CHINESE PORCELAIN IN A THOUSAND PIECES
by Juan Francisco Garate
The performance work of Sebatián Mahaluf was largely, and for a long time about a corporal and material tension. The stretching of the cords from which the bodies literally and metaphorically hang in the Desplome exhibition (2020), fainting without falling to the ground, yet. Fragile glass recipients containing viscous grease residues, the Beuysian corporal metaphor par excellence, and in its minimal material expression, they weight down and stretch under their ropes until reaching the hard proximity of the ground without touching it. A moment of suspense that made the spectator, for an instant, to become a performer, this is, bending the body in order to contemplate the fine space between the fragile receptacles and the ground.
However, their proximity to the floor in a way announced the inevitable: pieces of glass -bodies- dangerously scattered everywhere and grease dripping on the gallery surface, the surface of art, of the world. In Desplome, the small recipients with viscous grease pending from elastic cords, did not stop despite reaching their critical stretching point to then go back, thus moving the metaphorical bodies away, avoiding impact. Now we know. The distance between the small grease jars and the gallery floor was rather a moment of extreme deceleration. Mahaluf “slowed down” the immediate instant prior to collapse.
The collapse of the bodies and their eventual fall took years to take place. The “slowing down” delayed the violence of the impact. We now know that the elastic bands, the main material in the Mahaluf’s performance work, which maintained tension before, are now almost wearing down. This supposes not only the fatigue of the material in question, but also, the fundamental fatigue of the concept of comprehending the reflection of the artist on the individual and collective body, the two fields in the performance action of our author. A concept of fundament which has allowed us a reflexive comprehension of the work of the artist up to this point. An issue we can retrospectively see in the Movimiento Ondulatorio performance (2014), held at the New York Bronx Museum, in which the artist, bound to the museum’s architecture with elastic cords, stretches them until the tension gives and the artist frees himself and escapes down the hall of the institution towards the street outside, wearing a translucid bead suit. As we had said before, it is about the tense weave of Mahaluf’s artistic drama, this is, exiting the protected gallery space towards the uncertain public space and vice versa. In Atmósfera (2011), as well as in all of the artist’s happenings, the weft of elastic cords is proposed as the device to reestablish the social relations through art. Elastic cords are intrinsically performance-like, and therefore demand a specific action of stretching and giving in on part of the voluntary participants in the collective action, besides the tangling up of the participants due to the weft of plastic cords in the piece.
This is interesting, since it places Sebastián Mahaluf’s work in a manifest conceptual relation with social experience of Latin American art. I think of Parangolé (1964) by Hélio Oiticica, works of brightly colored performance garments for collective corporal actions used by the residents of the Rio de Janeiro favelas, subject of a short film by Iván Cardoso (1979). Or, more appropriately still, the “proposition” Baba Antropofágica (1973) by Lygia Clark, which consisted of variously colored thread spools placed in the mouths of voluntary participants for then to use the saliva-soaked threads to mutually tangle up in them. We have to remember that Lygia Clark preferred the term “proposition” instead of “work of art” or “performance”, for, at the same time, resigning to the idea of a cultural privilege of the “artist”, who in his/her reflection already lacked any relevance. An art and a society Lygia already conceived since 1960 with a series of famous interactive works she called Bichos, a stand she radicalizes in 1964, when her collective “propositions” begin, at the same time Oitícica starts out with his Parangolés. Red de Elásticos (1974) by Lygia Clark is significant and is greatly in tune with Mahaluf’s work. It is about elastic cords that entwine a group of volunteers who then tangle themselves up. This is of interest, since a material is used, as we said speaking of Mahaluf’s work, which has the chance of being intrinsically performance-like. The bodies tangle and untangle, they are tensed and de-tensed, the bodies move away and towards each other as far as the elastic material allows them those possibilities. From that same perspective and closer in time but far away from Latin America, the contemporary choreography Gravity-Futigue (2005) by avant-garde costume designer Hussein Chalayan proposes the elasticity of a memory fabric, this is, that in spite of the force applied on the fabric, it always returns to its original condition, thus the dancers move away from and towards each other by the tension proper of the material.
As one can see, the physical conditions and the consequent material language of the elastic band have provided a conceptually relevant tension device to many artists and various moments of the second half of the twentieth century and of the twenty first century so far, especially in performance and social art or happenings. In that short history of art, the work of Sebastián Mahaluf proposes an interesting limit of what we have seen of his work so far. Perhaps the conceptual return of elasticity and tension is laxity and deceleration: This is, the proposal of a weakened art. Its narrative consequences cannot be but the violent smashing of everything that was once in tension, suspended or balancing by the swaying and oscillations of elasticity.
In effect, it is letting go as a consequence of the material and nervous fatigue of the body. Then, let the inevitable occur. That is what happens in the Suspensión en Tensión performance (2023) at the A4 Art Museum in Chengdu, China. The artist holds the end of an elastic cord while lying on the ground with limited mobility. The cord passes by a pulley on the ceiling of the hall and that, at the other end of the cord has a Chinese tibor porcelain vase hanging from high up. The action lasted until the artist exhausted his physical strength and could not continue sustaining the weight of the traditional piece. It fell and smashed into pieces on the floor of the hall and the pieces remained scattered everywhere, even invading the space of neighboring artworks by other artists. Chinese porcelain in a thousand pieces.
This reminds us of the renowned photo performance with a sequence of three photographs by Ai Weiwei in 1995, in which the Chinese artist himself appears letting a Han dynasty porcelain urn, dated between 202 BC and 220 CE piece fall as protest against the Chinese government. A curious issue. What has the old Han dynasty regime have to do with a capitalist State of a centralized economic planning in the post-ideology era? So, art as a cultural means to forcefully reach extra-artistic goals, which is a kind of discursive inflation of a great deal of contemporary artists, and of those who are not as well.
However, there are notable differences between the Weiwei photo performance and Mahaluf’s performance work. Both Mahaluf and Weiwei register the fall of the porcelain object, on one side. On the other, and immediately afterwards, only in the case of Sebastián Mahaluf, all of the scattered pieces are recollected in order to give them a discursive possibility. It could not be any other way, since Mahaluf is the artist of total material performance, recycling and re-signifying materials and supports. In this case the artist saves the porcelain fragments in a box and takes them to a Chinese artisan specialized in porcelain repairs. “The object is reconstructed and becomes an art object whose fissures are the registry of collapse. In other words, mended porcelain is something like a performance-like residue in a first instance, and then, as a second instance, a pure, recomposed ready-made, which will remain an art object in exhibition at the A4 Art Museum.
That which is finally exhibited is collapse as the moment history tells -of the object and of whatever you like- in the manner of a before and after. It being, in this sense, easy to infer a past of the object by the fissures of the fragments in its reconstitution and the way, due to the fissures themselves, that the object will be understood. The recomposed object is the fatal product of a support that can no longer support, of an elastic cord now lax. I would dare saying that, if we become skeptical, that we transit along a history of fragments brought together again, as an absurd act, with scars as a constitutive part of their own objectual discourse. Something like the story told by Godot; or worse, history as far as possible, speaking of the axiomatic relativism already characterized at the beginning of the Chilean democratic transmission that has marked the 50th annual commemoration of the military coup in an environment of political denialism.
But beyond that philosophical-political distrust, Mahaluf’s objectual performance at the A4 Art Museum is very interesting, since it connects with Desplome, which we discussed above Desplome is ripe with collapse, which does not arrive until now, after three years with a Chinese porcelain urn smashed into bits, but recomposed. It is precisely the deceleration that is the new key for comprehension in order to confront Lentificar (2023), the performance installation to which our author convokes us this time.
Lentificar is an installation that once again shows us a situation of imminent collapse, but extremely decelerated. The slowness here by far surpasses our patience as spectators. It is slower than any slow motion, even slower than any Bill Viola video piece. In The Greeting (1995), Viola shows us the encounter of three women whose action, in real terms, only lasts forty-five seconds. Viola slows the sequence down, stretching its duration to ten minutes. Slowness and stretching, two issues that have practically become Bill Viola’s discursive hallmark. Now, the slowness in Mahaluf is conceptual, this is, we have to make the exercise of reflection and inferring these concepts, an exercise we are doing now. Despite the differences between these two “slow-downs”, both propose, in one way or the other, the utterly brief moment prior to collapse. Viola decelerates in order to win time before the collapse… of life. An issue beautifully exposed in the film The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, in which the medieval knight postpones his last instant of life inviting Death, who is coming to take him, to a game of chess. This is, distracting Death only for one more moment because the game is lost from the begining. This is what is perceived in many of Viola’s slow-motion movies, slowing down the last moment in order to have a little more time and thus pay better attention to the scene of the world. If we are beings of death, paraphrasing Heidegger, let us slow down time before the film credits roll in, which is what Viola is telling us. In a certain way it is a trap. The knight cheats Death. Viola cheats time so no detail of the last glance at the world escapes us. Mahaluf cheats the inevitably imminent collapse, decelerating brevity into an uncertain albeit long period of time.
An interesting position we can contrast with the vertiginous speed of Crash (1996) by David Cronenberg, a film based on the book of the same name by British writer J.G. Ballard, published in 1973. What we see in the movie -and the book- is a post futuristic ode to velocity. The characters get in their cars to fully accelerate and find a swift death by crashing their mortuary race cars. They even turn acceleration and eventual death into a spectacle, recreating famous and fatal car crashes, such as the one by James Dean in his Porsche Spyder in 1955. As one can see, we have the two extremes of the same -elastic- cord: a slowness that sems immobility and vertiginous velocity; in the middle of the cord, only real time moves.
Let us return to Desplome. With said work we know, now, of the collapse of the bodies, grease recipients or Chinese vases as possible metaphors, later collecting the fragments of the impact in order to reintegrate its parts. The work of historians or archeologists. But before all that, Mahaluf showed us the brief moment before impact. This is, he showed us the stretched-out time, the relative or quantic time for reflection before disintegration. In a way, the same happens with Lentificar. In this performative installation we find overworked elastic bands by the cord sustaining them. The material or support fatigue, as a weakened art, in this case, has an unsettling conceptual relation with the work of Matthew Barney. I refer to his already classic Cremaster cycle of video performances (1994-2002). What Barney puts into play is maintaining tension, more specifically in the case of Cremaster, maintaining the seminal fluid. As we all know, cremaster is the name of the muscle with the physiological function of maintaining the testicles tensed for spermatogenesis. This is, it is the biological device to slow down the moment prior to death. Or, are the heavy beams hanging from elastic cords, going up and down due to the performance action, something like a genital metaphor? Of course. But there is a difference. Lentificar does not have a heroic epic pretending to maintain the tension beyond its own strength. Eventually, what follows is the collapse of extinction, if a reunion of its pieces is possible later. That is why Mahaluf proposes us, before it happens, a decelerated moment. Apparently, we need to stretch time before meeting at the right moment -political, philosophical, existential- of avoiding collapse or contemplating destruction.