Exhibit B in Santiago de Chile
Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”
‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.
Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian – “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”
Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.
The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.
My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.
By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.
At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.
The things he saw one day in May
So, I’ll start with the serious stuff, and work downhill towards the frivolous.
Yesterday I was taken by the poet (and translator of Seamus Heaney), Pura López Colomé to see an impressive and moving exhibition at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia organised by the Movimiento por la paz con justicia y dignidad (Movement for peace with justice and dignity), whose motto is estamos a la madre meaning, approximately, ‘we have had enough’. This group was set up by the poet, writer, academic and activist Javier Sicilia, following the torture and murder of his son Juan Francisco, along with six others, by drug gang assassins in March 2011.
Following this, Sicilia has developed a formidable organisation that calls for an end to the drug wars, withdrawal of the military presence from the streets, the legalisation of drugs, and an end to political corruption. He has led demonstrations – at huge personal risk to himself – as well as marches across the whole of Mexico and much of the United States. In 2011 he was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine. His influence in starting up a popular, non-aligned movement directly confronting the perpetrators of violent crime and political corruption in Mexico represents an act of immense personal courage. His organisation has found followers in every walk of life, precisely because so many people have been affected by the drug wars – whether as victims themselves, or else as having lost family members to the violence. Furthermore, unlike the many ‘self-defence’ groups that have sprouted up across the country in opposition to the terror perpetrated by drug gangs – which simply promotes a never-ending cycle of violence met by more violence – Sicilia’s movement is based on entirely peaceful means of protest. I am posting a few images below from the exhibition, with apologies for the quality of the photographs, my camera having developed a mysterious and inexplicable blur on the lens over the past few days.
At a considerable remove from the foregoing, and my head filled with disturbing images, which I have not reproduced here, I bade farewell to Pura and wandered alone through the derelict remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztec temple at the centre of the city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), destroyed by Cortés in 1521. Much of this area was entirely buried for centuries. The conquerors built a church over part of the precinct – the present cathedral – and other parts were used for housing and other civic buildings. I found it extraordinarily haunting to walk around this area, directly after witnessing the sufferings endured by present-day Mexicans, as if – and this is by no means an original thought – the cycle of violence, destruction and waste were part of some terrible continuum from which there can be no escape, only temporary respite.
Inside the museum, having stood before the astonishing Tzompantli, or wall of skulls, I am confronted by a statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld and of death.
Unfortunately, he reminds me of the ogre in the first Harry Potter film, who was rather an inept type. Intertextuality gone awry. The museum’s English description below the statue is worth reproducing:
Mictlantecuhtli is conceived by the Aztecs as a half-gaunt being in a position of attack with claws and curly hair . . . The liver hangs out from his thorax because according to Aztec beliefs this organ was closely related to Mictlan or the underworld.
I’ll forever be on the look-out for half-gaunts from Mictlan, with their livers hanging out.
Which leads me – not through any direct path – to another sight witnessed in the Zócalo, which had me confused for a minute: what appeared to be a bishop, protesting against child abuse in the Catholic church, and which transpired to be a person disguised as a bishop. Shame, really.
And from the tragic, via the bizarre, to the frivolous, as promised:
Wikipedia’s entry on itching goes as follows:
Itch is a sensation that causes the desire or reflex to scratch. Itch has resisted many attempts to classify it as any one type of sensory experience. Modern science has shown that itch has many similarities to pain, and while both are unpleasant sensory experiences, their behavioral response patterns are different. Pain creates a withdrawal reflex while itch leads to a scratch reflex.
My own scratch reflex has been horribly over-employed these last two nights. I wonder if it has anything to do with a change of climate, being currently in a temperate dry place rather than the cold wet place where I normally reside? I came here to do some work, and while I have managed to do a fair bit of writing, I have probably done just as much scratching, often in the more personal or inaccessible zones of the body. I haven’t scratched like this since having scabies a long time ago.
The doctor back home told me it might be a side-effect of the medication I am on (great, I thought, another side effect to go with the fatigue, loss of appetite, anaemia, depression and rage). He also told me – get this – to try not to scratch.
Well, as you can imagine, I laughed like a cretin, since the very essence of having an itch is – as the Wikipedia entry makes clear – to activate the scratch reflex. You think, I’ll just give it a little scratch, and the next thing you are at it like a monkey. When you use your fingernail to scratch the spot where the irritant is, you not only remove the irritant but you irritate a whole shedload of other nerve endings. This means your itch itches more, hurts more, and you consequently scratch more. So my doctor’s advice was actually very helpful, if only I was able to heed it.
All I could do last night was take a valium and keep my hands clenched together under the pillow, in an attempt to exercise the kind of self-control that would do credit to a monk dedicated to obliterating the demands of the flesh.
There is, I suspect, a literary aspect to this scratching business. In fact the whole thing reeks of metaphor, if only because writing itself at times resembles an act of scratching. Initially one writes in order to relieve an itch. However once the process has begun, the initial itch is replaced by something quite monstrous. Then we find it impossible to stop scratching. I wonder if this has anything to do with being on the seventeenth draft of a novel?
Médecins Sans Frontières in Libya
I receive an email from Médecins Sans Frontières saying that the Libyan National Army Security Service in Misrata are sending them people to treat who have been tortured, simply to patch them up into a state where they can be tortured some more. This is shocking, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that people who have endured violent oppression are likely to inflict exactly the same kind of treatment on their oppressors – now they have become their captives – seems sad but horribly predictable.
According to The Guardian:
The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to the chorus of concern by announcing that it had halted work in the coastal city of Misrata because staff were being asked to patch up detainees during torture sessions. “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation,” said MSF’s Christopher Stokes. “This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”
I rarely use this blog for notices of this kind, but because I support MSF this captured my attention, and I thought I would share it. Not that there’s a lot anyone can do.