Marcela Astorga and the Local Industry
hunger in the Bs As of Pedro de Mendoza,”cimarron” (wild, unruly) cattle, meat in the colony, slaughterhouses and the “saladeros” (places for the salting of meat) in the “Virreinatos”
( Viceroyalties from colonial times), Slaughterhouse (novel by Esteban Echeverria, people beheaded in civil wars, cattle and “frigorificos” (packing houses) in the 80 s, Lisandro de La Torre’s meat business, the ” bife de chorizo” (thick cut of broiled steak),the harmonic connections of the bull’s body studied by Ignacio Pirovano, La Res (the head of cattle) by Antonio Berni,the motto:”the best meat in the world”,the great prize awarded bull of Federico Peralta Ramos;the meat prohibition law, the beheaded bodies of Juan Carlos Distefano, “Flesh” (movie by Isabel Sarli and Armando Bo),”Las Parrillas” (grill rooms) by Norberto Gómez, The “Cabaña Las Lilas” (a well-known brand of packing house),the actions with flesh byNicola Constantino, the T.V program “de Carne Somos” ( we are all vulnerable since we are made of flesh),the torn off bodies of Marcela Moujan, carnal relationships with the United States, Samid and the packing houses scandal; the motto:”Argentine meat free from aphthous fever” (a foot and mouth disease transmitted by sick cows) cannon fodder, the resurrection of the flesh (religious term),goose flesh,with the flesh exposed, “hacerse carne” (to be part and parcel),”carne y una”(like hand and glove, very intimate),lean meat, red meat, white meat, minced meat, to put on flesh,”poner toda la carne al asador” (to put everything at stake),flesh and blood, shaking flesh,”tener carne de perro”(to have an iron constitution), carnal sins, carnal passion, pork meat, loose flesh (of a person when getting old),distress of the flesh, excesses of the flesh, carnal attraction, “carne de divan” (of a person, to be in urgent need of psychoanalytical treatment). beheading, “vienen degollando” (ravaging the place, beheading people on their way),flaying, removing the flesh from an animal, castrating, ripping off, the knife, the wound, the cut, the slaughterhouseman,the butcher, the knife wielding bully, carnivorous, “carniza” (informal for butcher, or dog or cat meat, or a person without refinement) fleshy, “carnuza” (disgusting coarse orheaped meat), carrion,”carnero” (coward),meat (“taba”,game that consists of tossing up an animal’s anklebone, generally played by country people), butcher’s.
“The standing cattle, which has been the source of our greatest wealth, has remained the “tendón” (tendon,fig. supporting place) of civil wars, the skeleton of the Nation and the goverment’s center of scandal. There has been life underneath and within animal skin or leather.
There’s a way of trading, hiring, relating, being melancholic, loving, dancing, and looking at things shaped after this issue, whether alive or dead.
Between handling government and running “una estancia” (a ranch), between a public official and a foreman, between the city and the packinghouses there is a close similitude. They were all formed at the same time, each of the species differentiating from a nebulous whole until theyfinally break up into constellations delimited by the same zodiac figure: Taurus.
While our pilgrim parents were bent on giving shape to this world, what shape there already was in it and what was shapeless-i.e. the mold mark of that very shape-,they were really molding it after their own image.” (*)
A carnivorous country and a vegetarian artist who works packing kilograms of meat into a cart and a basket.
Marcela Astorga carves cow meat hanging on fabrics or exhibited in wood frames;she covers daily objects with “bifes de cuadrada” (steaks cut out of a square-like cut of meat),she cuts and sews a suit, gives shape to a briefcase, lines a book and flays some Barbies as gifts.
Objects, paintings, reliefs and meat packs that get together for the first time, while “something smells bad or rotten”.A comment on Argentines’ diet, a look on local gastronomy, a parody on the exuberance of meat in the national imaginary, a statement about the carnivorous habits in our history, a metaphor on the slaughter of a ravaged community, a stance on historic violence
and daily violence.
Astorga spreads the steaks on the table, and among plastic packs, carts and family baskets, sets about using the knife and cutting the flesh once more.Her meat chunks look bright and healthy, until the bloody recurrence triggers the first discomfort, the first revolting disgust, and the piled up and finally cut corpses take on the density of a memory that can trace the smell and the
mooings of so many slaughters, of so many cows in the slaughterhouse andso many beheadings.
Her domestic chores, her supermarket shelves, her actions in the kitchen star confusing us;the great national lavish banquet becomes uneasy and restless
and “something smells rotten”;and this is not due toMarcela Astorga’s steaks, so obscene and bright in their freshpacks.The abundance makes us doubt and the sharp action reiterates the cutting;and the excessive presence of meat disturbs us. It disturbs us quite enough so as to look back once and twice again and wonder about some guests’ manners, who -without any
apparent digestive discomfort- are willing to resume the banquet.
When we finally get used to being almost vegetarians and light food looks like the most abundant of all in the different markets of the same trade;and diet food is the best choice at the best price,Marcela Astorga insists on so many red proteins that digestion is bound to be difficult or slow. Perhaps hers is the only possible diet to survive in the country “with the best meat in the
Marcelo E. Pacheco, Buenos Aires,May 1998
(*) Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Pampa X-ray
Marcelo E. Pacheco is a professor and graduate in History of the Arts (UBA) and an independent researcher. He has participated as a curator and co-curator in exhibitions of Argentine and Latin American art in the country and abroad.
On the Idea of Surfaces
Someone—it may have been Paul Valery— once said that the surface is mankind’s most profound aspect. Only a poet would say such a thing although in truth it might have been just about anyone, given that time erases all and changes everything in its path. So many things are said; some are recorded in books, texts and conferences while others disappear into thin air, lost in silence and that void where memory does not reach, the Alzheimer’s of the universe. Yet all those lost words and forgotten desires are what we really live on. The other words, the ones written for posterity, are not the same ones that the authors who sign them really pronounced. They may seem similar on the surface, but the context, intention, tone, volume and especially the subtlety, that simply cannot be found in a quote… all these things have been lost over time, in the comings and goings of those words that were once sublime. Worn down by word of mouth and passing from text to text to text and from one quote to another, what remains is only an empty, often strange, form.
I don’t like quotes, but they are undoubtedly a help to any writer. They help out in texts where one is obliged to express in words things that cannot be explained and to do so without the assistance of tone or gesture. It is much like love, which we also kill with words. Like art, which escapes between the lines, like anything essential, like everything we feel close to our inner core where words are unnecessary. Words, however, are what allow us to believe that we understand one another; words are what we use to communicate with one another and attempt to enclose, delimit and explain everything we are and everything around us. How, then, can we speak of surfaces as they softly brush by, of their unfathomable strength? Marcela Astorga’s work deals with surfaces, that profound, absolute aspect of a thing that can only be found in its skin. Her work distances itself from words just as it draws close to surfaces. Nevertheless, artists do need words, or at least that is what they think. Their work, however, has no need for them at all. An artist needs words in order to make a book, so that their buyers and gallerists and curators will pay closer attention, see how many people have written about him or her, and take note of what wonderful things have been said about his or her work. But the work lives on in the self-absorbed silence that pertains to all things.
It is very difficult to approach a work of art and try to talk about it, to situate it within a handful of phrases. That’s why critics have died out and that’s why no one understands what curators say and that’s why artists look for poets and writers to perform the task of simultaneous interpretation between their works and unspecified audiences. At any rate, I do know that words are sometimes not enough.
The first time I saw a small piece by Astorga, what caught my eye was how she used a row of hairs to draw the outer border of an architectural space. Hair is something that only exists on bodies’ surface, it is found only on the skin, which is by definition the most exposed, most external part of our surface or the surface of any animal. That drawing of the gallery’s floor plan stuck in my mind in spite of the fact that it was black and white and minimal in size; yet it was a work that defined a particular way of doing things. No words were needed there although one obviously could have spoken of Meret Oppenhiem, of Surrealism in today’s art, of life and death, the relationship between the organic and the inorganic, the importance of the mark that architecture leaves upon us, or how an inhabited space is turned into an abstract object, isolated from its canon… I said nothing. I never say anything when I see an artist’s works, and even less if the artist happens to be present. That image has stayed with me since that first moment, however, though quite a few years have passed and in spite of having seen many other works of art, dozens of exhibitions and thousands of images since. That small piece is a silent cry that has no need for words or translations to remain pertinent. It is, in and of itself, an entire dictionary of sensations and feelings, of ideas, of creative proposals. It is, very simply put, a work of art.
When her endless straps of familiar, everyday leather wind around a column or beam or piece of a wall, they make up part of a real body. They are marking the outline of the invisible man. The bordering surface of skin obliges us to focus on what it covers. A body. This was the second piece by Marcela Astorga that I saw, a couple of years later. Once again, the sensations are what I remember. The piece was in a group show, without a catalog. That was a stroke of luck. With nothing to read, it was only a matter of looking, circling the column, identifying the tactile aspect of the skin, feeling the full measure of the space in one’s arms, in an impossible embrace… There they were, those straps in the middle of the space, wrapped around a column that surely must have resulted bothersome to all the other artists and curators, an obstacle, until Marcela came along and saw it. Her work saw it and knew it was just made to embrace that body, that column, to resignify the surrounding space. Once again the focus was on architecture and its exterior, the surface of things and bodies’ outermost surface.
Naturally, this work has more than one reading, because no truly serious work has only one reading, but many readings, almost as many as there are individuals who interact with it. These readings are fragmented and incomplete, related to every viewer or spectator’s own life, particular feelings and experience. This is how art communicates, how a work of art relates to those who observe it: doubt, uncertainty, surprise and questioning serve as the point of departure for a subjective and apparently strange relationship with a thing that is different, based on that very dissimilarity and lack of certainly. Aesthetic experiences emerge from this relationship: a sensual, complicit relationship of sorts that arises between the viewer and the work. The artist, however, continues to work along lines that have much more to do with things’ inexorable destiny—though he or she may look for some theoretical underpinning or programmatic justification—the self’s obsessive drive to bring what is hidden in the darkest corner of memory, the heart or the mind to light.
Astorga works with the surface of things, but she also works with bodies’ surface, from her pieces with leather straps, hides or drawings with hair to her installations and actions in abandoned buildings. These small rooms destined to disappear are bodies nearing their end, their death. The light that enters through apertures introduced by the artist in the ceiling or walls constitutes the last gasp of life that this place—this body—can hope to experience. The artist has bandaged this body, covering its old skin with a new one made of thin gauze, like a nurse attempting to alleviate the unsoothable pain of a burn victim’s body. This work with surfaces inevitably remits us to our own bodies and our own pain, to our corporal existence that we sometimes purport to delegate in technology, experience at a distance or the tranquility that drugs can provide. In any case it is useless to seek distance from ourselves because in the end there is always a body, and that body is covered by skin and its surface is as vulnerable as every one of us. It is in this territory that my understanding of Marcela Astorga’s work lies, and it is in this work that her production has ties to the idea of ruins. Marc Augé holds that ruins are the direct opposite of a non-place. A ruin is the footprint that a life, a history and a past leave behind. There is dignity and beauty to be found in a ruin. The empty spaces that Astorga sees off with the gesture of her installations are still inhabited by anonymous histories of use and of those who have passed through them. They are not history’s grand buildings, but those of simple beings and everyday lives, small stories featuring nearby bodies.
The body and space, the individual and its container, everyday architecture and our own selves are always the issue. It is always the same idea of caressing the surface, protecting and defining absent bodies. This is because sensation resides in the skin; the essence of creation, suffering and love is in that slight, grazing contact that puts hairs on end. Therein lays the essence of loneliness and lost encounters. The thing is that as the poet said, nothing is more profound than the skin, the surface that covers all, in direct communication with the essential pulse of life and art.
Mexico City. August 24, 2014
Rosa Olivares is an Spanish editor, writer, journalist, art critic and independent curator
Another Collapse in the City
Since the start of the 2010s, the record of building collapses adjacent to construction projects has risen exponentially despite the drop in recent indices of building activity. Over these years journalistic chronicles have abounded in images of residents facing the worn-out structures that fail to house them. In the scene of collapse what is duly kept separate in usual circumstances lies heaped together: concrete, brick, and bent iron bars engulfs mattresses, furniture, clothing, electrical appliances and even the occasional pet not spared by the catastrophe. These accidents are the symptom of a city which hastily sloughs off its skin. And this symptom disrupts the exchange forms surrounding those coveted square meters.
Today the gallery’s exhibition space is populated by various fragments of buildings which we can imagine as bordering on those deep holes recently gouged into the earth. We don’t know the origin of these pieces of rubble: we don’t if it is a collapse caused by carelessness, a remodeling, or a highly technicized implosion that has led to their current form. Held together by wires, sustained by metal structures, even intervened in by bright prostheses, they rest on their foundations. These shards are affected no more by deterioration, or the action of the climate or of bulldozers. Or, for that matter, by renovations, water erosion or urban vandalism. They are surviving witnesses that Marcela Astorga has chosen to salvage, and in a certain sense to heal, placing them on the perimeters of her minute material explorations.
At the start of the ’90s Astorga was also working with inert sectioned slices of the circuits that kept them alive: beef in its pictorial representation. In line with investigations like those of Cristina Piffer, and the prior example of Luis Fernando Benedit, she found in the meat industry a key strand for moving through a framework of imaginaires, habits, institutions and modes of production. Between the pictorial sensuality of the dead fabric and its sickening small, a dense territory was made visible. To paraphrase Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, in the nation’s history of standing cattle we find the tendon that goes through the founding of the State, the integration of this region as a terminal of world capitalism as well as the day-to-day ritual of our meat diet, together with a prolific local lexicon linked to its consumption. We are of flesh.
Since that inaugural work, Astorga has steadily taken millimetric, concentrated steps: from meat to leather, from leather to hair. In the first years of the new century she was drafting nebulous landscapes, using the tones she obtained from combining strips of raw leather in a gesture of minimal intervention. The soft texture of the cowhide persistently appeared in pieces that were limited to exhibiting, without descriptive detail, the surface of the material subjected to the scrutiny of the gaze. Also in those years she took, from the army remnants market, leather leashes and covered over columns, making outline figures of houses and urban silhouettes. These works began to be the backbone of a subterranean link between the surface of the body and the vast domestic environment that contains us. Another recurrent item were the horsehair bristles she also let fall or cling to everyday objects such as a pillow or a pair of shoes. The bristles continued being projected until they reached the architectural plans of those great machines of vision, the galleries of museums. There, the folkloric material hugged the outlines of devices that were feeding the planet-wide expansion of the art industry.
At nearly the end of that decade, Astorga had an experience which strongly marked her current explorations. We can imagine ourselves submerged in the penumbra of an abandoned building; there, we’ve alarmed by the sharp noise of blows on the roof of the ruined structure. After a certain impact of sound, we’ve perceived the fall of concrete, and a small orifice opened up, flooding the area with light, exposing to view its hardened skin. In the series of actions Óculo [Oculus], the founding violence of these fractures paradoxically allowed us to understand the anthropological dimension of these settings which are so extremely near to us, in which we pass our hours and find refuge. At the same time the artist made present the everyday catastrophe of a city caving in and being built up again, convulsed by the transactions and disputes that surround the ownership of grounds.
This project showed once more a certain central procedure in Astorga’s modus operandi: execution of some concrete material action that allows for the illumination of an archaeological scene with threads the environment of what lies near us with the vast horizon of collective convulsions. Today these vestiges have been recovered yet they also lie definitively disconnected from their original locations. They are served up to a sustained observation. First they were extirpated, sectioned off, amputated. Now they are preserved, composed, cur(at)ed. Between destruction and their recuperation, the pieces of rubble decide to tell something – a story, perhaps, of the imminence of collapse.
Federico Baeza. Buenos Aires, July 2017
Federico Baeza is a Doctor in the Theory and History of the Arts (UBA). He is a researcher, professor and curator specializing in contemporary art.