JOSE JOAQUIN FIGUEROA: Cute Transgressor
Santiago Echeverry (intro as aside): Back in March of 2014, I was invited to participate in a collective show curated by Manu Mojito and Paulo Alvarez at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, in Bogotá, Colombia. Having lived outside my country for over 10 years, it was a strike of luck that I was in the city for the show opening. And believe me, it was a breath of fresh air. The talent and the reflection in every single one of the pieces was breathtaking, especially knowing I was already considered a veteran within the group. With the curators both being in their 20’s, the exhibit entitled Muñecos de Loza 02 ( Porcelain Dolls 02) presented works related to the ambiguity of the body by established and emerging national and international artists. I shared the space with former students of mine (Santiago Forero), colleagues (Ana Patricia Palacios), friends (Juan Pablo Echeverri) and masters (Clemencia Poveda) emerging young artists such as Paloma Castello and Pablo Adarme, and international guests Abel Azcona (Spain), and José Joaquín Figueroa from Venezuela.
I was fascinated with all of the works, and I could write a book about the entire exhibition, but I felt particularly attracted to the work of Figueroa, who was living and studying in NY, at Cooper Union, at the time of the show. He represented this new generation of artists that consider themselves Queer, moving beyond gender barriers and stereotypes, with very strong political and satirical approaches to exploring the realities in their countries and the invasion of American culture in Latin America. M having experienced the harshness of growing in a difficult country myself, and having lived and worked in New York too, gave Figueroa and I starting ground for a fertile round of conversations, culminating in this short but insightful interview, that we performed a little after his art college graduation. Figueroa incarnates the passion of his generation for freedom and alternative methods of expression, with an invigorating, uncompromising and irreverent attitude that redefines the stereotypical views of Latin American art.
SE: I am almost twice your age and yet I notice that there are no big differences between our generations; there are a lot of ideas and concepts that we share. Do you think that that happens because we are both Latinos or is it because we belong to this kind of global culture?
Jose Joaquin Figueroa: I think it is hard to pinpoint why these similarities arise but I feel there are two constants in life for me: change and repetition. As artists we have a constant struggle between these two, and if I have to respond I would say that our shared background has a lot to do with that. I feel in America artists react differently to globalization, especially to Americanism or Americana invading some other spaces that are supposed to have other values. We react and we observe those realities under a different lens and therefore we can arrive at the same ideas and concepts at the end because we are in a middle ground. It is interesting for me to now be in America (USA) and have this new door to a way of producing art and then going back home and also having that door open, but finding myself in the middle because I am neither here nor there.
SE: I am particularly fascinated with the work that you have done regarding gender and politics, especially the work entitled Playboy where you are appearing nude in the same position as Marilyn Monroe but you are smoking Fidel Castro’s cigar and wearing Mao Zedung’s hat. I am also interested in the photo-performance entitled From Left to Right, where you morph from the Fidel Castro into Marilyn again. Where is this work coming from?
JF: These works are autobiographical and it is interesting to remark that From Left to Right was produced while I was still living in Venezuela, in the period of time when Hugo Chávez had been in power for around 10 years. The work was a digestion of his discourse in my country because he was always antagonizing the American ideal with the socialist/communist notion that capitalism was bad and communism was good, but he never got deeper into the ideology behind both systems, and why one was working and the other one wasn’t. So I think I grabbed those ideas and thought about the advertising images of both Castro and Monroe, especially because of their gender attributes, and I obviously grabbed on to Fidel as some iconic image of the masculine intellectual communist, as well as Marilyn, as the icon of feminine beauty and desire.
Their images are very powerful in what they stand for. I also took those two images as an excuse to play with my concern with gender in Venezuela: if you are a gay male and you are masculine it is good, but if you are effeminate it is bad. There is a paradox that if you are into capitalism and you are feminine that is bad, but if you are into communism and you are masculine it is good, and if you are of the opposition, or the other side of the coin, then there is a short circuiting that happens. That is hard for me to grasp. I have never believed in radical positions, I believe in the transition or the transit–sometimes we are in one position or the other but we are never in the same place. There are two sides where the work comes from, one being the political body that processes all binary information, and the other being the position from which I can enact or develop myself in a society with social constructs limiting the body already. In Venezuela, there are no other (or not enough) male body artists doing what I am doing, just female artists, which is interesting to me because I am appropriating the idea of the feminine body attitude used as an artificial object of desire, because those poses are not only artificially constructed but also exclusive to the female gender.
SE: I studied the work you did with the plastic bags, and these plastic bags have a double connotation: suffocation and suicide. It is as if you were walking on a cliff, on one side it is extreme pleasure, on the other side you die. Are you playing that game, trying to reflect your own angst?
JF: I feel that my work has a lot to do with angst in many ways, like that moment when I do not know what is it that my body can do to make a difference, with the struggle constantly present. The plastic bags project took three years to develop, it started with me collecting all of my consumer bags and then putting them on my head. Initially they were not necessarily plastic, they were paper too, all with consumer culture brands and logos. The process of collecting all of these traces of consumption started to be more systematic, and I focused later only on plastic bags. Every human being in a city has to interact with this object. Wherever you buy something, they always give you one of those, in the pharmacy, the supermarket, working equally for both the low and high culture consumer, easily accessible as an object.
After repeating this gesture of portraying myself with a bag on my head, finding a place between pain and pleasure, I “saw the light” – it sounds corny, I know – and I started doing double exposures, shifting the initial scope of the project. I would combine the portrait of my face with and without a bag, so you could see the face and the bag at the same time. It ceased hiding my identity (where the bag would behave as a mask) to allow the fusion between the branding identity and my face, allowing it to become a very religious experiment. This is why I ultimately called it Martyrs, because martyrs are these catholic people that after being either tortured or immolated (for the good of their religion) they start seeing the light, they get access to the other side, they can see other planes, like some sort of redemption or clairvoyance.
SE: Do you think that if you had stayed in Venezuela you would be doing the same type of work?
JF: I probably would be doing directly political work or even refuse the political aspect altogether. I do not know. I call Venezuela the land of Magical Realism, because of all its absurd situations. It is the land of endless paradoxes. There is so much contrast, but still people find ways of achieving happiness or not caring at all. I think for the creative mind it is a very fertile territory because it just highlights a sort of absurdity, some place where logic or common sense doesn’t really work. Anything could happen when you play with/around absurdity and irony.
SE: You are in New York which is also full of paradox and magical realism that comes from everywhere in the world…
Yes it is, but in a different way because it is also a concrete jungle. I am now doing the same work I would be doing at home too, but I am now reacting to America and this city of cultural divergence and convergence, in a way where I try to think about my roots in my country almost like my own debt to the land where I am from. Wherever we go we are going to be Colombian or Venezuelan anyway, and we bring that with us, like the reaction to nature, vernacular culture, music, the body, religion. When I was working at home, I was working with the illusion or fantasy of America (USA), and here I am working with the illusion of South America. I do not like calling it Venezuela, because it feels too much like the nation-state, whereas I am trying to see it from the perspective of the natives that used to be aligned with nature, a free land where generosity and freedom were aligned with what the world needs, without taboos. Colonization brought a lot of change to us.
Another one of your pieces I had the chance to see was a series of urinal covers. What was it about?
JF: This project is called Out of Order and it is a series of custom made, fabric covers for public restroom urinals. I call it a project because I see it as an ongoing work of public art that could be installed anywhere, inspired by the covers that grandmothers sew for their appliances in the kitchen, the toaster, the teapot, or even computers. I have seen those and they are very funny. I use the term grandmother because that is my own direct personal experience. I purposely chose fabrics with floral patterns, very colorful prints with feminine attributes, to cover these urinals which are always white, clean and shiny. It is obviously a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal in art history. But in this case it is trying to highlight the issues of gender identity, questioning the stereotype of masculinity as very rational and unemotional, and how these distinctions are set in social gender constructs, because I do not think that is how it works at all. It is a project that brings back different memories not only with gender but also with gay cruising in public bathrooms, emphasizing the visual place where the sex is aligned, because once you place these covers, these urinals start looking like bulges or speedos. Desire works in a very interesting way, where you fantasize more with someone you haven’t seen naked or you’ve just seen in a speedo: the sky is the limit – which is fetishism - and sometimes to see a naked body might not be as erotic as the fantasy or with the ornament that covers the sex.
SE: Instead of covering it in leather or black latex or rough materials which are masculine, you fetishize it and turn the most masculine element, which is the urinal…into a type of feminine aggression.
JF: The work is sort of “punky,” or “cute transgressive” and it is regenerative too, telling the boys that we are also feminine, without the need to deny the other side. I have a problem with things that are depicted as being very radical or one-sided, because there are always different sides to each story.
SE: Is this also related to the fact that there is now a generation that no longer needs to have casual and forbidden sex in a public restroom?
JF: Yes, but it still hides itself in different masks and personas. Even straight people are using apps to skim through other people’s profiles to see if they want them or not. It is interesting for me to understand how cruising worked in the past, where the social engagements happened in real life, in flesh and blood. For my generation it is different, I lost my virginity through the internet. It is a different set of interactions, because you could hide yourself, you do not have to put your body into a possible situation of denial, or danger, or where people would physically say that they did not want to have sex with you or that they were not gay; you no longer have to be a daredevil, and through the lens of technology it is easier to be very straightforward and say things as you want to because there is nothing at stake anymore.
SE: You are ready to start your Graduate Program in San Francisco: what are your goals there?
JF: I applied to UC Berkeley for Art Practice, and I chose it because most of the programs out there are too specifically focused on traditional arts such as photography, painting or sculpture. I was interested in a program that is already talking about all the intersections in art. Just like in my Left to Right project, when it comes to making work, I mix mediums. I could make a painting, but I also mix installation and photography too. I do not think of these terms as being static at all. Another reason why I am moving there is because it is a program that offers me significant financial aid, which is very important. It is great that I am following my career path through this institution, but it is true that once I graduate there will be no $60k/year job for me. I know it is hard, so why would I want to get into student debt? I don’t see how necessary that debt is, because artists are still going to do their thing, regardless of whether they go to school or not. It is a basic need for us.
I am also very happy, after studying in NY for 4 years, and observing how the art world / system works, I am excited to go somewhere else where it might not be the same at all, so that I have to re-establish what my goals are as an artist and a visual communicator. I put myself in a position where I do not really care about making commercialized objects that can be sold. Obviously I would love to make a living out of what I do and I am aiming towards that goal, but I am more happy in communicating or leaving statements or documents of problems that are happening or paradoxes that no one talks about. I have used the word paradox a lot and I wish I had the language to be more specific with that. That’s why visual language and non-verbal communication are such good tools for me in pinpointing all these problems. If you think about being a studious artist and the platform of the art world, it is already sort of ridiculous to begin with. It is again a different performance, a different mask, you have to create this characteristic persona in order to play around in the game. I guess that San Francisco is going to give me an opportunity to be in my studio a lot more and to not think about that game for awhile, or think about it in a different way. New York is called the capital of the art world, but I guess that’s true just because there is so much money there and it is where galleries sell the most. This is where a sort of fetishisation towards the art object can happen. And let’s not be naïve, because it is not only the fetishisation of the art object that counts, it is about the value that is created through the art object, and therefore the investment for people who are in the finance world. It is still about status, and I think it is very important to remember that because I want to be aligned with the people–to something else, I cannot be aligned with that other world.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
SANTIAGO ECHEVERRY: is a Colombian New Media and Digital Artist with a background in Film and Television production. Thanks to a Fulbright Grant, he received his Master’s degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. He moved to the USA in 2003 to teach Interactivity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He then relocated to Florida in the Fall of 2005 to teach Digital Arts and Interactive Media at the University of Tampa. He started exhibiting internationally in 1992, and his research interests include non-linear narration, video-art, performance art, interactive design, creative code and web experimentation, while never forgetting his commitment to Gay and Lesbian Human Rights.
JOSE JOAQUIN FIGUEROA: Born in 1986 in Caracas, Venezuela. Figueroa attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2009, and graduated from The Cooper Union in NYC in 2014. He will begin his graduate education in Art Practice in the fall at UC Berkeley, CA.