Effigies that Crumble: Profanations of the National Body

Slapping Power (2018). Live action in the Broad Museum, Los Angeles. Video: José Dao.

Inquiring into the relation between art and nation means treading a rather worn-out path. The artist as subject that solidifies or, rather, undermines that “cultural artifact” (Anderson 1983), has generated a sort of discursive exhaustion. The very notion of nation seems to be unstable in a world that oscillates between less territorial practices that appear to bring forth another kind of affinity linked to identity and the cyclical resurgence of nationalistic ghosts. Speaking of art and nation seems inevitably nineteenth-century-like and passé, however a series of cultural practices developed during the past years have forced us to rethink that old and belittled link and to look beyond the rise of postnational logic. The processes of deterritorialization, of displacement, and dissolution of the nation-state, as well as cultural hybridization, trans-border capital, etc., seem to be more intellectually seductive, though they are incapable of accounting for other cultural phenomena rooted in these old categories.

My aim is not to go back to jumbled conceptual disquisitions; instead, I would rather land these problems on a much more concrete problem: how in Venezuela, during the last decades, there have been a series of visual practices that once again reference the national imaginary and its (un)legitimizing power over the nation-state. I am particularly interested in how a significant group of visual artists have turned national symbols into a battleground for political struggle and resistance against the imposition of a renewed national iconography by the state. The work of artists such as Deborah Castillo, Alexander Apóstol, Carolina Wollmer, Teresa Mulet, Juan José Olavarría, and Luis Poleo, among others, reprise the images that national symbols embody in order to dislocate them, intervene in them, and disrupt them. Even if this alteration is not entirely new––let us just consider the numerous examples of such techniques during the 80’s throughout Latin America ––I would like to examine the cause of such a resurgence, of this renewed disruption of national symbols, and to study its significance in Venezuela’s convoluted political context these past few decades.

Of this uneven and heterodox group of visual artists, I am interested in the work of Deborah Castillo and its iconoclastic gestures that cast another gaze upon the representations of the national hero and its cult. Castillo’s work establishes a direct dialogue with stately practices that try, in their way, to consummate the destruction of certain national symbols in order to substitute––or recast them––with others better suited for their ends. These iconoclastic and icon-worshipping acts have, as a central axis, the monument and all the rites associated to it. Both the stately practices that I reference and Castillo’s work revolve around the idea of the monument as a fundamental axis when it comes to constructing national memory and its power to legitimize power.

The commemorative power of monuments is a fundamental factor when it comes to understanding the fractures and relocations that are produced in both national memory and its visual and discursive narratives. The monument seems to work as a materialization of said fractures and relocations, hence the cause of their destruction, redefinition, displacement, abandonment, and recasting.

These different perspectives on national monuments make me think about this article as an assemblage that makes it possible to build sense by comparing monumental rewriting practices that, even if they are rather dissimilar, can influence and determine each other. In the pages that follow, I will bring together three apparently disconnected scenes: an act of vandalism, a stately damnatio memoriæ, and an act of artistic profanation. All three share a common element: they revolve around images of national ideology, with its symbols and its heroes, and bet on antique gestures of adoration or iconoclastic condemnation. I will briefly linger on the first two before proceeding with an in-depth analysis of Castillo’s work, which I will then insert into this frame.

A pedagogical act of vandalism

On October 12th, 2004, Caracas experienced an anomalous event when right in the middle of the city, something surprising went missing. In the Plaza Venezuela, where works of many of the most important Venezuelan artists of the 20th century can be seen, an empty pedestal stood where Rafael Cova’s sculpture Monumento a Colón en el Golfo Triste should have been. The piece had been commissioned in 1893 and had been part of the city’s landscape since 1934. Almost a century later, it vanished. Moments after the initial confusion, the fate of said monument was revealed: judgment had been passed, and it had been taken down, only to be dragged later through the streets of Caracas and hung from an improvised gallows in front of the very modern and rather emblematic Teresa Carreño Theater. One of the leaders of the colectivo that perpetrated this action called it “symbolic terrorism, iconoclastic violence, a pedagogical act” (García Marco 2006).

Destrucción en 2004 del Monumento a Colón en el Golfo Triste, de Rafael de la Cova (1934). Plaza Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela. Courtesy of Deborah Castillo.

Alongside the demolition of Columbus’s statue, we also find an act of rewriting. Upon the empty pedestal, several messages appeared in graffiti form: “Hail the Pachamama!”, “Down with colonialism!”, “Historical judgment,” “Square of resistance,” and “Down with the empire!” It would seem that the act of destruction needed the written word in order to specify its symbolic contents.

The destruction, graffiti, and public statements around the incident cast the monument as a purely commemorative sign; its historic or artistic value was diminished. The notion of cultural heritage had no part whatsoever to play in the pedagogical act, which consisted in strangling what the monument commemorated: the figure of a conquistador transformed by stately discourse into a part of history that deserved to be erased. The monument seemed to work as a body (dragged, beaten up, hanged), and not as a representation, artistic object, or cultural product. It is quite significant that the destiny of this statue has been shrouded in mystery. At some point, the government retrieved the pieces that had been left behind following the act of vandalism, but these pieces were lost again. It has been said they are stored in a warehouse, but no authority has publicly declared where they can be found and what state they are being kept in. The monument-body is still missing.

A stately damnation memoriæ

This loutish act would have gone unnoticed had it not established a direct dialogue with a series of stately practices that tried, using their own methods, to pass judgment and perform acts of “iconoclastic violence” (García Marco 2006). Two years after the “trial” of Columbus, another statue of the Admiral would disappear from public space. This time, the perpetrator was the state, who retired the monument for reasons of historical justice. Mercedes Otero, the then-president of Fundapatrimonio, explained that this “definitive removal” responded to a state policy of “stopping the cult of Christopher Columbus” (as reported by the newspaper Últimas Noticias on March 20th, 2009).

By acting in this way, the government was trying to execute a modern damnatio memoriæ, a condemnation of memory that implied removing from public spaces any vestige of Venezuela’s colonial past. Many other statues and monuments were removed in this surgical and clean manner, disappearing pieces of the country’s cultural heritage and visual landscape for years. A replica of the caravel in which Columbus had sailed, docked for years in the Parque del Este, one of Caracas’ main parks, was one of several eliminated monuments.

Most of the criticism aimed at these removals came from defenders of cultural heritage. Hannia Gómez, director of the Fundación para la Memoria Urbana (The Foundation for Urban Memory), declared: “It is not possible to declare an art piece part of our heritage and then simply dispose of it in a manner decided by a public employee. Columbus’ statue is specifically mentioned among the sculptures of El Calvario park (on pages 186 and 187 of the municipality of Libertador’s heritage catalog), and everything there is supported by the Gaceta and is part of the nation’s cultural heritage” (as reported by the newspaper El Universal on March 27th, 2009).

These opposing stances revealed two different ways of understanding the monument: on the one hand, both the government and the colectivo’s position was that its only value was to remind us of a historical event; meanwhile, those who found the removals unacceptable understood the monuments as pieces of historical and artistic value beyond their commemorative character. The disagreement was not an ideological one, nor did it involve the necessity of maintaining a historical reference as part of the national narrative. Rather, it had to do with another debate altogether.

It is worth remembering how Aloïs Riegl (1982) in The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin, classifies monuments according to the value given to them by society. Each monument is at first a reminder, but they can also hold artistic or historical value. For Riegl, these categories, which are sometimes intertwined, show us how society is inclined to worship monuments, and how it interacts with the past as well as with notions of art and culture. If we think about these categories in the context we have been commenting on, we find ourselves confronted with two fairly different ways of approaching both monuments and memory itself, which in turn makes it difficult to find a middle ground for both stances.

The government’s discourse allowed for these vanished pieces––now considered worthless in terms of heritage, artistic, or historical value––to be replaced by other pieces that ‘commemorated’ the appropriate characters from that national narrative that was being rewritten. In this way, the empty space was eventually filled with other images. A statue of Guaicaipuro, one of the Indigenous leaders who resisted colonization eventually replaced the vandalized Columbus; Columbus’s caravel was replaced by the corvette in which Francisco de Miranda sailed; and the Columbus statue at El Calvario was replaced with a statue of Ezequiel Zamora, a sworn enemy of the conservatives, and one of the military leaders involved in the Venezuelan Federal War (1859-1863).

Supplanting images thus has become state policy in Venezuela, and has transformed such important elements as the national coat of arms, the national flag, the name of the country (an entire chapter could be written about verbal substitutions), the national currency and, of course, the Father of the Nation.

Los rostros de Bolívar. Intervención a partir del retrato de Gil de Castro (1825) y la reconstrucción facial del artista Philippe Froesch (2012). Courtesy of Deborah Castillo.

The image of Simón Bolívar, white and aristocratic, that appeared in the portraits that decorated many public spaces such as schools, public offices, the Congress, and so on, was replaced with a more mulatto Bolívar, which was more in line with the government’s discourse that relied  heavily on the concept of race as an element of political struggle. This new Bolívar would become the legitimate object of veneration by supplanting––or at least trying to––the Bolívar which had been worshipped for two centuries.

Bolívar’s traditional iconography, usually based on a 1825 portrait painted by Peruvian artist Gil de Castro, was now confronted with the product of a sui generis alliance of art, science, and forensic investigation. In order to refute this aristocratic depiction, the government ordered Bolívar’s remains to be exhumed. An international group of scientist was tasked with handling the remains and providing a facial reconstruction of The Liberator. The national body was thus brutally intervened upon, unearthed, and modified with apparent support from scientific discourse.

In this case, it was not only about the mere substitution of a monument with another, but about trying to annul the idea of representation itself with the help of a definitive scientific discourse, one that would descend into the catacombs in order to bring back the body of the Father of the Nation. Just as it had occurred in the act of vandalism, body and representation were fused together.

This unearthing also brought along other, less transparent phenomena. The cult of Bolívar, so intensely present in Venezuela since the 19th century, seemed to come back to life through this direct contact with the body of the Father of the Nation. The new image, reconstituted with the use of the remains, produced a fair amount of controversy, since a sizeable amount of people found it resembled Hugo Chávez, who on many occasions and through many means had presented himself as a sort of reincarnation of Bolívar.

The cult of Bolívar, in its various forms (civic, religious, or even associated with witchcraft and santería), has been present in Venezuela  practically from the first days of the nation. Researchers such as Germán Carrera Damas (2003), Luis Castro Leiva (1987), Elías Pino Iturrieta (2003, 2007), Ana Teresa Torres (2009), and Alicia Ríos (2013) have all studied its beginnings and diverse variations. In order to understand the way in which Chavismo has appropriated Bolívar, it is useful to read Alicia Ríos’s (2013) Nacionalismos banales: el culto a Bolívar. Literatura, cine, arte y política en América Latina. I will come back to this point later, but for now, I will simply point out that the substitution of monuments and iconography performed by the government was part of its state policy aimed at rewriting national memory.

Deborah Castillo, or, the groped body of Bolívar: an act of profanation

Deborah Castillo is a young Venezuelan artist who works with performance, photography, sculpture, and video. Her name started circulating in the cultural scene of Caracas in 2003, when she was awarded the Eugenio Mendoza prize. From the beginning, Castillo’s work was controversial due to its modes of questioning power, stereotypes, and ideologies, and the use of the feminine body––the artist’s own body––as a starting point and destabilizing tool. Within this rich and provoking work, I am particularly interested in a series of pieces that use Bolívar’s image or to be more precise, sculptures representing Bolívar as an object to be worked upon. I am referring, here,  to three different pieces: Sísifo (2013), El beso emancipador (2014), and Slapping Power (2015). I intend to show how these three pieces confront, knowingly or unknowingly, the monumental rearrangements that were simultaneously taking place in Caracas’s public spaces, as well as the state’s effort to reinvent national memory.

Sísifo (2013). Courtesy of Deborah Castillo.

Sísifo, the first of these pieces, was completed in 2013, when the artist still lived in Venezuela. It consists of a video showing  the destruction of a bust of Bolívar using a chisel and hammer. The film is presented backwards, in such a way that it is impossible for the spectator to identify the bust at first. It starts with a destroyed face, its capacity to represent utterly canceled, and little by little, we see how the pieces fit together, until we recognize the face at last: Bolívar in his traditional depiction. By dislocating time in the film, Castillo manages to revert the iconoclastic act par excellence in order to transform it into a creative act. The maimed face is the beginning of the action, and its reconstruction and restoration mark the ending point.

This temporal inversion allows us to think about the demolition of a monument as a two-sided process. The same chisel that sculpts the stone to give it shape, to outline, can also be used to erase and destroy the recognizable traits of a face. This type of bipolarity allows for the construction of a Bolívar-Sisyphus of sorts, an image that is destroyed and rebuilt ad infinitum. Bolívar is simultaneously the non-significant nothingness––mere crumbling stone––and the unavoidable image of the nation. The projection of the video on two parallel screens underlines the continuous game of destruction and construction.

Unlike the vandalized statue of Columbus, or some of the surgical removals performed by the state, destruction here is not in the service of substitution; rather, it aims at placing the image in its proper place. It is about the eternal return of the Father of the Nation, the almost unavoidable repetitive political use of its figure. The destruction performed with chisel and hammer can only end with the reconstruction of the icon and the return of its cult.

It is important to note that Castillo chose to work with a bust and not another kind of sculptural depiction. The bust has an inescapable patriotic character: among the possible monuments, it constitutes the clearest example of what Riegl (1982) calls “the intentional monument,” whose only objective is to keep the past valid. Castillo refers to this ritornello around which national memory seems to revolve. Does the unearthing of Bolívar’s bones and his subsequent “scientific” reconstruction not respond to that desire of keeping the national hero both alive and present? Is it not a sort of positivistic bust? Bolívar, here, is the axis of power’s discourse, an axis that is sometimes formed of insignificant mud, demolished matter, while at other times it is made of the distinct body of the nation.

It is impossible not to read this piece in light of the aforementioned studies dedicated to the cult of Bolívar. I am especially interested in the dialogue that seems to be taking place between the Bolívar-Sisyphus and historian Elías Pino Iturrieta’s (2003) El divino Bolívar. In this book, Pino analyzes the recurring way in which the figure of Bolívar appears in Venezuelan history since remote times, such as the presidency of José Antonio Páez (1831-1834). This constant presence creates a devotion that is more akin to religious forms than to the ways of a secular republic, which is why Pino dubs Bolívar “The Divine.” It is an eclectic divinity, somewhere between santería, witchcraft and national history. Pino calls this form of adoration a “national religion.”

Taking into account this civic-religious interpretation of Bolívar, Castillo’s chisel and hammer can be read as the tools of a desecrating act. The feminine body, invested with the phallic symbol of the chisel, hits the patriotic/religious bust over and over again. It is a very physical aggression, a hand to hand encounter, one that evokes, if I may, a crime of passion. The fact that this act is executed by a woman might be the most transgressive gesture of the whole scene.

This profanation is repeated in one of Castillo’s most polemic pieces, El beso emancipador (2014). In this performance, the artist again works with a bust of Bolívar; this time, however, she does not aim to destroy it, but rather to treat it as an erotic object. In this three-and-a-half-minute video, Castillo places herself in front of a golden bust of Bolívar and starts to kiss it, timidly at first, but later in a clearly erotic manner. The bust is caressed, licked, and tasted by the artist, who transforms the idolized monument into an object devoured by feminine libido. The erotic act is filmed up close, which produces in the spectator a kind of uncomfortable intimacy. We feel like unexpected voyeurs of a lascivious act performed with/against the Father of the Nation. Besides, the dimensions of the bust are such that it is humanized and placed on a horizontal plane with the artist. The vague borders between idolatry and erotization are staged in a parodic manner.

The Venezuelan state’s violent reaction to this piece came as no surprise. Venezolana de Televisión, the official state television channel, harshly criticized it and declared it “unscrupulously disrespectful to the image and memory of the Liberating Father, Simón Bolívar.” It was “an offense to our liberator, not art” (as stated on the television program Cayendo y corriendo in March of 2013). Critiques by state officials concentrated, on the one hand, on the idea of said “image and memory” being attacked and, on the other hand, on the artistic condition of the piece. The desecration offense seemed to break two rules: the necessary cult of a memorable figure in the form of a bust––and especially the quasi-religious bust of Bolívar––and respect as a limit for art to be held to.

This outraged reaction makes me go back to the idea of profanation and how Castillo used her own body and lasciviousness as instruments of religious and political profanation. I understand the term profanation in the sense that Giorgio Agamben (2005) meant it: “there is a profane contagion, a touch that disenchants and returns to use what the sacred had separated and petrified. […] And if ‘to consecrate’ (sacrare) was the term that indicated the removal of things from the sphere of human law, ‘to profane’ meant, conversely, to return them to the free use of men” (74, 73).

Castillo’s kiss is that “touch that disenchants,” which removes the hero from his separate sphere and makes him descend “to the free use of men.” Agamben again: “That which has been ritually separated can be returned from the rite to the profane sphere” (2005, 74). The emancipating kiss, then, runs contrary to the idolatry imposed by the state; the ritual exerts violence upon the separation of the spheres, making them play with each other. It is worth remembering, once again, that the “touch that disenchants” comes from a feminine body, which makes it doubly transgressive and adds to the profaning/emancipatory act, the gesture of revolt against a virile notion of power. From the outside, from her position in the margins, Castillo destabilizes the construction process of “Bolívar The Divine,” and its political instrumentation.

Slapping Power (2015). Photo: Violette Bule

This destabilizing gesture is reprised in another of Castillo’s pieces from 2015, Slapping Power, which was filmed in New York where the artist was exiled at the time after suffering a series of aggressions and censorship measures by the Venezuelan government. It is a work in which Castillo resorts to video and performance once again. In it, we see the bust of Bolívar the hero, but this time made of clay. The artist’s subversive gesture adopts another movement, another way of touching: the slap. In the video, we see the hero of clay being repeatedly and violently slapped, until it is utterly destroyed. The impact of the hand, the prints it leaves, stay on the bust’s matter. The hand erases the traits until there is only indistinct matter, as if touch, that “touch that disenchants,” could blur the hero, turning him into insignificant mud.

The way time and duration are handled in this video is also an important factor. The piece is about four minutes long, and during this time, we watch the repeated slaps in close-up and slow motion: angry slaps that fall on a bust turned away from us. Only the artist is visible. What matters is her movement, her anger. The sound increases the sensation of violence by making the slaps resonant; the sound of the hits rings out again and again, echoing in the empty space. It no longer matters if the hero is Bolívar or another; we can only see the back of his head. Castillo refers here to the abstraction of power, and to the fact that these gestures of subversion/profanation could be transposed to other historical contexts: “pieces like Slapping Power simply are the answer of a common citizen to the system; it speaks of a collective experience, as Latin American as from any other region that has suffered under totalitarian regimes” (Castillo 2015).

The idea of subversion as gesture, as corporal movement, is akin to what Georges Didi-Huberman proposes when he reads insurrection as a movement, a bodily gesture that alters a certain order. Speaking of the exhibit Soulèvements, Didi-Huberman (2017) states: “Protest takes on a corporeal form: it is the arm that is raised, the body that straightens up, the mouth that opens, between words and song, all of that is corporeal.” In the case of Castillo’s work, and specifically of Slapping Power, the gesture is far from the stereotypes of political insubordination. Rather, it takes place on another register, that of the melodrama and of mass culture; therein lies its novelty. For the slap is a stereotypical gesture of feminine violence––the only one allowed––that Latin American telenovelas have repeated endlessly on the screen. Castillo appropriates that schematic gesture, with all its melodramatic charge, to turn it into a tool of political subversion. She is not only touching and hitting the father of the nation; she is taking him out of his field of representation (virile, heroic, romantic) in order to submerge it into other codes: those of the melodrama, the telenovela, and mass culture.

In her early work, Castillo already showed a special interest in exploring forms like the photonovel and pornography. In El extraño caso de la sin título (2006), El secuestro de la ministra de cultura (2013), and La Dama Profunda (2016), the artist used the format of the photonovel to talk about politics, feminine stereotypes, corruption, social climbing, and the place of art in society, as well as its complications. Her incursions into these undervalued forms, aimed at giving them a political and profaning reframing, speak of a tendency that is present in all of her work. In the case of the busts of Bolívar, this shift in register is less obvious, but is much more transgressive since it is about slapping heroic and religious narratives in order to turn Bolívar in a melodramatic character.

This shift in register is one of the richest aspect of Castillo’s work. Even if the gesture of humanizing and demystifying Bolívar has already been carried out––let us remember Gabriel García Márquez’s El general en su laberinto (1989) or Juan Dávila’s polemic art piece, Bolívar travesti (1994) ––the change of plot and the profanation performed from the space of a feminine body introduce another kind of symbolic operation. It is not about humanizing the hero, of showing his most prosaic traits, but is rather an attempt to make him a passive character of sorts, seduced by a woman-devourer straight out of a telenovela that caresses him, kisses him, and slaps him.

Deep down, the greatest act of profanation is not the erotization or the lascivious kiss, but the act of taking the hero out of his narrative and plunging him into mass culture. I remember, for instance, one of Castillo’s first performances, in which the artist would serenade the Bolívar statue accompanied by mariachis in Caracas’s Bolívar Square. In this case, Castillo does not sing or play, she does not even appear in the video, but she profanes the statue nonetheless by associating it with the melody of a ranchera. And of course, the mariachis sing Pero sigo siendo el rey (But I Am Still King).

An important precedent in this change of narrative can be found in Jorge Alí Triana’s (2002) Bolívar soy yo (Bolívar Is Me). In this film from Colombia, we see the production of a telenovela about the love life of Simón Bolívar and Manuela Sáenz. We see how Santiago, the actor who plays Bolívar, ends up believing himself to be the character and imposing himself as a sort of contemporary Bolívar, halfway between telenovela and history. This plot would require a more detailed analysis, however what I would like to stress here is how Triana explores this other way of approaching the figure of Bolívar, by using the register of the Latin American telenovela (Ríos 2013). Not unlike Castillo’s work, the film explores a spectacular notion of the national hero that somehow undermines national history and its supporting narratives. As Ríos proposes:

Bolívar Is Me shows us how the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, continues to be at least one of the driving forces of history and of Colombian and Latin American life. Thanks to the characters’ various imaginings of the hero, as well as the jumps between the telenovela and the movie, we encounter the representation of those three types of history that Nietzsche set out: not only a monumental and antiquarian history, but a critical history, which intends to wipe everything away and ask itself how to begin without that legacy. (2013, 184)

The change of narrative and historical register makes me think of Castillo and Triana’s work in the terms laid out by Hayden White’s (1992) well-known Metahistory. For White, the kind of narrative we choose––romantic, satiric, tragic, comic––will give a sense to History, regardless of the “event” that is being narrated. In the case at hand, it would be appropriate to wonder if the melodrama of telenovelas and mass culture adds other meanings and other nuances to national history. The change in narrative implies a change in sense. As Ríos points out, it is a movement from monumental history and into critical history, and in the case of Castillo, into the use of that critical history to dismantle the forms of authoritarianism. Governmental idolatry––heroic, romantic, monumental––turns into a lascivious and melodramatic passion that profanes the hero and the monument, dislocating it and diminishing its power, its legitimizing support. From this perspective, stately idolatry is, in the end, a cheap act of televised melodrama.


The act of vandalism, the stately policies of removal and substitution, and Castillo’s video/performances all answer to the same logic and speak to the same way of understanding politics: as an intersection between the apparently private space of affects and the rational, shared public space. The three scenes that constitute this study–the pedagogical vandalism, the damnation memoriæ, and the desecrating esthetic act–stage a politics of feelings that seems to have dominated in Venezuela during the past decades. Both the state and Castillo’s work share the same starting point: the exploration of an emotionality that surrounds the figure of the hero, the discourse of the national, and a way of doing politics that relies on these factors.

The politics of emotions seems to be historically rooted in certain trends of fascism or populism. However, as Martha Nussbaum (2013) argues in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, this can be found in different regimes, even those like the one in Venezuela, which has proven hard to classify. Nussbaum adds:

Sometimes people suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions. Those beliefs are both mistaken and dangerous. […] All political conceptions, from the monarchical and the fascist to the libertarian, have a place for emotions in the public culture, supporting the stability of their characteristic principles. But specific strategies depend on specific goals. (2; 22)

The politics of emotions, present for so long in contemporary Venezuela, is the common ground shared by the three scenes studied in this essay. I do not doubt that it feeds them; however, what differentiates them are their strategies and their objectives. While the state tries to use “political emotions” linked to national monuments and symbols as “stabilizing factors” in an effort to manufacture legitimacy, Castillo aims to subvert the order by disarticulating the heroic narrative, which she turns into ranchera and melodramatic lasciviousness.

This disarticulation process uses the same iconoclastic/icon-worshipping as the state as a starting point, but it goes on to subvert it. As Josefina Ludmer reminds us while studying what she calls the antipatriotic literature of the 90s: “the constitution of the nation and its destitution abide by the same rules and follow the same rhetoric, one affirmatively and in the most heightened way possible, the other negatively and in the lowest. … They are the obverse and reverse of the same thing: two cases of politics of emotions set out in a territory and one of the political practices of the present” (2010, 161).

To demolish, to hang, to destroy, to forget, to kiss, to slap––these are all practices that appeal to a politics of the emotions that come from different places and lead to different ends: the subversive act that defies the law by clandestinely removing a monument; the state that exerts violence on the national imaginary and tries to build new, legitimizing affective affinities; the artist that uses her own body as an instrument of eroticized emotion to profane and revolt against images of power.

These three ways of approaching national memory and its monuments reveal, perhaps unwittingly, the fictional nature of said memory, its arbitrariness and its fragility. Whether they are performed by icon worshippers or iconoclasts, from the center of power or from its margins, all this matters little. The old rhetoric of the hero and the monument, the flags and the forefathers comes back like a ghost from the 19th century to determine Venezuela’s contemporary political discourse and its forms of legitimacy and resistance. The nation and its emotive fictions, once again.

Workd cited

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———. 2007. Nada sino un hombre. Los orígenes del personalismo en Venezuela. Caracas: Alfa.

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