RAW: The Flesh of the Past

Demagogo (2014). Video: Florencia Alvarado.

Placed atop a tower of bricks in the middle of a dimly lit gallery, a bust welcomed the public who on September 22, 2015, attended the opening night of Deborah Castillo’s solo exhibition RAW at Mandragoras Art Space in Queens. Though the head’s identity was never explicitly revealed, there was no mystery regarding what it represented; the frown, the beard, and the military epaulettes gave it the authoritative air of the caudillo, and brought to mind the boundless power historically embedded in that figure and its many visual iterations in the urban and political landscape of Latin America. There was however something odd about Castillo’s caudillo, which particularly stands out when we consider it alongside the several busts and statues made of bronze and marble and placed in plazas and public buildings in his honor. Next to those arresting and seemingly eternal objects of commemoration, Castillo’s caudillo appeared frail, incomplete, and uncannily human; built with unprocessed clay, he seemed to be made of flesh.

This “bodily” quality of the bust was also present in the other clay figures that appeared in the videos that were projected all around the gallery space. In The Unnamable (2015), a pair of hands and forearms—also made of clay—caressed Castillo, who slowly moved them over her face and down her chest, giving them a sensual dynamism that re-presented them not as objects but as lively appendages. In Demagogue (2015), the head of another nameless military figure made of raw clay appeared against a plain black background and Castillo held his phallus-shaped nose, moving her hand up and down in a masturbating motion that made the nose “grow,” leaving gray stains on her palms. As the visitors moved from one screen to the other, they found themselves enclosed in the gallery by the six hundred pounds of wet clay hand-pressed into the windows, preventing the light from fully entering the space and thus serving to create an atmosphere of shadows that evoked simultaneously the oppression of those military regimes led by the figures represented in the sculptures, the intimacy of a sexual encounter, and the dread of finding oneself face-to-face with the dead. The climax of the night came when Castillo stood in front of the bust of the caudillo and started slapping it, each slap disfiguring the head and separating it little by little from the neck until it finally gave way and fell into the ground.

Slapping Power (2018). Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Florencia Alvarado.

This live performance— Slapping Power (2015)—is part of a series of “affronts” that the artist has staged against the figure and body of the caudillo in an effort to call into question the structures of power that come into being and ground their authority in the feverish cult that such figure has historically awakened in Latin America. Though the challenge to the power of the man in uniform resonates with the historical and political reality of Latin American countries and of countries all over the world, Castillo’s performance work is also a response to a phenomenon that is distinctively Venezuelan and can also be read as its own sort of performance: the cult of Bolívar. It is Bolívar and the parade of “Bolívar wannabes,” or what I will call “Bolivaroids,” that have governed the country since his death who have shown up in the artist’s work since 2011—the year she performed Lamezuela. This piece—and Castillo’s work since then—has been primarily discussed against the background of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution and the blind submission former president Hugo Chávez demanded from his pueblo while he was alive and continues to, even now, after his death. Castillo’s work however goes beyond the political reality of contemporary Venezuela, as it engages with the cult of Bolívar not only as a Chavista phenomenon but as a national performance that, throughout history, has kept the country on its knees, burdened with the weight of Bolívar’s unfulfilled dreams and always under the authority of his spectral gaze. In calling it a “performance,” I am emphasizing both the reiterated actions that are at the center of the cult—military parades, the construction of the many Plazas Bolívar, the circulation of currency named after him, etc.—and the role that the body plays in perpetuating Bolívar’s monopoly over the country’s memory and identity—the kneeling in front of his image, the love expressed through submission or mimesis. These two elements—repetition and the body—are key in Castillo’s work, where they are manipulated so as to take the cult to an extreme where what was once familiar becomes uncanny and repulsive, and where an opportunity thus arises to revisit the ways in which the nation engages with the dead. The magnitude and complexity of the artist’s work make it impossible to discuss all of it in this section; thus, in what follows, the focus will be on two of her actions performed for the camera: The Unnamable and Demagogue.

These two pieces—like all other pieces included in RAW—engage with the materiality and the temporality of the statue and the role it has historically played not only in reproducing the body of the dead, but also in inserting it within the realm of the timeless and the sacred. As Katherine Verdery points out in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (1999):

Statues are dead people cast in bronze or carved in stone. They symbolize a specific famous person while in a sense also being the body of that person. By arresting the process of that person’s bodily decay, a statue alters the temporality associated with the person, bringing him into the realm of the timeless or the sacred, like an icon. For this reason, desecrating a statue partakes of the larger history of iconoclasm. Tearing it down not only removes that specific body from the landscape, as if to excise it from history, but also proves that because it can be torn down, no god protects it. (5)

The two materials that Verdery mentions—bronze and stone—convey an impression of both durability and completion that ensures that the body shaped in them escapes processes of decay. Clay, particularly clay that is raw or unfired, does not have those properties; as the head of the man with the phallic nose in Demagogue reveals, sculptures made of raw clay can crack, fall apart, and be easily manipulated or destroyed. As such, they seem to share the temporality of human flesh rather than the temporality of the gods, an argument that resonates with the theme of miraculous birth that recurs throughout world religions and mythologies and that portrays man as being created from clay. Castillo captures this “fleshness” not only through the malleability of her sculpture but also through the color and rough texture it acquires in pieces like The Unnamable, where the two hands appear unpolished, displaying the lines and folds of all human hands with a bluish grey color that brings to mind the materiality of the corpse. Castillo thus intervenes in the temporality of an icon that has been rendered immortal through statues not by removing one such statue from the urban landscape and, as Verdery puts it, “excising it from history,” but rather by making her sculpture mortal from within, through a change in its materiality that allows it to remain as visible as it was before but that also renders it accessible to other (equally) mortal bodies such as Castillo’s.

In fact, while in the actions performed for the camera the sculptures’ materiality reproduces a sort of raw human flesh, such flesh is not and does not appear “alive”; it is Castillo who gives it humanlike movement through her erotic engagement with the lips, the nose, and the hands, which then, at the mercy of the artist’s body, end up acquiring—I propose—a materiality that incorporates the slimy textures, fragile surfaces, and ashen coloring of the corpse.

In the hands of Castillo, such materiality becomes a site where concepts, temporalities, and affects that are typically at odds with each other appear intertwined; life and death, immortality and decay, the organic and the inorganic, love and rejection, seduction and repulsion all converge so as to trigger in the artist and in the audience equally conflicting reactions that invite an engagement with the dead that does not follow the dynamics of the cult. This engagement is central to the two aforementioned pieces and to Castillo’s overall work; her sculptures and the dead they represent are not there as complete works demanding admiration or contemplation, but rather as (dead) bodies that pull live bodies in and out, in a sort of danse macabre that engages the three most intimate senses: taste, touch, and smell. As such, Castillo’s sculptures remind us of the kind of sculptures Georges Didi-Huberman in Being a Skull (2016) says are not “objects of space” but rather the transformation of “objects into subtle actions of a site, into taking or having place” (emphasis in original, Didi-Huberman 2016, 45):

In the first case, the completed object exhibits its closure by affirming its results, by rejecting the agent and the action (the process whereby it takes form) of a single past, according to a kind of forgetting of its own birth. In the second case, the sculpture tends to remain open and instead affirms the entanglement or lack of separation […] it maintains between agent, action, and result. Each specific temporality of the work persisting within the others, enveloping them, and nourishing itself from them. (45-46)

Castillo’s sculptures do not succumb to the “forgetting of their own birth,” nor are they immune to the threat of their own death; they are in a state of ongoing instability that is reinforced both by the artist’s repetitive movements—which animate the otherwise still hands while wearing them away and bringing them closer to their destruction—and by the clay that is never solid enough to give the sculptures longevity. Thus, the sculptures stage the beginnings and endings that are erased from both the surface of statues as well as from the luminous immateriality of the specter. Consequently, Bolívar appears made of a kind of human material with the potential for decay that interferes with the magical aura that surrounds him when he or any of the Bolivaroids is recreated using marble—a particularly long-lasting material—or bronze—which, in addition to being long lasting, also has the spellbinding effect of precious metals and the wealth they promise.

Yerma (2015). Mandragoras Art Space, Queens, NYC. Photo: Deborah Castillo.

By transforming the iconic statue into a malleable sculpture, the specter into a body, and the body into a corpse, Castillo is not only inserting the icon in a different temporal framework—the fleeting one of raw clay—but she is also staging a sort of sensorial revolution, as suggested in the title of these two pieces. The Unnamable indeed forbids the act of naming and thus of conjuring that brings Bolívar’s specter into being, thus hijacking its capacity to address us and survey us, opening up a space for a different sense to take over: the sense of touch, and, more specifically, the touching of Castillo’s body. Something similar occurs in Demagogue: by denouncing in its title the manipulative oratory political leaders use to put their audience into a submissive trance, the piece drives attention away from the mouth—and its message—and toward the movements of the masturbating hand and the growth of the elongated nose.

This disturbance of the balance among the senses can be read against the background of a Western cultural tradition that conceptualizes sight as the principal category “by which the modern self has been understood to frame the world and separate it as an object of knowledge, understanding, and manipulation” (Smith 2008, 20). Such an argument is presented by Mark Smith in Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (2008), where the author highlights the power dynamics embedded in the act of seeing, an act that “operates at a distance and with some power over the viewed” (23) and that has the potential to fix and reify the objects and beings that exist in the field of vision. Along with hearing—which, Smith points out, has historically contributed to arranging, affirming, and mediating various forms of social organization and hierarchy (42)—sight has often been associated with order and rationality, while the senses of touch, taste, and smell have been relegated to the realm of the primitive and, if we follow Constance Classen’s (2005) study of the European hierarchy of the senses, to the “female sensorium.”

This understanding of the senses—though it may skew toward an essentializing framework that does not encompass the different roles the sensorial world acquires in all times, places, and cultures—serves to highlight some of the ways in which senses come into play in the context of the cult of figures such as Bolívar (and, more recently, Chávez) in Venezuela. The dynamics of this cult have been studied in depth by Venezuelan historian Germán Carrera Damas, whose work, El culto a Bolívar (1969), stirred some controversy at the time of publication for having “dared” to propose a critical approach to Bolívar that examined his life as the life of a man and not the life of a demigod of Venezuelan history. He argued that the cult of Bolívar went from being a cult of the people and by the people to being a cult for the people—that is, a performance staged by those in power whereby they became the sole recipients of Bolívar’s heritage and were thus responsible for transmitting his will to the people. As a stately performance, the cult became a manipulative tactic serving the political interests of every dictator and president the country has had, who have consistently portrayed themselves as Bolivaroids leading the pueblo to the glorious future where the nation would finally achieve Bolívar’s dreams.

The process of deification of the hero occurred through the mobilization of the eyes and ears of the nation, which were put at the service of Bolívar and the fight he had led for (always elusive) independence. As Carrera Damas (1969), Elías Pino Iturrieta (2006), and Ana Teresa Torres (2010) all point out, Bolívar’s words broke free from their historical framework and spilled over presents and futures, becoming a sort of timeless pattern or pious formula to be repeated carelessly and ad nauseam by those in power, who then appeared to be engaged in a compulsory act of necromantic ventriloquism that grounded their authority and mobilized people’s affective commitment to the Liberator. Citing fragments of Bolívar’s speeches—both in and out of context, both faithfully and incorrectly—became required in inaugural speeches, public events, military parades, and school activities. His words became a providential roar in Eduardo Blanco’s Venezuela heroica (1881)—the epic tale of the Wars of Independence that is a staple in any Venezuelan home— and are on permanent display on official plaques and in murals and graffiti all over the country. With Chávez’s government, listening to and repeating Bolívar’s name became even more of an imperative thanks to the president’s decision to change the name of the country from República de Venezuela to República Bolivariana de Venezuela and to use Bolívar’s name as an adjective to be added to everything from political parties and armed groups to social projects and food. He even went as far, in December 2001, as to invite around fifty thousand of his followers to Caracas’s Avenida Bolívar to repeat the Juramento del Samán de Güere—the oath a young Bolívar pronounced in Rome before the Wars of Independence.

The frequency with which Bolívar’s name is pronounced is only matched by the frequency with which he is seen. Plazas, streets, avenues, schools, textbooks, stamps, figurines, coins, and bills: the country’s visual landscape is shaped by his figure, a figure that the people also reproduce in a sort of collective dress rehearsal that begins with performing the Padre de la Patria in kindergarten and dressing like him for carnival, and that has ended in an act of sensuous mimesis whereby the president himself (Chávez) manages to look like—and therefore come close to becoming—him. In that sense, the producing, reproducing, and re-reproducing of Bolívar as an image becomes a demand that, like the voice of the gods, seems to come both from behind (the past) and from above, and with which every Venezuelan—including Castillo herself—must comply. The will-bending force and indisputability of this demand is best summarized in the words that welcome those who visit the Museo Bolivariano in Caracas:

The Liberator has ordered the construction of monuments that will remind future generations of the services of the victors of Ayacucho; but in the heart of these victors there is the consecrated monument they have built for the son of the glory. For the generous warrior who gave us our fatherland and who transformed us from slaves into soldiers of freedom and victory. Over all those hearts and in each of them there is the statue of Bolívar. And from there it will be carried on by the children of our children. So that his memory has the duration of the sun.

In this quote, Bolívar’s statue occupies both public space and an intimate, affective one. He becomes a weight—made of marble or bronze—that must be passed on from generation to generation, all proudly claiming their title of “children of Bolívar,” embracing the affective debt that comes with it, and participating in the endless re-creation of his figure so as to ensure that his memory lasts “the duration of the sun.” This process of creation has an affective component that is encapsulated in the sort of filial love directed toward a father figure, a love that is a mix of fear, admiration, and—most importantly—respect. This respect is a constant in the testimonies of the artisans, whose figurines and paintings of Bolívar are exhibited in one of the rooms in the Museo Bolivariano. José Belandria, for instance, says: “Because as a child I learned that after God came Simón Bolívar. I make him with the faith I have in him; he does not look a lot like the paintings of him that appear in prayer cards but I give him my eyes, my nose, my hands […] I make him with the things I make from my heart, I give him my respect…” A carver named Goyito Bonilla shares a similar sentiment: “When I make Simón Bolívar I make him with love and respect because statues must be made that way and if they are of the Father of the Fatherland even more so, because if an ordinary father deserves respect, how can that not be the case for the father of the fatherland?”

In highlighting the role respect plays in shaping the relationship established with Bolívar, these accounts also call attention to the distance that is needed in order for such respect to materialize. Respect, which the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us comes from the Latin verb respicere, meaning “look back at, regard,” operates in the realm of sight; as such, it relies on the power sight has to stabilize and give boundaries and order to that which is seen. To see something—and to see it clearly—means to leave the right amount of space between she who sees and that which is seen; too close and the object of the gaze becomes blurry, too far and it becomes indistinguishable from the background. Thus, to see—and, consequently, to respect—means to ensure that the (seen/respected) other remains “over there.” This of course does not mean that, while maintaining such a distance, whoever sees and whomever/whatever is seen remain unaffected; both can be moved by the act, and in the context of Bolívar, feeling something while looking at his image is an obligation that all Venezuelans have.

Thus, although the artisans whose words have been included in the museum’s exhibit work with their hands and thus engage with a sense that operates through the intimacy of surfaces coming in contact, the final product of such work—the figurine, painting, or carving—brings the Padre de la Patria close enough to be admired and respected, but not so close that the surfaces that make up his body/sculpture can be manipulated by others’ transformative and sensuous touch. Creating an image thus involves keeping a respectful distance that also allows for sounds—in the shape of words—to travel to and from Bolívar and his “offspring.”

This brief journey through the different dynamics that are at the center of the cult of Bolívar in Venezuela is certainly incomplete. Nevertheless, the purpose behind exploring the behaviors that such a cult demands from the bodies of the nation is to bring to the fore their sensorial dimension. After all, cults are, first and foremost, interventions in the senses: the eyes looking up and down, the commands and prayers leaving the tongue and entering the ears, the bodies engaged in the synchronized standing up, bowing, kneeling, and reenacting. Power materializes in those movements, in the decision regarding who gets to look up and who gets to look down, who formulates the message and who obeys it. Narratives and practices of memory also take shape on this sensorial level: the past that returns does so not just as a remembrance but as and through bodily sensations or interpellation by a pair of eyes that requires the body to stiffen and respectfully succumb to the authority of the figure behind them. To challenge such power and such narratives then, it becomes necessary to intervene—to manipulate, to hijack, to short-circuit—the senses that preserve them and that enable their functioning and transmission. This is where Castillo’s work comes in.

In RAW, the question that Castillo asks over and over again is: What do we do with Bolívar (and with his many proxies)? In the context of Venezuela and in light of the cult explored above, asking this question is already problematic. You do not do things to Bolívar, Bolívar does things to you: he frees you, he commands you, he guides you, he protects you, he possesses you, and he loves you. This love is reciprocal and chaste; it is a platonic love that combines the respect due to Bolívar as a hero, as a father, and as the most important figure in the country’s history, with the unrestrained evocation of his name. Faced with such love and the possibilities that its abstract and platonic nature offers to those in power, Castillo responds with something that Venezuelan historian Tomás Straka (2013) in his analysis of the artist’s El beso emancipador calls a literal representation of that love: “We have become close with Bolívar, indeed, for better and for worse. We have said so much about him, we have claimed he did so many things, we have asserted so often that we love him. We have slobbered Bolívar. Deborah Castillo is the first one to make a representation out of that” (6). I would however propose that we read Castillo’s work—particularly that exhibited in RAW—as neither love, nor a representation of that love.

While the initial tenderness we see in Castillo’s gestures and in the movement of her body as she approaches the head or the clay limbs might be taken for love, what follows is an act of carnal excess that resists naming and the legibility of clearly demarcated and identifiable emotions. This excess, I propose, results from the contrast between colors, surfaces, materials and times that find themselves in unlikely resonance. The term resonance carries different meanings across disciplinary boundaries and discursive contexts. As Susanna Paasonen points out in Carnal Resonance (2011), it has been used to refer to richness or significance, to the intensification and prolongation of sound, and to sympathetic vibrations, all of which she relates to the sort of engagement online users have with pornographic images and the technologies of transmission behind them. But Paasonen (2011) also highlights the material side of resonance, the visceral sensations and vibrations that are caused by the encounter between bodies and images: “The concept also points to the material factors of porn—the fleshy substance of the human body; the texture of images, screens, and signals; the technologies of transmission and the materialities of hardware, cables, and modems” (17).

This kind of material resonance is at play in the interaction that takes place in Castillo’s videos, an interaction that results in the coming together of contrasting colors (Castillo’s red nails versus the sculpture’s gray exterior), contrasting surfaces (Castillo’s smooth skin versus the cracks in the clay), contrasting times (Castillo’s present versus the sculpture as representation of the past, the video recording as simultaneously present and past), and contrasting matter (Castillo as organic/live matter, the sculpture as inorganic/cadaverous matter). When Castillo touches the phallic nose, it leaves stains on her hand; the sculpted hands leave an imprint on her smooth skin. These material residues that the resonance between these contrasting elements leaves behind, along with the presence of the technology that projects them, the dust that accumulates on the floor of the gallery, and the clay falling from the windows, all serve to insert the bodies that take part in the performances into a dynamic of textural perception that, I argue, opens up a path for a different and subversive engagement with the past.

A key element in this engagement with the past that Castillo performs—one I propose to call a sensual intercourse—is a change in the way the past, re-presented in the sculpture of the caudillo, is perceived. The functioning of the eyes and the ears that enabled the line of communication between past and present is brought to a halt. Seeing, and everything that goes into it—the open eyes, the distance, the power dynamics, the organizing and rationalizing—does not take place in either of the two performances. In the case of The Unnamable, this is because Castillo’s eyes remain closed throughout the action; she appears to be in a state of pleasure whereby the limbs perceive each other blindly, relying only on the sensual rubbing of surfaces that include Castillo’s skin and, briefly, the inside of her lower lip and right nostril, which bring into the scene (the possibility of) flavors and smells that further intensify the intimacy between the two bodies. In the case of Demagogue, Castillo’s eyes are not even in the frame, and the sculpture’s eyes appear to be closed, the eyelids protruding and as misshapen as the rest of the features, which, by reproducing simultaneously the components of the face (eyes, nose, mouth) and the components of the external male reproductive system (the penis and the testicles), further hinder the eyes’ (Castillo’s, the audience’s, and the sculpture’s) ability to see, totalize, and organize. The lids of the sculpture’s eyes appear glued shut with the sticky fluid that drips down the chin/testicle and that seems to come from both the sculpture’s nose/penis and from Castillo’s wet hand. Similarly, hearing—and the speaking mouth—have been excluded from the dynamics of both performances. Neither has sound of any kind; in both, the ears appear blocked either by Castillo’s hair or by clay, and in both the mouth remains quiet either because Castillo does not open it (The Unnamable) or because it seems to be stuffed with the testicles hanging below the nose/penis (Demagogue).

With both hearing and sight disabled, perception becomes textural. Texture, the Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us, is “the visual and tactile surface characteristics and appearance of something,” “basic scheme or structure,” or “a pattern of musical sound created by tones or lines played or sung together.” As such, it involves more than just the sense of touch; it engages sight and hearing, the latter not only in the context of musical instruments but also in those moments we hear the creaking sounds of leather pants or the crunch of French fries. The word’s etymological origin however points us to something much more sensual. At such origin are the Latin word textura and the Latin verb texere, which means “to weave” and which brings to mind the movement of interlacing threads, one caressing the other as it goes first over it, then under it, each small action slowly driving time forward as it traces the journey that would later, when the work is complete, be known as “the making of.”

Castillo’s movement and the way it resonates on the surface of the clay head or the clay hands mirror this weaving; as flesh and clay come together and give pleasure to each other what stands out is not the finished product but the ongoingness of the action and the energy that drives it forward and that marks the surfaces of the bodies it engages. In fact, finishing—understood both sexually and in the more general sense—is not part of either of these performances or of the other pieces that make up the RAW exhibition. The title of the exhibition itself suggests as much; raw is that which is unpolished, unfinished, or unprocessed, and it is also the harsh and continuous friction that leaves the surface of the body sore—both elements that are present in The Unnamable and in Demagogue, as well as in the slapping of the caudillo’s clay head and in the clay hardening and falling from the windows. In the case of The Unnamable, in addition to the friction of the clay limbs that Castillo rubs against her naked body, there is the promise of ongoingness that materializes as the hands move downward and the image vanishes, thus leaving the following, more intimate action suspended but palpable and imaginable for the audience. In Demagogue, Castillo’s rubbing of the nose/penis does not finish the sculpture, but rather keeps it going, making it grow and, when it cannot grow anymore, leaves it hanging with a crack in the tip, which makes those watching hold their breath as they wait for the nose to finally fall from the face—which it never does.

The energy that drives these performances is not the same kind of energy that gives Bolívar his spectral afterlife; there is no transcendence, no luminosity, and no mesmerizing spectacle. Instead, the energy is physical. It jumps from body to body, from matter to matter, leaving marks and bumps that break, fracture, and undo, and that drive the attention away from the result and to the whole experience of the “making of.” Textures are a key element in this experience and in the relationship that, through it, is established with the bodies from the past. Not only are they evidence of the circulation of that physical energy—a sexual energy that focuses exclusively on pleasure—but they enable what Eve Sedgwick, when discussing Renu Bora’s work on texture in her introduction to Touching Feeling (2003), calls an “active narrative hypothesizing, testing, and re-understanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time” (13). Bora, Sedgwick points out, distinguishes between two kinds or senses of texture, which he labels texture with one x and texxture with two x’s. The latter is the kind that is dense with information about how it substantively, historically, and materially came into being. It is the kind of texture one would find on a pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making (Sedgwick 2003, 14). The former, on the other hand, “defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information”; it is the kind of polished or glossy texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history and, I propose, the kind that is to be found on the bronze or marble statues of national heroes like Bolívar. These statues are representations of history; their surfaces are polished to perfection so that they can replicate with exactitude the features of the heroes. As such, they are finished works that lend stability and legibility to history, a history that does not go inward—into the materiality and the making of the statue itself—but that is projected outward, into the realm of the symbolic that is filled with abstract and powerful concepts such as heroism, authority, freedom, and independence—all concepts that, like the smooth surfaces of the statues themselves, do not admit distracting bumps or sharp edges.

El innombrable (2014). Video: Florencia Alvarado.

Unlike these statues, Castillo’s sculptures display all kinds of texxtures. In The Unnamable, the hands that caress Castillo’s face and body are covered in bumps and cracks, which, in conjunction with the various tonalities of gray, make the audience aware of the different steps and instruments that went into elaborating the sculpture, a sculpture that, as mentioned above, is not yet done but is still ongoing. In Demagogue, the diversity of textures becomes even more evident due to the fact that Castillo plays with the consistency of the clay; while the clay used to mold the head appears to have solidified, the clay in the nose is in a precarious state of rawness emphasized by the liquid dripping from it and by the gray stain it leaves on Castillo’s palm. Watching the videos then is akin to having been granted access to the backstage of a show that never takes place or to the workshop of an artisan who never exhibits the finished piece. That is, to spaces of folding, cutting, gluing, painting, and constructing; spaces filled with raw materials, residues, and tools; spaces where the question is never “What could it do to me/demand from me?” but rather “What could I do with it?” This last question is something that, Sedgwick (2003) argues, comes with perceiving texture:

To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it? […] Even more immediately than other perceptual systems, it seems, the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object. (13-14)

Perceiving textures thus means to be drawn into the object or body that is made of them, to be inserted into its history—a history that has nothing to do with events but rather with the twists and turns of the materiality shaped to represent and evoke them—and to be put in a sort of tactile dialogue with those who have left their fingerprints on the surface and who will continue to do so in the future. From this exchange emerges, I propose, a change in the relationship with the iconic dead figures that have haunted the nation. As the statues’ polished surfaces and the specter’s ethereality are replaced by rough textures, incomplete pieces, raw matter asking to be touched, shaped, and even passionately destroyed, as Bolívar’s haunting is challenged by the material history of textures and the ongoing “making of” the incomplete object, the weighty burden of the past becomes lighter. Rather than asking, What does the specter (of Bolívar, of Chávez, of the caudillo in general) want from us? What do we owe to it?, we can ask: What can (not should) we do with its body and to it? And, perhaps, What does it owe to us? Asking these questions means developing a more reciprocal relationship with the past whereby the dead do not choose for us, nor do they always have their way with us. Instead, we have our way with them, molding them and breaking them and slapping them at will, without shame and with no strings attached; an ongoing process of creation that, to quote Robert Pogue Harrison (2005), keeps open a “‘reciprocative rejoinder’ that never simply denies but freely avows the will of the ancestors—and not only of the ancestors but also of those around us who, with sanctimonious piety, seek to make the historical present conform to an ‘outstripped’ past” (102). With her body, Castillo performs this “reciprocative rejoinder,” translating it into a bodily resonance where agency is not enabled by inheritance or the need to respond to a command, but rather exists in and is fueled by the realm (the presentness) of uncompliant pleasure.

The agency Castillo stages vis-à-vis a past that ceases to be spectral and becomes, thanks to the artist’s energy and the touch of her body, malleable and challengeable, is a step toward developing a more reciprocal and constructive relationship with the dead that does not reproduce the dynamics of surveillance and obedience mediating haunting and the cult of heroes. The artist’s work, however, takes the need to be freed from the allure of the specter one step further by putting the audience in a position where they must struggle with the visceral and excessive modality of the image they are made to see over and over again—an image that, I propose, is not just of the artist and her sensual intercourse with her clay sculptures, but also of her and her sensual intercourse with a dead body.

Though the sculptures’ textures signal, as I have argued, their material history and the ongoingness of their “making of”—and, consequently, the “making of” of the idol—they also give it the raw, viscous, and precarious appearance and consistency of a corpse. This is particularly the case with Demagogue and The Unnamable, though the cadaverous aesthetic is not entirely absent from other pieces in the exhibition. In both of these performances, the clay figures display gray and blue coloring that brings to mind the ashen colors of corpses, and the roughness of their surfaces along with the involuntary mobility of the arms and the masturbated nose bring to mind the decomposing of the flesh. The clay on the windows further contributes to creating this atmosphere of intimacy with the dead: blocking the entrance of natural light and slowly hardening until pieces of it fall into the ground, the clay seems to lock the audience inside a crypt filled with decomposing bodies. Rather than putting these bodies to rest, Castillo engages in a sensual intercourse with them that brings together the pleasure that comes from witnessing the eroticism of the movements Castillo’s naked body performs and the disgust that results from the realization that there is a corpse-like figure on the receiving end of such erotic performance. The audience then is put in a position where they are not just passively watching Castillo, but are pulled in and out—grabbed and pushed away—by the visceral interpellation of this combination of pleasure and disgust that invites at once proximity and recoil.

In “Absolutely Disgusting: Shock Sites, Extremity, and the Forbidden Fruit,” Paasonen’s (2011) conceptualization of disgust draws on the work of social historian William Ian Miller and phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai, who identify tight connections between disgust and “the embodied, biological, sexual, and material and associate the affect of disgust with particular material properties and textures” (211). Both see disgust as oriented toward the excessively carnal—things such as rotting flesh and sexual abundance, for example—and as necessitating turning away from and distancing oneself from the object of disgust. Furthermore, they argue that “disgust is immediate and sensory: it is experienced by smelling, touching, or seeing its cause in the rancid, filthy, sticky, excessively soft, or oozing object” (Paasonen 2011, 211). According to Georges Bataille—also cited by Paasonen—dead bodies, excrement, and sexual acts deemed obscene are all experienced as disgusting. In the case of dead bodies, their disgusting character has to do with their representing nothingness and decay. This understanding of what makes an object disgusting resonates with the kind of objects Castillo engages with. The sculptures in The Unnamable and Demagogue, as mentioned above, are a far cry from the smooth and shiny statues decorating public spaces; instead, they are falling apart or almost falling apart, the features distorted, the consistency visually unappealing, and, in the case of Demagogue, “excessively soft,” oozing something that stains Castillo’s hand. These characteristics alone make those who watch it pull back; yet, as Sara Ahmed argues in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014), before pulling back, the body has to come close, for it is only through such sensuous proximity that the object is experienced as disgusting in the first place:

Disgust brings the body perilously close to an object only then to pull away from the object in the registering of the proximity as an offence. […] Hence the proximity of the “disgusting object” may feel like an offence to bodily space, as if the object’s invasion of that space was a necessary consequence of what seems disgusting about the object itself. Pulling back, bodies that are disgusted are also bodies that feel a certain rage, a rage that the object has gotten close enough to sicken and to be taken over or taken in. (86)

This double movement—coming closer and pulling back—is at the center of the audience’s relationship with Castillo’s performances: their condition as artistic performances pulls the audience in (to get a better look, to appreciate the piece), the revolting textures makes them recoil; the allure of the familiar figure of the caudillo pulls them back in, the similarity to a corpse pushes them away; the sensuality excites them and brings them back in, the sensuality with the dead makes them pull away. The rage that Ahmed mentions is also present, particularly when thinking of the two aforementioned performances alongside El beso emancipador—the piece from the Acción y Culto exhibition where Castillo licked Bolívar’s golden statue and which infuriated the host of “Cayendo y Corriendo.” In the case of that piece, the host’s rage—and the rage of many government supporters—had to do with Castillo herself, with what she was daring to do to Bolívar, with the sickening (for them) proximity between her undeserving body and the glorious figure of the Liberator. Here, on the other hand, it is the caudillo who is gross, his decomposing body staining the surface of Castillo’s smooth skin, his material pastness contaminating the space of Castillo’s—and the audience’s—presentness: death thus inappropriately and grossly rubbing against life.

Recoiling from, being disgusted by, taking a distance from the Padre de la Patria: all these actions—forbidden and thus subversive in the context of Venezuela’s cult of Bolívar and of the Bolivaroids—are made possible thanks to Castillo’s excessive proximity to the sculpture-corpse. These sculptures-corpses, like the spectral presence of Bolívar, are remains: what gets left behind, the past that stays anchored in the present, the evidence of an ongoing act of disappearance. Yet, while the specter operated in the realm of imagination, of ethereality, and of the authoritative and hygienic nature of commands and prayers, Castillo’s sculptures allow the past to acquire the material weight of its pastness, the textures and decay of the history it is part of. As such, they invite the development of a new historical sensibility whereby the figures of the past do not just appear or reappear but are “being made”; Castillo grants the audience access to the making of the hero, to the rawness of the body before it is captured by the epic, to its unstable materiality before it dries into an idol. This privileged access to the backstage of history represents a change in the sensorial dimension of the relationship we establish with the past; the “ongoingness” of the sculptures, and the corresponding rawness of the clay they are made of, mute and blind such past, so that what is left is a textural perception that ultimately allows us to ask: What can we do to the past? Simple as this question might be, it represents a shift in the power relations that otherwise enable haunting to become a practice of national memory and to serve as a mechanism to ground and legitimize political authority.

This call to acknowledge and accept the transformative power of this agency over the rawness of the past is accompanied by a cadaverous aesthetic that invites recoiling from that past; dripping, ashen, and uncannily soft, the body of the Padre de la Patria triggers disgust as it evokes the materiality of a corpse, which, thanks to Castillo’s bold movements, gets too close, too intimate. Taken together, these two actions—getting close so as to do something to the past, stepping back in reaction to its grossness—inject dynamism into the relationship with the (not so glorious anymore) dead that brings to mind Pogue Harrison’s central argument as regards intercourse with the dead, intercourse that must be, he argues, “frank and ongoing.” The frankness of this intercourse depends, I propose, on acknowledging its complexity; the dead never “just” appear, they cannot “just” be invoked, they cannot “just” be emulated or resuscitated. As Castillo’s work shows, the dead are raw and textured, they are dirty and gross, and it is precisely this complex materiality that allows us to ultimately make them our own, with the meaning of “making them our own” left open to interpretation and, most importantly, to change.  

Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carrera Damas, Germán. 1969. El Culto a Bolívar: Esbozo para un Estudio de la historia de las ideas en Venezuela. Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela.

Classen, Constance. 2005. “The Witch’s Senses: Sensory Ideologies and Transgressive Femininities from the Renaissance to Modernity.” In David Howes, ed. Empire of the Senses, 70-84. Oxford: Berg.

Merriam-Webster. “Texture.” Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/texture.

Paasonen, Susanna. 2011. Carnal Resonance. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Pino Iturrieta, Elías. 2006. El divino Bolívar. Caracas: Editorial Alfa.

Pogue Harrison, Robert. 2005. The Dominion of the Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Online Etymology Dictionary. “Respect.” Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.etymonline.com/word/respect.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Smith, Mark. 2008. Sensing the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Straka, Tomás. 2013. “Lamiendo al Libertador.” Acción y Culto. Caracas: Centro Cultural Chacao.

Torres, Ana Teresa. 2010. La herencia de la tribu. Caracas: Editorial Alfa.

Verdery, Katherine. 1999. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. New York: Columbia University Press.  


    Works Cited