margins are done in thin white / silver lines for viewers to “place” themselves geographically. Within the delineated contours, given the angle, viewers might also notice an almost topographical three-dimensionality of a completely different texture than the matte look of the rest of the map. This “density” is the oil – resinous and gritty. In broad, fluid gestures, Vázquez Rodríguez has added a few subtle nods to the arterial abundance of the original map’s river systems.
An opposing wall, whose spatial relationship to the former elegantly mimics the real, geographical relationship between the two lands in question, features a similar rendering of Puerto Rico and its surrounding, smaller islands. Executed on a wall with a dramatically angled roof, Vázquez Rodríguez has chosen to visually disrupt the triangular architecture of this piece by adding asymmetrical, rectangular lines of white tape along the borders of the map – creating a geometric dance between the permanent and the provisional, which lends the composition a satisfying balance.
Connecting the above-mentioned maps is one thick, black, diagonal line on the floor, from which two more lines grow – racing towards a far wall, a “third space”, demarcating a physical, scalene area of “inbetweenness”.
As the audience arrives, their first indication of the artist’s presence is the sight of a slender figure in a small, simple shirt-dress vigorously rubbing a black oil stick over the inside of the Puerto Rican map. Vázquez Rodríguez brilliantly channeled the oblong shape of the island and went about tracing the inner edge of Puerto Rico, working from the coast towards the central forest region in concentric gestures that evoked the petroglyph-preserved images of Puerto Rico’s major indigenous population at the time of European conquest, the Taíno. It is perhaps an allusion to a photograph, Galáctica Lunar, which is also in the show – a self-portrait taken at the entrance of a seaside cave boasting wonderful specimens of these glyphs.
When this first oil stick had thus given out, Vázquez Rodríguez paused and wiped her now-blackened hands on the pristine, white dress, leaving a dramatic remnant of her metaphoric “habitation” before departure.
Traversing the umbilical line on the floor and “arriving” in New England, the artist begins “attacking” the Massachusetts map expressively, veering further and further away from the representation of rivers and tributaries, into a practice of almost violent, subjective (re)drawings – leaving a visibly tactile residue of vein-like interventions throughout the New England landscape.
Reflecting on the nature of a prolonged “visit” to this expansive, unfamiliar setting, Vázquez Rodríguez turns the gesture inward, picking up a large bottle of maple syrup and drinking…and drinking…
It was a curious gesture, eliciting smiles from those in the audience that assumed it was rum and faces of disgust from those who knew in advance of the artist’s intentions.
For Vázquez Rodríguez, the maple syrup, which is naturally hard to come by in the Caribbean, became a symbol for the ways in which she gradually came to enjoy living in New England, finding comfort in the simultaneous abundance of similarities and particularities between it and her native land. Through her use of this visual metaphor, the artist may have hit upon the very thing that characterizes both life “on the island” and “on the mainland” in modern times.
The North American maple tree, as with the Caribbean sugarcane grass, are known for their gratifying and addictive saps. Though having very different histories, if we take this habit-forming analysis of the plants and apply it socially, we could argue that Puerto Rico, and the U.S.A., which invariably influences the culture of the former, have become places associated with their seeming embrace of excess, and thus, inequality. This is no poetic stretch, when you consider that Forbes and others have named Puerto Rico as “the next”, or “the new” Detroit. At a point in her life when a return to Puerto Rico seems like a long-overdue emotional and psychological readjustment, Vázquez Rodríguez mirrors these troubling economic trends by confronting the viewer with a flagrantly cloying and ultimately unfulfilling use of a labor intensive and not inexpensive commodity.
Blindfolding herself before leaving the North Atlantic region, Vázquez Rodríguez then “tightrope-walked” “across the Atlantic”, returning to Puerto Rico in what could be seen as a visual manifestation of a line from Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem on nostalgia, the self-exiled perspective, and postcolonial identity, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land:
“the archipelago arched with an anguished desire to negate itself, as if from maternal anxiety to protect this impossibly delicate tenuity separating one America from another; and these loins which secrete for Europe the hearty liquor of a Gulf Stream, and one of the two slopes of incandescence between which the Equator tightropewalks toward Africa.”
With the repeated crossings, the white dress has become suffused with color. Layers of greasy smudges, created not only by wiping her hands, but also by pressing her body up against the terrestrial silhouettes, formed a dark and lovely mélange of the artist’s “transatlantic” voyages.
Vázquez Rodríguez now begins activating those two other thick, black, diagonal lines on the floor – letting the careful movements of her body describe the sides and vertices of this now-completed triangle between Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, and a new, unnamed frontier – the allegorical “third space”, or “tercer espacio”, which is central to the artist’s work.
Our attention is thus drawn to a film, which has been playing continuously on the surface of the wall adjacent to this “third space” – a projection of her experimental narrative Visión Doble, which features expertly montaged scenes of her visits to and from Puerto Rico, as well as footage from other lands that could serve as temporary surrogates, and television images depicting incidents of police brutality against the striking students of the University of Puerto Rico juxtaposed with a jubilant Luis Fortuño – the country’s ultra-conservative, pro-statehood governor from that era. The soundtrack of rain and thunder that has persisted in the space throughout this time is part of the installation of the film, as are the maps.
Vázquez Rodríguez suddenly stops in the center of the projected images. Fleeting shots of friends, family, and seascapes play across her motionless body. The rain stops.
A new sound replaces the storm – a track by the Boston-based experimental band Goat of Arms, featuring unintelligible samples of poetry by 20th century Argentine feminist Alfonsina Storni. The projection then changes as well. We are now watching what appears to be two endless rows of palm trees – shot from a moving vehicle at a low angle, they flank the artist’s physical body, which is now preoccupied with removing the once white dress and laying it preciously at that edge of the triangle. Goat of Arms member Ivanna Bergese, a close friend of the artist, is present, and at this point she too enters the scene with a kit of some sort in her hands.
Vázquez Rodríguez and Bergese meet within the triangle itself, surrounded by the audience, and Bergese begins the process of giving the artist a “stick ‘n’ poke” style tattoo on her left forearm. It is, of course, of a black triangle pointing towards the earth.
The completion of the tattoo marked the culmination of the performance. We spent the remainder of our time looking at Vázquez Rodríguez’s other works on view: Palma Noir, a life-sized, black palm tree made of cut paper; Coco Noir, a dispersed installation of paint-intervened, sprouting coconuts; a collection of digital and 4×5 film photographs spanning over a decade of diaspora/exile investigations; and Auto-Galáctica, a video installation, which tackled multiple ideas of the “alien” condition directly by combining footage of the artist traveling to Puerto Rico’s recently de-militarized island of Culebra with Apple computer-sourced images of space and a self portrait depicting herself as one of the “Visitors” from the 1983 television miniseries “V”, which was, apparently, very popular in Puerto Rico.
We then turned the AC unit off and worked on warming our bodies by dancing the rest of the night away. ^_^
Auto Galáctica en el Tercer Espacio
by Ian Deleón, 2014
edited by Holly Bynoe and originally published on ARC Magazine