Deborah Castillo: Political Iconoclasm and Other Forms of Civil Disobedience

Sísifo (2013). Courtesy of Deborah Castillo.

In his book The Destruction of Art, Dario Gamboni discusses how despite a general belief that monuments have less avail in the social consciousness of modern societies, iconoclasm continues to be a frequent, albeit transforming practice. While most acts of political iconoclasm involve the destruction of public monuments, this investigation is concerned with the act of monumentalization. More specifically, through Deborah Castillo’s performative works, it examines the glorification of Simón Bolívar by Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Movement. Castillo’s treatment, deformation, and perhaps even defamation of the figure of El Libertador calls into question the consecration of Bolívar’s image, which by signifying both the past and the future of the nation stands in as a metonym for the Venezuelan Republic. Castillo’s appropriation of Bolívar’s image, however, is not a critique of the Bolivarian movement. Rather, it inquires into the ubiquitous representations of Bolívar in what may be considered “state repertoires,” which refer to the performative rituals and political discourses that cement national ideologies and love of country.3 In this sense, and as if facing history itself, Castillo’s intervention into Bolívar’s figure as displayed in works like Sísifo (2013), The Emancipatory Kiss (2013), Slapping Power (2015), and Detritus (2015) challenge Bolívar’s iconicity as father of the nation and symbol of unity and order.

Slapping Power (2015). Photo: Violette Bule.

While iconoclasm is one of the most studied subjects in the history of art due to the ways in which it reveals the power of images to embody that which is sacred and transcendental, little attention has been given to the performativity of destruction. In fact, I argue that Castillo’s attacks against Bolívar’s image are powerful and socially transgressive because the video-performances capture the body’s enactments of ruination. Iconoclasm, however, is not here understood as simply the physical shattering of a monument, but constitutes instead premeditated forms of mutilation, defacement, and derision, which are strategically calculated to disarticulate the qualities that bestow this figure with a particular legitimacy across all representations. We could even assert, following religious conservatives and cultural commentators, that by conflating acts of destruction with expressions of iconoduly or the worshipping of images, the artist’s iconoclastic gestures are ultimately based on the banalization of the figure through the mistreatment of his representation. Moreover, the excessive trivialization of the image of El Libertador in the artist’s performative interventions not only reinforce her acts of iconoclasm, but also turns them into overt statement of defiance against the state. By engaging with the bust of El Libertador, Castillo’s works are therefore enactments of her right to civil disobedience, for in attempting to deconstruct the myth of Simón Bolívar, she examines the state’s instrumentalization of this symbol in its pursuit of specific ideological ends.

Precedents: The State and Its Iconographies

Both the social and economic crises that unfolded in the 1980s and their political implications had determining effects on what had been Venezuela’s affluent and flourishing artistic milieu. On the one hand, the financial crash threatened the institutionalization of the arts and its system of patronage since this was fostered by the oil prosperity of previous decades (Palenzuela 2014, 22). On the other, these fractures encouraged anti-nationalist sentiments that impacted artistic vocabularies and concerns voicing contempt against the corruption, violence, and overall uncertainty that economic liberalism posed. Condemning the state’s role in the implementation of dramatic neoliberal reforms, artists articulated a critical look on what art theorist Juan Acha termed the “national iconography” to refer to the symbols, emblems, and political figures that help foster an idea of what it means to be Venezuelan (Palenzuela 2014, 40). Works like Proyecto de una bandera en piedra para una litografía (1990) by artist Margot Römer, for example, investigates with skepticism the composition of national symbols like the country’s flag through a series of notes about its color combination (Palenzuela 2014, 26). Nelson Garrido’s Caracas sangrante (1989) is a representation of the violent riots and the massacre that resulted in the “Caracazo. Other important conceptualist and performative interventions included Luis Brito’s Retrato de Salvador Martínez como patriota (1988), and Juan Loyola’s iconic series of urban interventions called Chatarra (Junk car, 1982). For these Chatarra works, Loyola painted discarded vehicles with the Venezuelan flag, which led consequently to his imprisonment for allegedly disparaging the national flag. This excessive reprisal by the state is therefore telling of the important symbolic value that national iconographies have in upholding rituals of veneration that repeatedly inscribe the political worth of the nation (Palenzuela 2014, 26). These artworks provide, moreover, precedents for understanding how the political and economic crises during the 1980s and 1990s led artists at the turn of the century to interrogate the construction of Venezuelan identity in the face of shifting national values.

In 2003, Castillo was recognized with the prestigious award of the XI Salón Eugenio Mendoza for her work Private Collection: Fantasies I (2003), which exemplifies the line of inquiry that inspired her early artistic career. Interested in exploring the politics of desire through stereotypical visions of the Latina, the artist’s early work dealt with the consumption of pornography, issues of sexuality, and feminine identity. As a multidisciplinary artist, Castillo works in a variety of media through which she investigates structures of power in order to underline the construction of sexual desire and the patriarchy. While Castillo’s interest in these subjects did not wane, her artistic direction was transformed in response to the political turmoil and social unrest that developed during Hugo Chávez’s administration. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the political and historical conditions that led to the election of Hugo Chávez––and for that matter the politics of his Bolivarian movement––it is worth noting that while neoliberal policies accentuated already existing social ruptures, Chávez’s socialist agenda also instigated a radical polarization of the population (Chumaceiro Arreaza 2003, 24-27). The newly expressed popular factionalism continued to encourage among artists a critical examination of the nation as an ideological principle for social unity. In fact, it was the measures of control and the increasing militarization of the country during Chávez’s third presidential term (2007–2013) that prompted Castillo’s performative expressions of civil disobedience.

It is almost impossible to understand the work of Castillo without fully comprehending the historical significance of the cult of Simón Bolívar especially after its appropriation by the Bolivarian movement. Following historian Germán Carrera Damas, we could say that the cult of Bolívar was pertinent for the Bolivarian revolution in that the figure had historically represented a “binding of national unity—an ideology, and a form of vindication for the principle of order, both as political project and as a religious guide for moral and civic advancement.” (Carrera Damas 1969, 43). With a legendary reputation, Bolívar came to be venerated as a messiah directly chosen by God to be the liberator of South America and father of the free people. A testament to the religiosity with which Bolívar has been memorialized is the declaration made by former Venezuelan president Antonio Guzmán Blanco when he stated that:

Bolívar, like Jesus Christ, is not a hero of fantastic epics. Bolívar is the continent’s liberator, the creator of the American republics, the father of citizens. He was born for this; for this, God gifted him with talents such as courage, audacity, and perseverance that are incomparable here on earth, as well as in the past, present, and future. (Munoz Burgos 2010, 44)

Considering how El Libertador has been continuously conflated with the divine, Castillo’s iconoclastic interventions help reveal the intricacies of this icon by undermining the legitimacy of his image while simultaneously exposing the over-monumentalization of his cult.

Many of Bolívar’s biographers have noted the widely-held belief that the liberator was “predestined by God” to carry out the liberation of South America. Carlos Abreu Mendoza, however, recounts how the sense of messianism was something that Bolívar also elaborated during his lifetime. Even though scholars have debated the authorship of the memoir My Delirium on Chimborazo, the text is a testament to the rhetorical parallelism that Bolívar drew between biblical narratives and his own rise to glory (Abreu Mendoza 2017, 292). Examining the liberator’s epic description of his climb to the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador, Abreu Mendoza delineates the text’s relationship with the creation of Bolívar’s posthumous cult. In the article, Mendoza states that:

both the “Roman Oath” and “My Delirium” as messianic texts are rooted in a biblical tradition of mountains as symbols of and sites for divine illumination. Throughout the Old and New Testament, God presented Himself to His Chosen servants on the mountains in order to deliver words of truth, clarity, and to commission them for His divine mission in the world. (Abreu Mendoza 2017, 296-297)

While the veneration of Bolívar as the chosen one speaks to his great deeds in the past, the messianism evident in his discourse also presupposes a utopian project to be realized in the future; a rhetorical device that once again positions the hero as being both past and future. The allusions to time that are embedded in these characterizations of messianism are particularly pertinent to the study of the image of Bolívar through the Bolivarian Movement as well as in Castillo’s treatment of the figure. In both cases, but most importantly in Castillo’s work, messianism delineates how the cult is not only about the romanticization of the past, but also, and more importantly, about how a particular historical representation of the past enables, in turn, the construction of a particular kind of future.

In the two-channel video performance titled Sísifo (2013), Castillo produces a plaster replica of a nineteenth-century bust of Bolívar, which is now at the Presidential Palace in Caracas. More specifically, this performative piece has as its main subject the construction of history through time—the coming and goings and the forward and backward motions of historical time. In the first video, the artist chisels out pieces of plaster as she carves into Bolívar’s face. As she swiftly chisels out the nose, eyes, and cheeks, the bust is quickly defaced making the image of El Libertador impossible to recognize. Additionally, this video is played in a fast-forward motion so that the viewer sees the removal of pieces at a quicker pace—a time effect that is further enhanced by the swooping noise of the chisel removing parts of the plaster. The second video played simultaneously shows the same action but in reverse. As it is rewound, the video displays Bolívar’s face being rapidly rebuilt. Together the two representations show a cyclical remaking that is, and has been, proper to the very mythification of the hero—the doing and undoing of his image. Since Bolívar has thus far marked the passing of time in Venezuela’s historicity, the invocation of his image is a way of thinking about the historical development of the nation into the present. This transposition of time is also incorporated in Castillo’s performativity of destruction as her interventions engage in the very embodiment of history where her acts of iconoclasm are a challenge to linear time, revolutionary time, and ultimately the time of now. This motion of going forward and backward additionally recalls the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who after defying the gods received a divine punishment in which for eternity he was to carry a rock up a hill. When reaching the zenith, the rock fell back to the bottom forcing Sisyphus to start over and over again. The cyclical motion in which we see the video being played and the evocation of the story of Sisyphus through the title, is a reminder of the repetitious character of history––where, across time, societies build and destroy, concealing and erecting structures of power, laying archaeological sediments that ultimately evince the continuous accumulation of victories and defeats. This repetitiveness, however, is further accentuated by the use of the figure of Simón Bolívar, who, being emblematic of the beginning of time—the birth of the nation—is also posited as its end, that is, Chávez’s Bolivarianism as the alleged utopian culmination of this nineteenth-century liberation movement.

By continuously building and destroying Bolívar’s face, Castillo underlines how the image of this national hero is but a social construct that has been created, destroyed, and recreated at will, and according to multiple and often contradictory interests (Abreu Mendoza 2017, 292). The manner in which political icons are subject to destruction varies from culture to culture, however, the face is often the feature that withstands the harshest attacks since it connotes an individual’s strength, power, and intelligence. A case comparable to the deformation explicit in Castillo’s Sísifo is that of the life-size copper head of an Akkadian king from the second millennium BC, which was excavated in Nineveh during the 1930s. The defacement evident in the case of the Akkadian head includes the gouged-out eyes, the cut-off ears, the broken nose, and the lacerated beard (Kiilerich 2014, 58). The defilement of the face of the king illustrates how for the Akkadians a serious attack against the power and dignity of this ruler involved the symbolic removal of his senses (Kiilerich 2014, 58). The destruction of the beard was also important for it represented the elimination of the figure’s masculinity (Kiilerich 2014, 58). Conversely, the mutilations of Simón Bolívar’s face in Sísifo although similar in their attempt to challenge the hero’s strength and masculinity are, unlike the case of the Akkadian king, a punishment to the figure. Instead, the defacement seeks to destabilize the significance of the hero by rendering him unrecognizable. Since, according to his biographers, Bolívar has been characterized as being representative of order and unity, Castillo’s disfiguration of his image mirrors the country’s present disorder and instability. In other words, to subject the hero to defacement is to question the stability of his representation and therefore his symbolic role in the contemporary history of the nation.  

Castillo’s acts of iconoclasm, however, are neither the only nor the first to transform Bolívar, as the multiple appropriations of his figure constitute similar transgressions against the alleged authenticity of his image. Scholars have best characterized the historical “defacement” of the hero as indicative of a void—that is, the notion that Simón Bolívar is in fact an empty signifier (Chumaceiro Arreaza 2003, 32). “As agent,” explains Angela Marino,

Bolívar enacts a particular set of ideals in the social and political environment, affecting and creating the world in which it appears. As product, Bolívar appears on street murals, in enactments onstage, in film, and in active debates over the historical record in the contemporary moment. For the performing icon of Bolívar, there
is no one Bolívar; rather, multiple Bolívars are enacted simultaneously, with each proposing different directions for the nation and continent. (Marino 2018, 138)

The bombastic ritualization surrounding Chávez’s exhumation of Bolívar’s body in 2010, for example, makes apparent how the disinterment was in itself a performance that simultaneously profaned and consecrated the hero. Chávez’s exhumation of the body additionally resulted in the unveiling of a computer-generated portrait, which despite allegedly being his most “realistic” representation to date, radically departed from the hero’s iconic image. This transformation of the representation of Bolívar is telling of the multiple ways in which the Bolivarian Movement continuously created and dismantled, consecrated and desecrated Simón Bolívar, both the man and the symbol. By appropriating and manipulating the figure of the hero at will, moreover, the Bolivarian Movement authorizes Castillo’s own treatment of the figure, which she exploits by using the female body to undermine the hero’s legitimacy as patriarch of the nation.

The Performativity of Ruination

In thinking about the significance of the national hero within the popular consciousness, Castillo contemplates how in Venezuela, people have reified Bolívar’s mythological reputation over the course of the years. In the performance piece titled The Emancipatory Kiss (2013), Castillo once again engages the figure of Simón Bolívar, but this time with a statue immortalized in gold. With caring and loving caresses, the artist approaches the figure to kiss it. The soft kisses quickly turn into licks, as she progresses to a sensual expression of obsessive adoration to reveal the fetishism with which people treat the image of El Libertador. The sensuality embedded in Castillo’s gestures of adoration are not only a way of addressing the emotional and ideological intensity that the creation of a cult of a man demonstrates, but also calls into question the conventions of masculinity that are inscribed in the patriarchy of the state. In a reflection about Castillo’s Emancipatory Kiss, Venezuelan historian Tomás Straka wrote about Bolívar’s relationship to his first wife María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro, and later with Manuelita Saenz, a like-minded rebel and his lover. The correspondence with these women, says Straka, demonstrate that adoration and seduction are at play in the construction of the nation. Addressing the fact that the hypermasculinization of Bolívar has been an important element in the mythification of his persona, Straka recognizes that the fantasy that is evoked by the recounting of these romantic relationships has been historically a stand-in for a larger demonstration of his virility. In this regard, and contrary to conventional expressions of adoration, the kisses and soft caresses in the video are not perceived as literal representations of affection, but reveal instead a contemptuous mocking of such masculine sensibility.

The absurd veneration displayed in The Emancipatory Kiss, moreover, addresses the idealization of this national hero. Through mimicry, the performance undermines both popular rituals of devotion and state repertoires to the point of rendering absurd the over-monumentalization of the figure. The artist’s loving strokes and kisses that supposedly manifest idolization of Bolívar, however, make apparent her defamation through exaggerations that trivialize the sanctification of the father of the nation. Hence, the act of iconoclasm in The Emancipatory Kiss is made evident not in any explicit form of mutilation, but through its derision. Following Alicia Ríos’s articulation of the banalization of national iconography, we could also assert that these gestures of love or mocking adoration are a subversion of the idealization of Bolívar in that they humanize the figure by demystifying his godlike persona (Abreu Mendoza 2017, 305). In rendering both the myth and the mythmaker ludicrous, the kiss ultimately wants to “emancipate” the body politic from the absurd and passionate exaltation of a man and his image.

With Castillo’s recurrent interest in interrogating “the desire of power and the power of desire,” the Emancipatory Kiss also underlines the intertwined relationship between passion and power. While the sensualized gestures with which Castillo engages the image of the hero assume in one register the desire of a woman who is attracted by the power and influence of a man, in another, it brings up Bolívar’s widely discussed “passions.” Beyond a question of picaresque love, the treatment of passion in Castillo’s performance has to do with the role that it played in the construction of a republican order. Sarah Chambers, in her article “Masculine Virtues and Feminine Passions: Gender and Race in the Republicanism of Simón Bolívar,” writes that:

for republicans, the love of country, patriotism, was the most sublime and socially beneficial passion. […] Love of one’s family was rooted in self-love and had to be overcome in order to sacrifice oneself to the homeland; but patriotism was a generous rather than selfish passion. Even the pursuit of personal glory that moved citizens to arms, Bolívar pointed out in line with classical republicanism, was a praiseworthy passion and not to be confused with “ambición vulgar” rooted in selfish interests. (Chambers 2006, 27)

In recognizing how passions moved individuals to action—meaning the pursuit of collective endeavors in the name of love of country—Bolívar, unlike liberals of his time, advocated for the rightful indulgence of passion (Chambers 2006, 27). In this sense, and in regards to contemporary politics, one could say that the glorification of passion that is professed by the Bolivarian Movement fostered a patriotism that did move the country to action. However, the fetishism with which the figure of El Libertador has been over-monumentalized relates more specifically to the uncontrolled passions that even Bolívar himself warned against. In fact, differentiating between virtuous and corrupting types of passion, Bolívar identified greed, revenge, and envy as the sources of social division and factionalism (Chambers 2006, 27). Chávez’s exhumation of Bolívar’s body in 2010 is again a testament to the generalized instrumentalization of the nineteenth-century figure for the exaltation of passion within contemporary Venezuelan society. Claiming that the “Colombian Oligarchy” had at the time betrayed Bolívar, the then-president ordered his disinterment to forensically verify the liberator’s cause of death. Even though the exhumation was premised on a number of unsubstantiated claims, its performance, masked as a cry for “justice,” mobilized the sensibilities of the population inciting hostility, and even retaliation (López 2010). To this last point, and unlike other studies that have posited that Bolívar’s image served as a symbol of unification, Venezuelan scholar Irma Chumaceiro Arreaza’s examination of Chávez’s ideological discourse suggests that El Libertadorwas appropriated as a rhetorical strategy to polarize the population as it was used, on the one hand, to delegitimize the opposition, and, on the other, to passionately mobilize the population toward violent confrontation (Chumaceiro Arreaza 2003, 22-23).

Unlike The Emancipatory Kiss, Castillo’s video performance Slapping Power (2015) explicitly exposes the artist’s reproach of and inconformity toward Simón Bolívar and what his image represents. As the artist slaps the wet clay that makes up the bust, she destroys this embodiment of the nation, the father figure, and the established structures of power. Each slap deforms the beautifully molded clay face of El Libertador until his iconic figure disappears, and his unrecognizable head metaphorically and materially bows down. Perhaps more than any other piece, Slapping Power best demonstrates the performativity of ruination. The violent confrontation between the artist and the hero displays Castillo’s resistance to the ideological sensibility that the image of Bolívar exerts. The very idea of the slap materializes the image as embodiment, for the slap—a conventional expression of indignation commonly enacted by women against men who violate their sense of dignity—illustrates the artist’s interest in challenging the hero’s power. As if in self-defense, Castillo eventually turns the slaps into a forceful beating. Looking straight into his face, the artist assumes the “slapping power,” so that punch after punch she disfigures the hero. Moreover, the tempo of the work allows the viewer to perceive in slow motion how the resounding reverberations of the hand hitting the clay slowly but continuously deform Bolívar’s image. The slow pace of the video thus enhances the act of iconoclasm making the viewer witness to the process of defilement as if evidencing a particular kind of end.

Detritus (2016). Installation, Cornell University, NY. Photo: Deborah Castillo.

Finally, Deborah Castillo’s piece titled Detritus (2015) is an installation that represents the monumental fall of the nation. These ruins, scattered in the middle of the room, make reference to the monuments and statues that are typically erected in honor of state heroes. However, here the fallen pieces are not indicative of a great civilization of yesteryear, but are merely crumbled bits of the unfulfilled promises that have led to a failed state. In the face of Chávez’s misappropriation of Bolívar’s image and the consequent polarization of the people of Venezuela, the debris of Detritus becomes representative of the ruination of ideologies, the deformation of political discourses, and with that the natural shattering of the emblem of republican utopias (Chumaceiro Arreaza 2003, 22). To this point, Germán Carrera Damas stated that:

In Venezuela, the historic cult of Bolívar has ultimately constituted a historical necessity. This, however, should not signify more that the concept of need could express in the historical order. Its function has been to disguise a failure, and to delay a disillusion, which it has successfully managed to do thus far. (Carrera Damas 1969, 42)

Rather than condemning the failure of the Bolivarian Movement specifically, the view of Bolívar as signifying a failed utopia speaks more generally to the overall defeat of the conceit of the nation, that is, to the corruption and degradation of the principles of a republican order. These ruins are thus an apocalyptic vision of Venezuela, where the monument to the hero and his cult lies broken in pieces as evidence of his crumbling influence and failed discourse. To shed light onto the nuanced way in which iconoclasm functions in Detritus, the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s bronze statue in Firdos Square provides an appropriate parallel. Without wanting to equate Hussein to Bolívar or for that matter to Chávez, the example is useful to elucidate how political iconoclasm is in itself an act of delegitimization. The statue was brought down from its pedestal on April 9th, 2003, and was left broken on the side of the road where pedestrians would hit the statue’s face with their shoes in an attempt to shame the figure (Kiilerich 2014, 57). The monument was also destroyed even before official knowledge of whether the dictator had been defeated and captured—symbolically marking the end of his regime as people delegitimized his claim to power through the destruction of his image (Kiilerich 2014, 57). Iconoclasm is here enacted as an expression of incredulity about the power and influence of the figure regardless of the leader’s actual position. In a similar vein, Castillo’s Detritus calls for the end of the cult that venerates and idealizes Bolívar as a metonym for the nation and for national unity, order and civic advancement (Carrera Damas 1969, 43).


Deborah Castillo has responded to Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Movement with a body of work that reflects on the history of Venezuela and its failed utopian promises. Taking El Libertador as a point of departure to center her political critique, the artist enacts her right to civil disobedience by engaging with Bolívar’s bust in a series of iconoclastic interventions that attempt to destroy the symbol behind the hero and challenge the role that military and political leaders occupy within the popular imaginary. Following Henry David Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience, which stipulates that it is the duty of the patriot to contest the state’s exercise of force and abuse of power, I contend that Castillo’s acts of destruction are in fact an expression of disobedience whereby in challenging the over-monumentalization of Simón Bolívar, the artist discloses the ways in which national iconographies are weaponized for the pursuit of particular ideological ends (Thoreau 1919, 78). Ideology, however, is not here understood simply as a political project but rather as signifying a social framework that fosters specific behaviors and beliefs. Attitudes that, for example, cement a particular idea of masculinity, that uphold particular dynamics of power, and that continuously redefine the meaning and significance of citizenship. In this sense, it is through the embodiment of destruction that the artist’s iconoclasm becomes a marked expression of defiance, for her performativity of ruination not only disarticulates the image and myth of El Libertador, but enacts it by using the female body to directly confront and defy the state and its patriarchy.

* This paper originates from the research I conducted for the exhibition “Deborah Castillo: Political Iconoclasm and other forms of Civil Disobedience,” which I curated in 2016 at the Bibliowicz Gallery in Cornell University. This was also the first comprehensive exhibition of Castillo’s work in the United States.

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