PERFORMING ON TRANSIENT AND CONTESTED STAGES
Juan-Sí González’s site-specific installation Displacement: Collective Practice to Recover Memory at the Rosewood Arts Centre in Kettering, Ohio, offers 18 wall-mounted photographs with additional objects and sculptural elements that represent the chapters of a personal archive divided into arenas of “internal exile” and “mental ground,” mapping an extended migration from Cuba via Miami to southwestern Ohio. Within this chronological archive, González’s photographic work witnesses places he cannot name and captures performative gestures on transient and contested stages. González also calls for a “collective practice” through this project that will invoke collaborators in a recovery process of memory that has been undermined by serial displacements.
González’s Displacement installation responds to the concept of “open archive” that informs the arc of the multi-site 2018 FotoFocus Biennial. Perhaps with the presentation of a personal “archive” that selects work spanning more than two decades the viewer might expect this installation to be one about remembering and sampling from this artist’s various bodies of work. Undoubtedly Displacement does offer that opportunity, and it is intriguing to recognize certain elements in this project that González has carried with him from his 1980s performances in Havana. For example, letters (alphabet cookies) were portable tools employed in those early street performances (I’m Not Telling You to Believe, I’m Telling You to Read, 1988). Years later, game board letter tiles continue to project concepts and test vocabularies, gestures invoking present or unseen audiences to participate in an educational game or cultural lesson. In an early photo in the Displacement series (“Chapter 4, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 2006”), wooden letter tiles that spell out “EXILE” are placed near a sawed down tree with severed limbs strewn about. The scene suggests an intense performance, recently concluded. Is exile represented as a cultural amputation at this time? Rulers and measuring tools, also reappearing elements in Gonzalez’s tool kit, are also seen in these earlier chapters such as the portable houses in “Chapter 3, Enon, Ohio, 2001” and “Chapter 7, Town of Cuba, New York, 2011.” Here an iconic representation of “home” is clearly a construction, not yet a reality. The Displacement installation, however, complicates what might remain a reflection on González’s personal experience in a retrospective survey. In fact, the 18 wall-mounted photographs (24″ x 36″) function metaphorically as windows in the gallery space. This personal archive, then, connects the past with the contemporary and the local and remains unsettled, anxious and present.
The etymology of the word archive is traced to the Greek arkheion, the residence of the superior magistrates of a given jurisdiction. In their house these rulers not only protect the archive, the necessary legal and historic documents that support their authority, they also carry the power to interpret or translate this protected evidence or documentation to a public. In Juan-Sí González’s Displacement archive, translation is identified as a recurring preoccupation. In one of the texts scattered between the 18 wall photos he writes, “I’ve seen so many things without names. I try to name them in my adopted language, and I can’t. They don’t let me live in peace.” Another text states, “Translation is the process of getting as close as possible to who you are. I’m getting closer. I almost recognize myself, but I still don’t recognize what’s around me.” González’s images and texts suggest lost orientation and symbolic violence through repeated dislocations and the ongoing challenges of translation. However, the archive and texts also witness the artist’s drive to recover a vocabulary for his experience, to recover the authority to interpret the documentation and gestures he performs through this work.
In Dangerous Moves (2015), scholar and artist Coco Fusco discusses at length the critical defiance of the 1980s generation in Cuba. This cohort was educated in the art schools developed after the revolution and came of age challenging how art should function both aesthetically and politically in their country: “The upstart members of the 1980s generation tried to challenge the balance of power between the state and its creative cadre.” (1). González, a member of the 1980s generation, was a founding member of the collective Grupo Art-de (arts and rights). His provocative performances often involved physical endurance and introduced powerful images of artistic/personal censorship. In a popular public park (G avenue and 23 street) in Havana as one of the weekly performances of Grupo Art-de González enclosed himself in a clear plastic bag until it became impossible to breathe; a young audience member in a school uniform assisted him in escaping from his suffocating confinement (Me Han Jodido el Ánimo/They Fucked Up My Spirit, 1988). As Fusco goes on to say, “unfortunately too many artists who ventured into this dangerous symbolic terrain paid dearly for doing so, suffering harsh punishment and ending up in exile.” (2). While risking disapproval and the withdrawal of access to materials and gallery spaces by Cuban state authorities González’s mode of expression often relied on performance in public places such as streets and parks, engaging citizens directly and thereby insisting, in those moments at least, on controlling the agenda and interpretation of his creative work. Exile would exacerbate and complicate further González’s agency to interpret the world reflected in his art.
But the problems of translation and interpretation do not only belong to González, someone whose serial displacement has brought him to Dayton, a struggling post-industrial city surrounded by farms, an Air Force base, and small college towns, while transected by two of the busiest international transport corridors on the continent. González’s investment in witnessing southwestern Ohio through the photographs selected for this site-specific installation is also an opportunity and an invitation for those of us, viewers who live or have lived in this region, to shift our own understandings of these familiar landscapes. Though evidence of contested economic and cultural forces, the parking lots on the edge of someplace now abandoned, nondescript suburban intersections, and plaintive playgrounds represented throughout González’s personal archive reflect environments that have become largely normalized for those of us familiar with this Midwestern topography. The “things without names” that González reveals in his photographs are at the same time elements of our physical and cultural environments that we might re-examine and re-articulate. González’s displacements not only perform for gallery viewers but also specifically engage local residents through the chains of personal photos that are components of his two central sculptural elements. A chandelier with chained links cascading onto a dollhouse suggests an unresolved sense of domestic space, and a game-like basket/hoop set on the floor, also with overflowing chains and frisbees with portraits, evokes an external space for play and collective activity.
Some of the most moving but unsettling photos/windows fall near the transition from the right to the left side of the gallery. These reference González’s experience as the father of a young child and some photos directly document a “Cuba” relocated to various North American sites. In “Chapter 6, Cuba, Ohio, 2010” a person faces the camera, holding a beach ball, and just beyond a child stands with her back to the camera, gazing out at an expansive body of water. But here in Cuba (Ohio), the beach ball, usually a playful element, creates a barrier. While this photo could suggest a family in “Cuba” standing on the shore (of the Caribbean?), the title of the photograph implies a displacement—a lake, inland, in the midwest U.S. “Chapter 5, Cuba, Missouri, 2007” projects a map of Missouri on a man’s white shirt, his head cut off by the top of the frame. The markings on the map include energetic rings drawn around the town of Cuba, Missouri, positioned over the man’s heart. On second glance the circles could also function as a target placed on this isolated, stationary figure. “Chapter 12, Yellow Springs, Ohio 2015” positions two feet on the top step of a slide in a children’s playground. The dizzying glance of the camera looks down to capture the receding steel steps that repeatedly declare the brand name “AMERICAN.” In each of these photos bold, frontal looking bodies are positioned in midwestern landscapes, but the bodies are not whole. In fact, the only bodies represented as whole in the entire series are the child in “Chapter 6, Cuba, Ohio, 2010” and the figure in “Chapter 1, San Cristobal, Pinar del Río, Cuba, 1990,” a Cuban man captured as he is riding a bicycle along a highway away from the camera.
“Chapter 10, Fairborn, Ohio, 2013” is perhaps the most disturbing photo in this personal archive. The camera looks up at a somewhat monumental figure (a woman?) standing on a rural gravel road, her legs and feet bare and in a wide stance. Her body above her knees is cut off by the top edge of the frame. This road could be any country road in southwestern Ohio, and it is positioned in the photo such that it extends into the distance between her legs with nondescript fields and woods nearby. The body confronts the viewer boldly, the road suggests mobility and direction, but she is isolated, and the rest of the environment offers little orientation. Throughout these photos, the viewer senses a threat, a denial or symbolic violence to those bodies whose heads are occluded or not included in the frame. But in these photos, the viewer also can assume that it is the photographer who has selected to represent himself or his alter egos without full agency, not fully in the frame.
The most recent photos witness suburban intersections and urban passages—public spaces for automotive, pedestrian or cultural mobility—where González continues to produce unsettled reflections on his current home terrain. But now the symbolic violence suggested in the photos is not directed at the body performing within the frame. It is especially in these later chapters that viewers of this site-specific installation might be enjoined to reconsider what might they/we experience as “normal” here, to reinterpret from a newly informed and recharged perspective what we commonly encounter in our shared public spaces. “Chapter 15, Fairborn, Ohio, 2017” witnesses a sign that advertises a “Patriotic Ridge Community” at an unremarkable suburban intersection, using defense references to sell a new housing development. “Chapter 13, Chelsea Gallery, NYC, 2016” captures a painting of a man in a suit aiming a rifle that points beyond the picture’s frame and in the direction of an open window to a street outside the gallery. “Chapter 11, Downtown Dayton, Ohio, 2014” reveals the disheveled bedding of a temporary home-less place in the foreground bordered by three barriers—a curb, a fence, and a line of police cars. Finally “Chapter 18, Cleveland, Ohio, 2018” shows a modest mural painted on a long, short wall, a cultural declaration on a confined urban space. The hull of a massive ship named “democracy” is pictured sinking into deep blue water; dried leaves have blown up against the bottom of the wall. These photos suggest collective traumas in public spaces but additionally represent scenes that most southwestern Ohio residents encounter and digest as part of the normal movement through local terrain.
Within Displacement the viewer can gaze back on the earlier chapters and assume that González identifies both conditions of exile and the challenges of living in America. But in the final photos, viewers are not observing González, a performer, an artist, an exile, but rather are confronting keenly observed images from the public spaces of Ohio and urban America. We are all together living in a political and cultural moment that is increasingly hostile to immigrants, whether asylum seekers or certified U.S. citizens. The attention to uncertainty, insecurity and potential violence is sustained through these later photos and now resurfaces unpredictably in public spaces. Remembering and forgetting is not just the preoccupation of the immigrant and exiled artist who must accommodate (or not) to shifted cultural terrain. In Juan-Sí González’s site-specific Displacement the subtitle calls on the visitors to consider “a collective practice to recover memory” as the 18 large photographs serve as windows onto southwestern Ohio, and family and historical photos from native and immigrant residents of Kettering and Dayton are integrated throughout the installation. In revisiting this shared common terrain through González’s archive we are pressed to remember, to reassess, to reinterpret this collected evidence. Here we viewers are provoked to reject our sense of normalcy when encountering these images; we are urged to perform daily acts of cultural translation.
Click here to see the video of the installation
(1) Coco Fusco. Dangerous moves: performance and politics in Cuba. London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 29.
(2) Op.cit., p. 35.
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