Javier Bosques. Nueve Policías, 48” x 56”, 35mm photo in digitial C-Print
What is gained by the aesthetization of crime, politics and/or activism? In Puerto Rico, just as in many other countries around the world, many visual artists are preoccupied with the political issues at hand; not in an utopic attempt to find solutions to the problems, but rather to use art as a mirror in which, hopefully, we can see ourselves, each other and our surroundings. For Puerto Ricans, crime and politics are without a doubt an inescapable reality of everyday life. In his seminal essay on the continuous conundrum of Puerto Rican identity published in 1934 titled Insularismo, Antonio S. Pedreira states that “since we breathe politics and live politics… we have developed an electoral attitude to measure things” More than 75 years later not much has changed. We still find that politics are deeply engraved in our cultural panorama. Then it seems fitting that for METRO’s last show, a one year artist-run project space sponsored by collector José Hernández Castrodad, the political and social reality of the island was to take center stage. Featuring individual projects by artists Javier Bosques (San Juan, P.R. 1985) and Norma Vila Rivero (San Juan, P.R. 1982), each work references a situation in which we live in; notably how a generalized fear of the Other has turned an otherwise aesthetic element to one that epitomizes a socio-economic problem and the twists and turns of a political arena that never ceases to baffle its citizens.
Javier Bosques. Reja de Dos, welded iron, 19” x 38” x 19”
Javier Bosques. Vivir para Morir, 19” diameter, Moriviví, (mimosa púdica) planted on iron pot (caldero)
Javier Bosques’ project titled Metonimia is comprised of sculpture, video and photography. A graduate of the prestigious Cooper Union school in New York City and now a film student at UCLA, Bosques has developed for the show an intricate visual language that establishes a dynamic dialogue between pieces. The sculptures, titled Rejas de Dos, Rejas de Tres y Rejas de Cinco, allude to a once aesthetic and purely ornamental phenomenon that is now considered a necessity in urban as well as residential suburban areas in Puerto Rico. These iron welded structures made of grille bars were once used as a decorative element in the façades of houses and buildings, but today are utilized and consequently symbolize the state of constant fear in which all Puerto Ricans live in. However, by way of the artistic act, Bosques is able to bring into attention this problematic while at the same turning around the object’s purposefulness and functionality once again into the aesthetic realm of pure contemplation. Concurrently, the photographs Tres Policias and Nueve Policías (Three cops and Nine cops) present a visual counterpoint to the sculptures that is revealing to both the current state of fear and lack of security as well as to the use of grille bars in both homes and commerces. The photographs portray police men hanging out on the street at rest as they apparently wait for something to happen. It is unclear to the viewer if these images are posed, taken by the artist, or culled from a news source, but in any case they display an overall inertia by the nation’s law enforcement agency.
Norma Vilá Rivero, Pancartas Reflexivas, 2012.
Desaforados, the title of Norma Vila Rivero’s project, expresses both excess and unbridled acts of abuse of power; two characteristics that permeate politics on the island and that are reproduced through works that reference the island’s judicial, executive and legislative branches. The project, comprised of sculptural installations and readymades, although charged with political significations and symbolisms is also heavily aestheticized. In Pancartas Reflexivas (Reflective Banners), Vilá Rivero has constructed two protest banners with mirrors held by two readymade plastic hands. On the opposite wall, another work titled Pancartas de Toallazos (roughly translated to banners of leniency as in ‘throwing in the towel’), banners covered with towels which are embroidered with the initials of various government agencies, also references the act of protest, but in particular the case of Luis Rivera Guerra, a legislator who after repeatedly violating the law and getting away with it, was the main subject of a protest that involved the public disposal of dirty towels in the Capitolio. In this case, the work underscores the difference of power exerted by the government when one of their own has committed a crime.
Norma Vilá Rivero. Los nueve, 2012.
An adjacent work, Los nueve (The nine), is comprised of 9 stones engraved with the last names of each judge in the Puerto Rico supreme court which rest atop a pile of accumulated loose leaf paper, metaphorically resting like dead weights over the law processes of the island. Suggesting also the popular proverb that ‘nothing is set in stone,’ the work also alludes to the possibility of changing and ammending a seemingly hopeless political process. But leaving all aesthetic and conceptual considerations aside, and considering these works are markers of a very particular political context, they nonetheless bring into the forefront relevant questions regarding politics and politically motivated art. Particularly now that recently the Governor of Puerto Rico has signed ammendements to the Penal Code that punish civil disobedience (protests and manifestations) with up to three years in prison. But to return to Vila Rivero’s works, they come to represent a dedicated desire by artists to fully aestheticize political problematics; a very symbolic and metaphoric language that sometimes relies too much on literal associations to be truly layered and significant, a symptom that has plagued Latin American conceptual art as a modality.
Norma Vilá Rivero, Pancartas de Toallazos, 2012.
As I write these words, after watching the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, I am consumed with thoughts on the recent collective hysteria of a people resting all of their hopes and dreams in one athlete, who has reached without a doubt one of the highest points of his career. I am referring to the Puerto Rican athlete Javier Coulson who recently represented Puerto Rico by competing at this year’s London Olympics in the 400 meter hurdle race winning a bronze medal. But I am not so much concerned with the fact that Coulson won or with the Olympics and how it reflects political rivalries and comraderies, but conversely with what our actions and reactions before and after his race say about us as a people. Puerto Rico has only recently started to have more visibility as a bonafide country in this international event so it does provoke quite a stir. But it was interesting to see how for a brief moment before the race, a sentiment perpetuated by the majority of the island’s mass media outlets, it seemed as though a gold win would in some way solve all of the economic, social and political problems the island has been struggling with. And suddenly a unifying sense of national pride would fill the air with a sweet victory that would overflow to this upcoming November elections. It was too big of a burden for one single person to bear. But how does this recent sport event relate to the works of Bosques, Vilá Rivero and politically motivated art in general? Perhaps in one simple way: they highlight how an act of representation and presentation, be it artistic or athletic, reflects larger political and social conditions worth thinking about. Which brings to mind once again Puerto Rico based artists Allora & Calzadilla‘s huge disappointment at last year’s Venice Biennale and the questions that arose with their representation of the US. It is not just about the act or action, but about the circumstances in which these acts where created and how they reveal situations and perhaps create new conditions. It is not about an utopic undertaking, but ultimately about agency. A tropical laissez-faire attitude, in both art and life, can only bring us further calamities.
 Pedreira, Antonio Salvador. “La Brújula del Tema.” Insularismo. Río Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1992. 12. Print. [quote is my translation]
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- Manuel Rodríguez-Delgado & Rafael Miranda at METRO