Víctor Vázquez: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

[Interview by Ivette Romero.]  Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Víctor Vázquez earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Puerto Rico, and pursued graduate studies in Education and Comparative Religion at New York University. In 1982, he traveled to India, China and Japan to study art, literature, and the cultural history of these regions. He went on to study photography with Jan Jurasek and attend the School of Visual Arts and the Maine Photographic Workshop. Vázquez has been working as an artist for more than 20 years, creating photographs, three-dimensional objects, videos and installation works in which the human body figures both conceptually and formally. His 1990 El reino de la espera [The Realm of Awaiting] won the Puerto Rico Art Critics Association Best Book Award.

In early February, the artist will present his new project—“El reino de la espera: Revisited”—at the Seraphin Gallery (101 Greenwood Ave Suite 350, Jenkintown) in Pennsylvania.

Ivette Romero/Repeating Islands (IR/RI): It has been thirteen years since the publication of my previous essay, “Moving Metaphors: The Representation of AIDS in Caribbean Literature and Visual Arts,” which reflected on your work and the work of other artists in the Caribbean context (Displacements and Transformations in Caribbean Cultures, edited with Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert; University Press of Florida, Spring 2008) and here we are, faced by another health crisis. What (emotions, considerations) made you “revisit” your work on loss and mourning caused by the AIDS pandemic and to establish connections between the 80s and what the world is undergoing today with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Víctor Vázquez (VV): What first generated my revisiting was an invitation to participate in an exhibition centering on mourning in the context of the COVID pandemic. I was invited because they were interested in my previous project, El reino de la espera, and they suggested that I elaborate on it to develop a new project reflecting on it. For me, this was a great opportunity and an interesting prospect at a moment when we are going through a situation that can be related to the past—living through a pandemic. I accepted the invitation and embarked on research and reflection on how to bring that past experience into the present. This was a challenge that led me to analyze, to re-examine, and to delve into how I was reflected in that space as an artist, and to examine all the previous elements that I used, conceptually and materially, to create a project that would respond to two historical moments. I decided that the best approach in my new work, in contrast to the past project, would be to explore the space in which the individual is no longer present. For me, it meant to explore the absence/presence of the subject versus the “awaiting” of the subject’s demise. While in the past, the focus was on the deterioration or declining presence of the body, here, it had more to do with absence, an absence that is simultaneously—and painfully—present. That research led me to pose questions as to how to recreate this absence. That is how I arrived at fresh ideas: the use of the curtains to cover the photographs, the coal (which alludes to fossilization and vestige), the shroud (connoting absence and memory), and the reliquary (representing the past subject). Unfortunately, when I presented this project, it generated disagreements; there were concerns having to do with how the project was perceived and interpreted. In the end, I decided not to participate because I understood that what the organizer was demanding involved the dismantling and fragmentation of my project to fit into their broader scope. At the end of the day, it seemed to me that the organizer simply did not understand the project, having an inaccurate view of what the first project really was. It was never a document (El reino de la espera as a series of photographs). It was always meant to be a conceptual, multidisciplinary proposal that originated from “the document.” In conclusion, I was not ready to accept the proposed conditions.

In any case, this stumbling block opened the door to another opportunity. I presented the project elsewhere and, not only was I was welcomed, but I was given the chance to expand the project and to develop an individual exhibition/installation. Although I was saddened by the fact that I was unable to present this work in Puerto Rico—and to allow the audience to evaluate the project and to generate questions—in the end, it turned out to be a positive experience.

To sum up the projects, with the first work—a tridimensional, multidisciplinary project that focused on AIDS/HIV, in which I included literature, painting, sculpture, photography, and more—I started exploring the connection between word and image. In the recent, revisited work, the body—and, above all, the memory of that body—is a constant. It recreates everything that has to do with memory and how bodies move in space; and they move through space loaded with memory and with a symbology that we define as culture.

IR/RI: In what way would you say that this period of fear and mourning is similar to the trauma of the 80s and early 90s? How is this moment different?

VV: Well, there are similarities between those two periods in which a type of pandemic manifested itself, but the main difference is that when the AIDS/HIV pandemic arose, the virus had not been named; it took some time to identify and to name it, as opposed to the present COVID-19 pandemic. The other difference is that the previous pandemic of the 80s was not felt as acutely and massively generalized as this one (at least in its beginnings). Because AIDS/HIV had been, initially, very closely related to sexual contact, there seemed to be more space for individual protection, without the need to wear masks or to establish spatial delimitations. This pandemic of the 21st century seems more terrible because, in some ways, it isolates each one of us, to the point where we cannot maintain our former behaviors in everyday life.

The differences reside in the pandemic’s intensity and complexity. I feel this one is much more complex because this virus continues evolving and transforming into an elusive and difficult to control. In the past, in terms of biopolitics, those who were isolated in the past were marginalized groups; they were targeted as those from whom the “general population” had to protect itself. Now, everyone is immediately, directly implicated; there is little possibility of pointing fingers. This makes the COVID pandemic different. Today, the pandemic is a problem for all of us; we are all involved.

IR/RI: Do you think that thisgaze towards the past is also tempered by the environmental and political upheavals that the island (Puerto Rico) has gone through in the past decades, since your last meditation on “the realm of waiting”?

VV: I believe that, to a great extent, all of these problems—including environmental issues, pandemics—are a result of human behavior. They are a result of greed; the interactions generated between human beings and the environment are antagonistic. The problems that arises from our relationship with nature are caused by how we do not consider the effects we have on our environment—in other words, these problems are typical of the Anthropocene. It seems impossible for us to live in harmony with nature, and nature reacts to all those antagonistic interventions. There is an imbalance between our society and nature, and it seems like we are now “paying our dues.” So I see these pandemics as a direct result of human activity vis-à-vis the natural world. We are affected by climate change, by global warming—the small groups that are in power seem uninterested in taking a stance to bring about change, and we are in a precarious and highly dangerous situation.

In my new work, “El reino de la espera: Revisited,” I have had to reflect on issues that arose in the pandemic of the 80s and 90s. Now we are dealing with a different pandemic. This is represented in my elaboration of the concept of pandemics stemming from a personal experience. My new work focuses on the absence/presence of the subject, rather than on the concepts of expectation, waiting, or “awaiting” another realm. In my use of coal and charred fragments, I reflect on this absence/presence; I use these materials to allude to what is left: memories, the vestiges that are left behind. It’s a metaphor; what is left are fossilized remnants. To a certain extent, the mound represents a tomb. At the same time, upon closer observation, it is also a map of Puerto Rico, but not literally—it is simply a reinterpretation of a map. And from here, I include the issue of mourning, especially in the context of the pandemics (then and now), bringing it from the specific to the general. I didn’t consciously think of my use of coal as an expression of mourning for losses in the environment (like deforestation and other types of destruction) as you mention, but a work of art is there to generate many possible readings and many ways of seeing. Coal, in this particular case, refers to the idea of what is left: remnants, exhumed bones, a body, a fossil; it is also an aesthetic element. I am trying to establish a relationship between the ephemeral state of the spirit (denoted by the ethereal, soft, translucent curtains) and what is grotesque, crude, raw. In my work, that relationship between the hard and the soft—what is raw and what is delicate—is always present. But these elements allude to formal elements that are used to speak about the concepts of mourning and death.

IR/RI: In my previous examination of your work, I focused on the empty bed and empty rooms as metaphors for loss, mourning, and memory; now, in your revisiting of the photographic work and your development and expansion of the book project into a larger space, the metaphors are multiple and point towards other directions or, perhaps, other ways of processing loss and the absence of loved ones. In this revisiting I perceive echoes of the original work, for example, the curtains that cover the mounted photographs, the shadow box with medication, and the box of rolls of gauze are reminiscent of the curtains that may hide or reveal Chago’s hospital bed in the book, El reino de la espera. This installation is so rich and multifaceted that it would take several critical articles to examine its many dimensions but, to mention a few, I am fascinated by the use of black materials—coal, blackened wood, small burlap-wrapped packets of stones, rubber sheets—all arranged on the ground like a makeshift or improvised topographic map of Puerto Rico; an ironing board with a letter, a bottle, a dried rose. I am particularly struck by a basket (placed on the mound of black artifacts and materials) that appears to contain a reliquary with a photograph of the late Chago. Another compelling component is the neatly folded pile of black clothing (apparently, of the deceased) topped by a black hat and a red apple. The apple led me to many references, among them the biblical apple of Eden or the apple from Germanic folktales and the Swiss legend of William Tell. I almost expected an arrow to swish through the air to pierce the apple; could it be a target chosen by the pandemics? In this scenario, the person who balanced the apple on his head did not survive. These are just a few of the connections that come to mind in this evocative and powerfully poetic work. Then we see a crucifix barely covered by a leather shroud—a potent symbol. What do these represent in your revisiting?

VV: Your questions are interesting because you’re speaking about the possible readings suggested to you by this project. Clearly, there are many different readings, as all art projects lend themselves to be reconstructed from various perspectives. Among those elements you mention, the covered crucifix refers to the Holy Shroud, Christ’s shroud—it’s the trace, the vestige of what remains. The shroud is a representation of something that existed and that has a symbolic value for those who believed and believe. I am using religious references to speak about memory.

In a way the crucifix represents the subject—the person who is no longer with us; what is left is our memory. The hat, jacket, and apple also refer to a body. They are there as a strategy to speak about a body that is now an absence—a body that is no longer here. The apple is a symbol used to establish the contrast between the forbidden and the rotten—two concepts that were explored in my work on AIDS; in El reino de la espera, there was a movement from the concept of prohibition (e.g. forbidden acts) to putrefaction (the deterioration of the body). I recontextualize and re-signify that reading to speak about that dynamic from the present situation. The body is a war zone where one must confront what is attacking it—the viruses that pursue us.

The reliquary refers to memory. It is there to remind us of that absent person—that subject who was, and continues to be, significant in our memory.

IR/RI: In this new interpretation and expansion of El reino de la espera I also see many more indications of hope and brightness—I see vestiges of cobalt blue that light up the darkness of the black island-shape here and a flash of bright red there. Were these elements significant to you for signaling that not all is lost in the dark depths of mourning?

VV: The coal, in some way, also refers to what is present but unseen—the interred body or an island… However, I also use cobalt blue powder that serves two purposes. One is aesthetic, to minimize the overall effect of the blackness, to enhance, brighten or embellish. On the other hand, the blue indigo powder represents cleansing. Spiritualists used it to scare away negative spirits. Indigo powder is also used to wash and brighten white clothing. But spiritualists use it, placing a small ball of indigo in a glass of water in a corner of the house so that anything carrying negativity that comes into the house will be gathered and trapped there. In sum, the main reading is cleanliness or purification, a cleansing of the spirit to undo or protect from negativity, so that the spirit may rest in peace. And, of course, it serves the aesthetic function, as I said before.

Regarding hope, I agree. I don’t see death as something negative; it is a transformation. Life leads to death and death leads to life. In the Western hemisphere, we tend to look at death as undesirable; in the East, it is seen as something natural, as continuity, a natural process. I also wanted to establish this idea in this project, to show that, in death, life and rebirth are present. With the use of the indigo blue powder I want to show that the spirit is being purified, renewed, and transformed; the energy doesn’t disappear, it is transformed into something else. The blue spots are used as a metaphor of continuity, and a positive process.

The red element—namely, a red rose petal and the red apple—are formal, aesthetic choices. The color helps establish a balance for the spectator; it helps the viewers digest the work and generate new ways of seeing. The rose petal is alive, organic; it also links with the dried, long-stemmed rose that alludes to the subject’s past life.

Coal is also organic. The use of black may be negative when seen as the representation of the impact of man on the natural world—a dislocation in the environment—which generates trauma and conflicts that are echoed in illnesses, pandemics, and other imbalances in our world. We must observe this, underline it, and assume a stance so that we can start a dialogue and to figure out how we can live in harmony with the environment. We must recognize that we are part of that nature—we are nature.

For more information, see www.victorvazquezpr.com and www.seraphingallery.com

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