Guatemala is one of the most violent countries on the face of the earth …In a place where impunity rules with regard to the violations of the past; it comes as no surprise to find that the same thing continues with regard to the crimes of the present Louise Arbour United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, BBC, May 28th, 2006.
This bleak statement by the High Commissioner makes it clear that the world knows of the violence taking place in Guatemala, and it makes it equally clear that the world pays little or no attention to it. Much of Dario Escobar’s work underlines the fact that the comfortable, self-centred, and upward moving middle class in Guatemala are guilty of a similar blindness, perhaps to ensure their own physical safety but, above all, because they are engaged in a wilful pursuit of consumer comforts. It is worth recalling that the disproportionate acts of violence and repression carried out during the Civil War1 by the military and by armed civilian groups against not only their political opponents but also the indigenous population left behind them a death toll of more than 20,000 victims. The fact that nobody has been condemned for these crimes has led to the consolidation at the very heart of Guatemalan society of a culture of impunity. At the present time, more than 97% of the murders that are being committed, of whatever type, remain unpunished. The murder rate has risen, for example, between 2004 and 2005 by 13%, and specifically, according to Amnesty International, there were 5,338 murders in a population of 12 million during 2005! To live amidst such violence leaves immense shadows in the mind, perhaps even a bitter recognition of impotency.
Guatemalan women in particular are victims of this constant violence; they are frequently beaten, tortured, mutilated, raped, and then murdered. A total of 2,200 women have been murdered since 2001, and 299 of them between January and May of 2006. This rise in the murder rate of women has taken place in a climate of generalized violence where confrontations between armed groups (las maras) are constantly on the increase. Armed gangs (militia groups who are privately paid to protect the property of the wealthy) who dedicate themselves to what they loosely term “social cleansing” often eliminate street children indiscriminately. Justice tends to be dealt out privately without recourse to any system of law.
Equally dire is the fact that extreme poverty affects 75% of the population and is becoming more and more acute as a result of the economic policies of the government. This situation also particularly affects women who constitute the basic work force of the “maquilas” (subcontracting factories) where they work in excess of a 70-hour week for a wage that fails to cover even their basic needs. President Oscar Berger has once again committed the
1 It started in1960 and ended in 1996 when the peace agreement was finally signed. General Rios Mont, however, continues to have an international warrant out for his arrest.
common Latinamerican error of signing a free trade agreement granting concessions to private companies that allow them to administer the services and natural resources of the country.
Dario has lived all of this and he talks cynically and critically about the post-cold war generation – the generation immediately prior to his own- as one that did not hear the bombs because the sound was drowned out by the noise of consumerism. It is an acid observation that uses irony to mask a certain degree of anger and pain. Yet it is a statement that links us tangentially to the major arc of his interests: consumer objects, middle class vulgarity, social climbing, the abandonment of a national identity, the decline of the institutions – the church, the state, the military— into corruption and indifference, the invasion of the American way of life through its products, investment programs, and take- over bids, the absence of ethical standards, and the grinding presence of the multinationals. It is a wide arc and Dario details and dovetails its excursions into the collective psyche and into the patterns of daily life. He does not deal with its impact frontally but rather at a remove with a characteristic postmodern irony or a cultivated cynicism. In short, these works have a socio-ideological edge, rhetorically figured through irony and parody, but none of this should obscure the central fact that they constitute an ongoing dialogue with the history and function of the art object. He provides us with an icy, polished yet vulnerable, smile, that transfers itself to his work as a glistening surface veneer that serves as location for a cutting critique. His use of military camouflage is, in much the same way, a metaphor for and an image of not only the military presence but also the symbolic camouflage that Guatemalan society chooses to wear so as not to see what has been and is still going on. He mocks the traditional signs of innocence and bourgeois comfort, such as Christmas hats, musical boxes, or jewellery caskets replacing the customary elements associated with these objects with military ones, thus affirming a deliberate blindness to the reality beyond the door. Dario opts for the trivial as a critique, choosing to trivialize just as society itself has done. He mocks the soldier by substituting him in the place of the dancer, by making him adopt a choreographed ballet pose, and by dressing him in a tutu skirt! It is an acerbic and brittle irony that mocks both the military and the middle-class whose social movers favour an abandonment of cultural roots for anglo-saxon icons that propose little more than vacuous dreams. We can all sing “Happy birthday to you” (1998) dressed in our festive hats that camouflage us from a violent reality! In the same way there is a tendency to fall in love with high-tech and what Dario calls “special effects” as a buffer to reality. It is a tendency that he also sees echoed in the field of contemporary art. “My ideas enter into crisis when I find myself heir to a generation that leaves the illusory sense destitute, and overturns it replacing the aforementioned interpretative values with technological values, perhaps as a facile proof of sophistication, or as a meaningless gesture within a meaningful attempt to construct reality with reality itself, foregrounding aleatory images, generating a transaesthetics. That is part of the disillusions that accompany visual arts today, and reduce them unfortunately to works plagued with “special effects”, and that in depth and on the surface is simply mere effects.”2 The clutter of technology becomes yet another cushion between society and reality!
2 Escobar, D. Conversation with Emilio Valdes, Guatemala City, June 2005.
The Pacific Highway provided Guatemalan society with another powerful symbolic image, a political goal for the nation, and a symbolic sign of progress for the people that would lead directly, indisputably and inescapably to the dream of the U.S.A. Building highways served as a national image of modernization. Dario’s Autopista (2003) – made of steel, elastic, and canvas – looks like a trampoline held in tension by steel cables and plays with these multiple associations and contradictory readings. In her analysis of this work, Rosina Cazali reminds us that the President himself rode the highway on a Harley Davidson (another icon of power, freedom, desire, and the American way of life). She points out that when this image was reproduced in several of the country’s newspapers it brought to mind an earlier image of the dictator Jorge Ubico who shared a similar passion for this same machine. In other words, the road is an image that gathers meanings – local and specific as well as classically American (from Kerouac’s On the Road to Midnight Rider). The road can be read as a diverse symbol in the Guatemalan mind. It is both a positive aspiration and a line of broken dreams where overtaking might well be a dangerous pastime; on the one hand it implies a move towards new goals and the promise of utopia, and on the other a failed modernist project that goes on for ever as rhetoric but never gets anywhere! For Dario, of course, it holds no promise of progress, it merely signals more asphalt and concrete, more lorries and pollution, more accidents and confusions. It is like a Beckett text that moves forward through negation registering the absurd attempts of Guatemalan society to modernize. It is an image that suggests there is no escape from the endless world of simulacra and underlines his society’s abysmal dedication to the endless pursuit of futile goals.
Dario Escobar deals not so much with the tensions of the global-local that merely stress the dangers of the further penetration of global capitalism into the local and where the local tends to be presented as the “authentic”. He knows that the local is no longer authentic and chooses, therefore, to deal with the idea of the glocal – the global in the local and the local in the global. This is the site of endless transfusions and hybridizations where, as Dario insists, the myth of consumption is the regular and exclusive winner. Dario plays with the so-called “local” products that are often simulacra of the originals and are produced in Hong Kong or China for the tourist trade or for street markets. In other words, at many levels of the daily living the modernist project of progress has sagged into cheap consumption, vulgar decor, mediocre ambitions, iron bars that imprison private property, and the sheer mindless accumulation of possessions. Dario sees a society that is the willing victim of invasions, which accepts a constant erosion of any remnant of national identity as well as the brutal elimination of its indigenous past. He pays an ironic homage to these endless gestures of surrender in Cool (2000) with the industrially produced skate board and its Mercedes Benz logo and, perhaps more viciously, in Patines (2000) with its knives of stainless steel!
The Colonial past is another major national symbol and effectively constitutes a patrimony. Dario chooses, however, —in his use of gold-foil on the Nike logo, the paper of MacDonald’s cup, or the Kellogg’s cornflakes packet—, not so much to evangelize them as to explore the tensions that exist in Guatemala. As in all of Latin America, in Guatemala there are tensions between a Colonial past and two later neo-colonial invasions that have come through American transnationals, and through the more recent Spanish investment programs such as Telefónica, Iberia, or the large publishing houses that have almost killed
off all other forms of national publications. Indeed, it is a tragedy that so much Latin American literature should be pumped through Spanish publishers without any guarantee of argued and visible criteria whilst at the same time flooding Latin America with their own authors who might well find it difficult to survive in any other market place! Dario is engaged in a double-take –a questioning of the imposition of Baroque Spanish culture as a definition of Guatemalan identity and secondly the invasion of American fast food and brand-names that have turned a whole nation (that is to say the consuming part of the same) into fat smug parrots. The first was a Colonial conquest that left behind it as a by-product often jaded and impoverished images of the Baroque (without wishing to minimize the rare moments of splendour), and the second was simply the steam-roller omnipresence of the market. Even if Dario is not alone as an artist in stating this argument, these pieces remain significant because of their simplicity, clarity, and immediacy. Dario is engaged in making small-scale monuments to consumerism. He throws middle-class values back into middle- class faces, imaginatively filling public squares – since these might well be public monuments a la Oldenburg – with cups, packets, roller skates, and backyard basketball courts. In short, these are social parodies, simulacras, in a society where everything seems to have forgotten its origin, and where the omnipresent military are engaged in eliminating any small sign of it. In these “Baroque” pieces, Dario coherently exploits a number of registers. He uses imitation gold foil as yet one more simulacrum and one wonders, lord knows, if the gilded MacDonald’s cup (1997), like some sacred chalice, might also be read as “bread for the people”, as fast-food that in this instance destroys the bodies of the popular classes and leaves the bourgeoisie even more isolated in their slim magnificence! The religious overtones remind us that the Catholic Church has a long history of selling false and empty promises that also serve as simulacrums of a forgotten origin. This use of gold foil or silver repoussé manifestly suggests origin but stands as fake. We all recognize it, the sense of a nagging toothache dressed up in 17th century Baroque style. His insistence on fake gold lamina, on the mocking play with Criollo Baroque, underlines the fact that much of Latin American culture has been built on “false” interpretations of the models, mere copies, falsified originals, although we should not overlook the fact that in this act of assimilation there has inevitably been an insistence on difference: a calculated resistance. The MacDonalds cup could be used but most of us would refrain from doing so! It is suspended in a new space as art-object, ironically self-assured, hanging between origins that it no longer respects but perversely exploits to create a new critical meaning, just as in another work the supermarket trolleys turn into a mythic snake, and the mythic snake into a swerving road.
These readings that are obviously indebted to postcolonial theory proved to be a fertile ground and Dario turns to them once again in Sleeping bag (2001) where the goose feather emblem of healthy, outdoor, weekend-in-the -country life is decorated with Baroque angels and virgins that represent the cultural ambitions of nouveau riche and upper class Guatemalans whose homes are frequently stuffed full of colonial antiques that unconsciously or consciously acknowledge and record the plunder of the national patrimony. The Sleeping bag gathers into its folds a long memory of appropriations and simulations where individual responsibility – our answers or réponse to the world – slips into warm oblivion as opposed to the bleak reality outside . Everything is quickly forgotten and we can all go back to sleep! In this instance Dario has appropriated an endlessly recycled or copied theme: La Alegoria a la Eucarista. The “original” is a work from the
17th century that can be found in the cathedral of Guatemala City, not so much a literal copy of a classic theme but rather a simulacrum where the artist introduced elements from his own local culture that were immediately recognizable. This icon became in turn an image that was reproduced endlessly on postcards, ashtrays, or t-shirts for the tourist market. In this process, any real understanding of the original was inevitably lost. Dario uses it, as if it were the endlessly abused Mona Lisa image, on a sleeping bag suggesting both a long sleep and an eternal forgetting. The Sleeping bag becomes a location between cultures, a place where the Baroque meets the Criollo and where the Criollo meets consumer culture, a place of frictions, and also of false comforts, a symbol of travel and displacement, of an endless displacement of meanings.
We now are now living amidst a massive growth of kiosque culture, where we no longer even have to select our own cultural needs but simply buy them like one more consumer product. It is no longer a question of personal choice but of an unproblematic marketing of cultural needs: the 100 best novels, tango, opera, horror films, the history of Rock and Roll, you name it you have it. We are simply part of a pre-existing demand or part of a demand that can be artificially created. Culture is now the third or fourth global employer, just before or just after Tourism. It is not accountable to anybody and often confuses. Yet it has immense sway in the way it controls the images and meanings that frame the agendas of our daily lives and in the way it fashions subjectivity through offering identifications, values, ideologies, and social practices for national and global communities. The culture- producing industries occupy a powerful position in determining how people live, how they give meaning to their lives, and how they look at the future often under conditions that are not of their own choosing. There is a constant resemantisation of meanings as new social forms emerge. Escobar has witnessed his society opt for the panacea of rabid consumerism, plastic living, fast food, kiosque culture, and gym routines. Little wonder that he presents us with two angels wearing baseball caps that jell in a single image the national sport, a certain pre-disposition towards American cultural models, and an ironic reference to the widespread angel imagery fashion in Latin America!
Nothing is ever quite what it is. Dario takes a playfully morbid delight in the images of the culture industry and upsets the apple cart! He may be fascinated but he is not a believer and stands at a critical distance using irony as a dismantling rhetoric. He de-contextualizes and deconstructs as a form of questioning, a mordant humour that asks to think about consumption not so much as an overabused cliché but as an active agent in a specific context capable of negatively disturbing and destroying values. Serpiente No 2 seems to slither around like a Richard Deacon’s but it is made out of bicycle inner tubes, stones, and steel cables. It mocks not only the mythic serpent but also the whole language of modernist sculpture, and perhaps even suggests that the trendy culture of mountain bikes carries a venomous bite. Dario observes with brutal frankness: “the Guatemalan with a salary and totally conformist attitudes does not care who the government is, ideologies don’t interest him, and he has a bad memory concerning the past, he is not aware of the reality around him and appears to get annoyed when there are any water or electricity cuts or when public transport is not working, he never loses faith that the benefactor can transform our crap existence into gold, and he believes what he sees on T.V.”
Dario talks of a kingdom where the symbols never complete their functions, where nothing moves if it threatens the status quo. His bicycle, The Golden Lamb (2000), is a monument to impotency and inaction, a lamb that goes to consumer slaughter. Raised on its pedestal, it is functionally dead and talks of tinsel, of monuments to false glories, or of contexts where not all that glitters is gold. If it is the incarnation of anything, it is of the desire to go and buy again or of Margaret Thatcher’s sordid election winning slogan: You have never had it so good! One wonders if it is just one Chinese bike more in the expanding market place, if it ridicules all idols that are placed on pedestals, or if it is yet another metaphor for consumerism and the alienated life-styles of the wealthy whose homes packed with useless objects that simply clutter, obfuscate, and accumulate.
His work is clearly part of the push in the nineties that changed the nature of Central American art, lifting it out of an introverted national dead-end and what was all too frequently a rehashed nationalist reading of Modernism and its codes into an open and equal dialogue with their own generational counterparts. Dario is part of the return to the object, indebted to Pop yet inserting an evident twist in its poetics through the injection of specific, local, cultural meanings into his chosen objects. They relocate recognizable icons in a particular cultural context, surfacing new meanings that are functioning as active agents within a culture that has little visibility. These meanings are significant since they register attitudes that are often globally shared outside narrow limits of the dominant European and American models. Pop Art, for example, spoke blind and hedonistic from the center. It neither had to, nor wished to, think of the rest of the world. It was a complacent hymn to its own comfortable triumphs. The rest of the world is now engaged in throwing back these self-same icons to where they came from, re-reading them from the perspectives of local cultures that have all too frequently suffered the ills wrought by globalization.
Emiliano Valdes astutely points out that the presence of sports themes so prevalent in Escobar’s work references a particular conceptual field where values such as competition, victory, and success take possession of the individual’s inner space. They absorb him into a false system of values that is played out all around him and serve as structuring elements for society itself. Winner takes all becomes a way of life! Victory and success are celebrated in gold and silver, and wretchedly as third place in bronze, yet finally this mass- produced paraphernalia of triumph appears as shoddy and vacuous as the short-term triumphs themselves. Some schools push this practice to absurd limits in that they don’t recognize a loser and everybody goes away with a prize! Progress, technology, business, sport all suffer the winner syndrome. Sport has become equated with national pride and political success. Presidents will shake the winner’s hand. Sport provides a brittle image of the illusion of success. For Dario it is an ideal subject since it allows his works, given their status as sculpture, to dismantle, parody, question and dynamite inherent roles and connotations. He takes an intense pleasure in breaking up these sports accessories and undermining their explicit pretensions. He provides us with dismembered skate-boards (Patines) that have been cut up and hinged back together again in awkward disfunctional shapes. He proposes a similar tongue-in- cheek recycling of baseball bats in his landscape (Paisaje 2004) where he accentuates the line of the hills by the row of bats pinned to the wall and leaves the sawn fragments on the floor as if they were chunks of earth. Dario advocates that these values should become disfunctional and that sport itself should become
the metaphor for loss of value, for systems that no longer work. Canasta roja (2005-6), sets up a backyard basketball hoop, where the net is simply a broken trail of mocking plastic that deflates the whole macho drama of the game. Almejas (2005) consists of split and resewn together tennis balls that would bounce, should they bounce, in any direction, thus reducing the idea of a match to a mere parody; and spinning-tops that are linked together by steel rods that impede all movement. Fitness clubs and the gymnasium have become one of the current temples of the bourgeoisie. For Guatemalan society, they constitute sick retreats into the body beautiful where exercise becomes a panacea for ethical indifference. They are icons of health and status, totally isolated from reality outside that is ugly, violent, gross, and badly fed. Sports shoes, table-tennis bats, basketball hoops, skateboards etc are all shown as images of a major social disfunctionality, as a desired oblivion to the facts!
I feel it could be argued that his work is permeated by touches of nihilistic cynicism that he might well have found defined in Sloterdijk’s writings perhaps helped him define and showed him how to energize through the German writer called kynicism. Clearly, Dario’s work is a product of that new system of mass consumption that manifested itself through the explosive proliferation of consumer goods and services. A subject-object dialectic where the subject faces a world of objects that have the power to abstract, fascinate, and sometimes control not only the individual’s perception, but also his thought and behaviour.
Numerous critics of Escobar’s work have pointed out his affiliations with the Baudrillardian world of simulation and seduction. I would like to look at this in a little more detail than they have done and suggest that it constitutes the essential mental framework for his work. Baudrillard effectively describes the contours and dominant structures of the new system of objects while indicating how they condition and structure needs and fantasies. Indeed, his text, Le système des objets, is animated by the sense that he is describing a new social order that he himself characterizes as a new technical order, a new morality, and a new form of hypercivilization. These are large claims but this new social order perhaps lies at the heart of the ambitions and beliefs of the Latin American nouveau riche and plays a major role in the construction of their cheap dreams. Dario argues in his conversation with the Cuban critic Emiliano Valdes that: “if we accept that art can never convert itself into a mechanical reflection of the artist’s life or of the world itself, then we can perhaps consider the possibility of illusion as a more concrete, complex alternative within the creative process. Thus, simulation is the ground where the intentions of works of art “land” or “touch earth”. These intentions call upon social autobiographical and political situations and are regularly converted into genuine simulacra.”3
Dario seduces the viewer through his polished craft care and his ironically futile industrial finish that serve as a parody of the bloated seduction of consumerism. This industrial finish converts them into subversive allies for other mass produced goods. His work, as Ariel Ribeaux notes, “is grounded in the multiple relations, seductions, reactions, tensions, hybridizations, illusions, provocations, transactions, and even confusions … that historic and social contexts, tradition, identities in formation, and appearances generate in synthesis through his artefacts”. His own society has been seduced to a point of voluntary blindness. Dario exploits their icons, turning them against their owners and demeaning their functions.
Dario himself insists on a point that is frequently missed in critical approaches to his work: namely, that this hydra-headed simultaneous approach to the consumer and the art object is ingrained in a humanist poetic that is strangely lyrical in its charge: “illusion is not something that is “constructed”, as say high-tech is, it is rather something that is invented, that is born through labour itself, that may itself perhaps be a construct, but through a poetics, since this is the primary task of the creative.”4 In other words, Dario strives for clarity and an elegance of thought. I can’t help recalling in this sense those deeply moving lines of William Bronk in Life Supports:
It is hard to believe of the world that there should be music in it: these certainties against
the all-uncertain, this ordered fairness beneath
the tonelessness, the confusion of random noise.5
Seduction in Baudrillard’s view is much more than a mere sexual activity. He proposes it as a challenge to the logical primacy of the Marxist category of production as a primary determinant of the condition of history. Given the political nature of such seduction, the following statement by Baudrillard might well brings us closer to Terry Eagleton’s understanding of the need to restore to the aesthetic its full capacity for the political: “Ritualising, ceremonalising, getting decked out, disfiguring, marking, torturing … to seduce: to seduce the gods, to seduce the dead. The body is the first great prop for the gigantic venture of seduction.”6 The site for such restoration for Baudrillard is the human body whereas for Dario it is the social body and the way the glamour of consumerism effaces reality.
The modern world, as we all know, faces a situation without good choices. The consumer society of the West and its more agonized and dramatic versions in Latin America have taken control of all kinds of human desire and have left no space for the limiting role of values, breeding instead an incessantly growing volume of dissatisfaction parallel to the unstoppably swelling volume of commodities. Values have now been turned into attributes of commodities and otherwise rendered irrelevant. Therefore, it is the mechanism of the market that now takes upon itself the role of judge, opinion-maker, and verifier of values. Aesthetic judgements directly imply economic judgements and Dario knows this in his bones since it can be applied with absolute clarity to the art market and the absurd pirouettes of the price system with which he has to rub shoulders. It is a context in which, as David Carrier states: “To persuade us that a work of art is good, and so convince the art world (the sellers and buyers of art) that it is valuable, are two descriptions of one
and the same action. Truth of criticism is relative to what the art world believe … theory becoming true when enough of these people believe it.”7 In short, a large part of Dario’s
5 Bronk, W., Life Supports, North Point Press, Berkely, Cal., 6 Baudrillard, J., De la Seduction, 1979, p123
7 Carrier, D., “Art and its market”, in Richard Hertz, Theories of Contemporary Art, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p204
irony is directed towards the art world itself in a telling critique of its highly privileged status.
Dario also knows he is caught in a double bind in his choice of using these consumer objects since the avant-garde, despite its attacks against bourgeois culture and the deprivations of capitalism, has known moments in its history when it has been deeply implicated in the Western tradition of growth and progress. We only have to think of the Futurist and Constructivist confidence in technology and modernization, the relentless assaults on the past and on tradition, which went hand in hand with a quasi-metaphysical glorification of the present on the edge of the future, of the universalizing, totalizing, and centralizing impetus inherent in the very concept of the avant-garde, of the elevation to dogma of an initially legitimate critique of traditional artistic forms rooted in mimesis and representation, of the unmitigated media and computer enthusiasm of the 1960s – all these phenomena reveal the secret bond between the avant-garde and official culture in advanced industrial societies. Dario’s gaze is clearly cynical towards this past, at one level indifferent but also acutely aware that his own work is part of a tradition of the object that runs through Duchamp, Pop Art, to the neo-conceptual work of the 80s. He dismantles the consumer object, disabling it into dysfunction. He succinctly observes, “We need to revise the present need to process so enthusiastically ideas that frame their exclusive possibilities in the act of recycling, indeed the operations of demand-offer- consumption-scrap and recycling procedures are highly questioned spaces in the eighties, on account of a real need to elaborate anthropological and aesthetic transactions and, above all, to question their relative order within our intellectual economy.”8
Baudrillard speaks of a break in history as radical as the rupture between symbolic societies and capitalism, which would lead to a return to symbolic societies as his revolutionary alternative. He advocates symbolic exchange rather than the logic of production, utility and instrumental rationality that governs capitalist societies. Baudrillard suggests that symbolic exchange is more radically subversive of the values and logic of capitalism than the sort of practices advocated by Marxists which he claims are but a reflex of the “mirror of production”. Dario ironically produces new icons that mock their origins, or more precisely fraternize with Baudrillard ́s concept of simulation: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, as referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origins or reality: a hyperreal.”9
Baudrillard’s narrative concerns the end of the era of modernity dominated by production, industrial capitalism, and a political economy of the sign contrasted to the advent of the era of a post modernity, constituted by simulations and the new forms of technology, culture and society to which Escobar and his work naturally belong. If modernity is the era of production controlled by the industrial bourgeoisie, the post-modern era of simulations by contrast is an era of information and signs governed by models, codes, and cybernetics. “Information dissolves meaning and the social into a sort of nebulous state leading not at all
8 Escobar D., Conversacion con Emilio Valdes, op.cit.
9 Baudrillard, J., Simulations, Semiotexte, N.Y., 1983, p2.
to a surfeit of innovation but to the very contrary, to total entropy.”10 It is these codes and models that Dario’s work, sometimes through ludic laughter, sometimes through the logic of an implacable irony, seeks to expose. Hyperreality thus points to a blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal in which the prefix ‘hyper’ signifies more real than real whereby the real is produced according to a model. It can therefore be argued that with the advent of hyperreality simulations come to constitute reality itself.
In the postmodern mediascape boundaries between information and entertainment, images and politics implode. By implosion, Baudrillard means a process of social entropy – entropy leading to a collapse of boundaries, including the implosion of meaning in the media and the implosion of meaning and the social in the masses. The dissemination of media messages saturates the social field and meaning and messages flatten each other out in a neutralized flow of information, entertainment, advertising, and politics. This implosion of meaning and the social is in my opinion precisely the territory in which Dario chooses to locate his work and its critical cutting edge.
What I am saying is that Dario sides with Baudrillard, as opposed to Deleuze and Guattari who strive to develop a materialist theory of desire and who insist that “the real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.”11 Baudrillard, on the other hand, claims that reality vanishes altogether in a haze of images and signs. Indeed, as far as the French philosopher is concerned, “power is no longer disciplinary but a dead power which moves through the indeterminate circulation of signs. Power becomes a simulacrum; it undergoes a metamorphosis into signs and is invented on the basis of signs.”12 The virtue of Baudrillard’s work is to provide an alternative perspective on contemporary society concerning the ways in which signs can function as mechanisms of control within contemporary culture. It is worth noting, however, that while Baudrillard provides a corrective to Foucault’s neglect of semiotic or media power, Foucault’s work is a useful counter to Baudrillard’s implosive analysis. Where Baudrillard asserts that all oppositions and lines of differentiation implode, Foucault shows how discipline and power segregates, differentiates, creates hierarchies, marginalizes and eludes.
In Forget Foucault Baudrillard broadens his attack beyond Foucault to include his contemporaries Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard while calling into question the validity of micro politics. Where these theorists claim that power is decentred and thus requires multiple forms of struggle waged at local levels of society, Baudrillard claims that molecular politics is also to be rejected on the grounds that power is more dispersed and pulverized than even Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari postulate. Dario shares this postmodernist sense of the dispersion of power, the erosion of the master-discourses that dominated Modernism, and he sees it acted out devoid of any ethical consideration in the social aspirations of a nouveau riche bourgeoisie.
10 Baudrillard, J., In the shadow of the silent majorities,Semiotexte, N.Y ., 1983, p.100.
11 Deleuze, G., and Guatari, F., Anti-Oedipus, Univ. of Minnesota P., Minneapolis, 1983, p34. 12 Baudrillard, J., Forget Foucault, Semiotexte, N.Y., 1987, p.59.
This recognition may well have pushed Escobar towards Baudrillard’s radical position: “If being a nihilist is to privilege this point of inertia and the analysis of this irreversibility of systems to the point of no return, then I am a nihilist.” 13 What is finally at stake here is Baudrillard’s claim to be part of a second revolution, that of the twentieth century, of postmodernity, which is the immense process of destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Dario senses this destruction of meaning as palpably present around him and he articulates it tangentially through his work, eroding clear meanings for an all embracing ambiguity, showing us that things are no longer what they appear to be. He suggests that whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning and that the postmodern world is increasingly devoid of firm meanings. It is a universe of nihilism, where theories float in a void, unanchored from any secure harbour. Meaning requires depth, a hidden dimension, an unseen substratum, and a stable foundation; in a postmodern society, however, everything is obscene, visible, explicit, transparent, and always in motion. The postmodern scene in such an account exhibits signs of dead meaning and frozen forms mutating into new combinations and permutations of the same. Dario ́s skateboard, his surfboard, bathroom curtain, sleeping bag may well be icons for the emerging middle classes, thus suggesting status and an upward climbing shift in the potential of a small social group but at the same time becoming imbued with a loss of meaning and open to ridicule. He allows meaning to float somewhere in between, making it clear that he is involved in an expansive exercise where the objects acquire and accrue new meanings. Consequently, they question their identity without destroying their object status. “Moreover, to preserve the innate value of process is not the aim of all creation, indeed in sculpture it is to displace the identity of the object, extending the semiotic possibilities and taking it simply as a point of departure, that in my case must be the objects themselves with which the works are constructed.14
Baudrillard claims that in the sphere of art every possible artistic form and function has been exhausted. Theory too has exhausted itself. Thus the postmodern is “characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions possible … It has all been done. The extreme limit of these possibilities has been reached. It has destroyed itself. It has deconstructed its entire universe. So, all that are left are the pieces.”15 All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. All art can do is play with the history of its forms. In Les Strategies fatales, Baudrillard notes, “Things have a way to elude the dialectic of meaning, a dialectic which bored them; they did this by infinite proliferation, by potentializing themselves, by outmatching their essence, by going to extremes, and by obscenity which henceforth has become their immanent purpose and insane justification.”16 For Baudrillard objects have passed the limits and eluded control by the subject. The subject can no longer gain sovereignty over the object world. Dario adds his own nuance to this argument when he says: “I feel that rather than revisiting a past where contemporary creation appears to delight in its history, its behaviour and signs, contemporary creation should look for a different way to reinvent its works of art with the artistic object and, of course, with the subject.” 17
13Baudrillard, J., ‘On nihilism’, On the Beach, 5 Winter, 1984, p.39
14 Escobar D., Conversación con Emilio Valdés, op.cit
15 Baudrillard, J., ‘Game with Vestiges’, On the Beach, 5, 1984, p24
16 Baudrillard, J., ed. M. Poster, Selected Writings, Polity and Stanford U.P., 1988, p.185 17 Escobar D., Conversación con Emilio Valdés, op cit.
One only has to listen to Baudrillard’s words to sense Escobar’s proximity to the slightly anguished sentiment: “You want us to consume OK, let’s consume always more, and anything whatsoever, for any useless and absurd purpose.”18 Both know that such strategies would never cause capital any hardships. Indeed, in the eighties, Baudrillard, more than willing to abandon his sixties idealism, gave up all political projects. Dario in all probability never had such ambitions since the notion of master-discourses has been left far behind in the nineties, yet this by no means implies that his work lacks an ideological or ethical edge.
Baudrillard reveals himself the supreme fetishist of the object world. He executes faithfully the goal of the capitalist imaginary: to reverse the role of subject and object. He gives the object autonomous powers such that they seem to circulate independent of the social relations of production and he turns subjects into objects without creativity and efficacy of action. History is not dead for Baudrillard, it implies rather the recognition that: “Suddenly there is a curve in the road, a turning point. Somewhere, the real scene has been lost, the scene where you had rules for the game and some solid stakes that everybody could rely on.”19. As far as he is concerned, there are no longer any stable structures, connections of causality, events with consequences, or forms of determination through which one could delineate historical trajectories or lines of development. Everything instead is subject to indeterminism and an unpredictable aleatory confluence that produces vertigo.
Artistic forms have proliferated to such an extent that they permeate all commodities and objects so that by now everything is an aesthetic sign. All aesthetic signs coexist in a situation of indifference and aesthetic judgements are all but impossible. For Baudrillard we are all agnostics when it comes to art: we no longer have any aesthetic convictions, we do not profess any aesthetic doctrine or we profess them all. Within the art market, prices have become so exorbitant that they too no longer signify value, but simply point to an ecstasy of value in which value, like cancer, metastasize uncontrollably beyond all boundaries and limits. Dario ironizes on a society without memory, endlessly capricious, where consumerism is seen as the goal, as the life-style, as both ambition and religion. Little wonder that in 2004 he should produce La Critica de la Razon Pura de Kant volumenes I and II that consists of a pile of cut up copies where reason has been shredded into illegible scraps, or paradoxically where shredded fragments, rather than wholes, provide the best image of reason! Yet I suspect that Dario might well share an observation of Derrida, who was in his turn summarizing an idea that comes from Kant, when he asserts that the freedom of the imagination consists precisely in the fact that it schematizes without a concept. In other words, what the imagination is doing to assemble with something loosely in mind. It is an exploratory structuring. This is surely not alien territory for his work! Dario argues that objects not only change status when they change contexts but that they also stubbornly resist violations that question their “thinginess”: “The ‘absolute object’, possibly the work of art itself, is constructed with merchandise that are ‘relative
18 Baudrillard, J., In the shadow of the silent majorities, op.cit., p.46 19 Baudrillard, J., Forget Foucault, op cit, p.69
objects’, in surpassing the exchange value the merchandise is destroyed as product, but the object itself remains intact.20
Baudrillard talks of fourth stage, the viral stage, or what he calls the fractal stage, the irradiated state of value, where there is no longer a referent of value at all. The value irradiates in all directions, filling all interstices, without bearing any reference to anything whatsoever except by way of mere continuity. Dario’s football shirt, Ecce Homo (2005-6), covered with the blood of transnationals, such as Siemens and Adidas who have always sucked whatever profit they can from the sports icons of contemporary culture, whilst, even more pathetically, his deflated giant football appears to hang limp, impotent and useless in the midst of World Cup fury. These are referents that have lost their value, had the air taken out of them or fallen into sordid warfare.
Dario has shown interest in the displacement and movement of an object from one context to another, as indicative of the shifts that are taking place at all levels of contemporary society. His works are highly pertinent statements in their exploration of new meanings and new potentials for meaning. He is particularly drawn to this latter zone of brinksmanship where minimal “interference” can produce major repercussions! His works are invariably conceptual in their orientation, underpinned by an acerbic irony that allows them to hang on to the vestiges of what they once were. Dario indulges in appropriation as an inherent characteristic and natural mode of operation of a consumer-orientated society. He is part of a culture of quotation, of a landscape of advertising and brand names, against which the irony of recycling and re-locating is a major defense. It is a therapeutic exercise, and it provides him with momentary relief not only from the utilitarian object and its functions but, as I have said, from the over-valued status of the art object itself. As Edward Said said, the only thing the intellectual can do with power is to oppose it, to reveal how the system works in order to undermine it. La adoracion de los reyes magos al 20% effectively explores these frontiers where meanings collide and mutate, deliberately complicating the referential levels and thus holding the spectator’s attention through a strategy of ironic complicity. We are asked to recognize that no work can ever be completely original since it inevitably carries the past within its body. Contemporary culture is naturally hybrid and no longer suffers from an inferiority complex even if the “borrowing” amounts to over 80%! We are also asked to recognize that interesting works yield their meanings slowly, resist the spectator, and involve both an emotional and an intellectual effort. If we want access to the content of the work, we have to work at it, and if possession is the goal, it is not merely a question of purchase! And, above all, he demystifies the sophisticated trappings of an art system that is finally prepared, like any other, to barter and accept the shoddy practice of the discount. The discount is engrained in the mentality of the Latin American (and not only the Latin American) purchasing class with its unabashed and frontal vulgarity. Whatever they buy el descuento has to be included! This piece works on both a visual and conceptual level but the result is unsettling since, once again, Dario leaves us deliberately caught “inbetween”.
The essence of his work lies in this permeable two-way and two-pronged deconstruction of the nature and function of mass production culture, not so much as a phenomenological or
20 Escobar, D., Conversación con Emilio Valdés, op.cit.
social presence but specifically as part of the behavorial psychology of a status driven a wealthy middle class (the same class incidentally that produces Contemporary Art as a cultural presence and reality in Guatemalan society), and the aesthetic ambitions and status of the Art object. He deliberately holds back from embracing either of them, allowing the mass consumption object to challenge the Fine Art context but also introducing subtle but definitive alterations in its nature and function that partially give it a place within the art context whilst at the same time questioning its validity and authenticity. For Dario all enticement seems to stick in his throat and he prefers perverse strategies of seduction, occupying a space whilst undermining it, violently crippling the original to assume paradoxically a heightened status as art object, creating a situation where his own simulacra of an original become porous to new sets of meanings. So let me leave him with the last word: “The relationship between appropriation and production is a point that constantly returns when we talk about contemporary object practice and, for the most part, I see this more as a consequence than as a specific goal… Thus I prefer to deviate attention towards more complex effects that serve as a frame to this concept, such as the possibility of extending the aesthetic, functional, semiotic and anthropological limits of objects, and by extension of the image that apparently constitutes the point where we centre our expectations.”21 His work ironically and convincingly echoes his words.
Caracas, November 2006.