Arts » Visual Arts

Can you handle Bearing Witness?

Guatemalan performance artist Regina Jose Galindo makes cringe-worthy statements



"Extreme." That's one word you could use to describe Guatemalan performance artist Regina Jose Galindo's Bearing Witness exhibit, currently on display at Davidson College's Van Every/Smith Galleries. "Crazy," that's another word that many would use in regards to her extreme measures. But Galindo's messages are clear, her works leaving a permanent impression in the mind and stimulating dialogue about issues that need to be looked at more closely.

"I am just a grain of sand that contributes to dialogue," Galindo says. "But sometimes it's really difficult to build a deeper dialogue."

In Galindo's performances, she uses herself, both mentally and physically, to challenge viewers to remember past and present forms of human rights atrocities and violence. This includes putting herself in uncomfortable, sometimes painful and vulnerable, situations.

In the exhibit, you'll witness a collection of performance pieces, each targeting social and political issues, violence and gender-specific crimes, that Galindo has conducted around the world, many in her native country of Guatemala, over the years. Each disturbing in its own way, these documentations — through video and photographs — are not for the faint of heart. In fact, anyone who gets wheezy at the sight of blood should stay far away.

In one video, 2003's "Who Can Erase the Footprints?" Galindo walks to Guatemala's Corte de Constitucionalidad, carrying a bowl of blood which she dips her bare feet into from time to time in order to leave bloody footprints along the sidewalk. This piece came in response to the former Guatemala dictator Efraín Ríos Montt's presidential candidacy and possible reelection, despite atrocities committed under his regime.

For a similar work, "The Weight of Blood," she has a liter of blood that's poured slowly over her head and body. The spectacle, done along a crowded plaza, speaks to the silence of bystanders to violence.

In a more private setting, her work "Perra/Bitch," addresses rapes and murders against Guatemalan women. But this one entails self-mutilation. Sitting alone in a room, she inflicts the word "perra" (Spanish for "bitch") onto the skin of her thigh with a knife. It's a drastic, bloody step that's taken in reference to the many women who are found mutilated with defiling words carved across their bodies. This piece, just one of several that seem extremely discomforting, is the only piece which she associates with feeling actual pain.

"I have more serious concerns. I am talking about real issues about the world," Galindo says. "It may be it is easier to think of superfluous things and not see the merits, the depth of things. It's not about me. It's not about my personal history. My work is not a 'reality.' The people need to make a mental effort and understand that many times they are included in the criticism made."

But other works are equally disturbing, although less bloody. Take "Confession," for instance. In this one, her head is repeatedly plunged into a water-filled oil drum. As she gasps for breath, a burly man harshly ducking her shows no remorse. It's an intense peek into the violent measures of waterboarding taken from pages of a declassified CIA manual. Similar works include "150,000 Volts," where a man uses a taser to shock Galindo who falls to the ground unconscious and "Social Cleansing," where she strips naked and has a man spray her down with a high-powered water hose — the same type that's used to fend off protestors who object to authoritative regimes and their oppressive systems.

In many ways, Galindo — intentionally or not — gives a voice to victims that can not be heard and pays a kind of remembrance through her works.

"XX" features marble stones that Galindo had made for a Guatemala City cemetery where 52 unidentified men, women and children are buried. For "Roads," she hides in a thicket wrapped in a white sheet. Ropes are attached to her body and scattered through nearby streets challenging passerby's to follow the trail that leads to her corpse-mimicking presence.

This kind of interaction plays an important role in Galindo's performance art. Much of the time, it leaves the public with a quick decision to make. Past interactive performance pieces include a chained Galindo with viewers jumping in to test keys on the padlocks in attempt to free her from the shackles; Galindo covered in dirt as folks wash the soiling off her skin; and Galindo lying naked in the fetal position underneath a plastic dome of tubing that viewers attempt to bust through with weapons.

Her newer works address the dangers of illegal immigration. She participated in a "Survival Course for Men & Women Traveling Illegally To The United States," and documents the realities of the strenuous journey, sometimes leading to death, faced by folks who cross and/or attempt to cross the borders.

For Megan Walsh of the Latin American Coalition this work was one of many that touched her.

"It truly broke my heart because I know children and mothers and families who had to come across the border and I've heard from some of them the violence, racism, danger and separation they faced," says Walsh. "I don't think people realize how perilous the journey is and then they come here to the U.S. and Americans say they should "go home" and come here "legally." It's get out and escape or be killed and/or raped, unless you comply. It's so necessary to educate people on immigration and what's actually going on. For Galindo to create a survival course was ironic, smart, and a little creepy — since it was almost like a survival game event, though it's a reality."

During the gallery's opening reception at Davidson College, Galindo keeps the interactive element rather tame. There's nothing that seems painful or provocative in "A Latino Near You."

In a small nook of the gallery, there's a white screen with black lines documenting Galindo's every movement through the space. The lines are being traced through a monitor device that's strapped to her ankles. This specific piece was created to stress the importance of Latinos to the community at large. It suggests that a Latino is always nearby and emphasizes their integral part of society, despite negative stereotypes and illegal immigration concerns.