Héctor Velázquez
Unfolding bodies, inverted dichotomies: the work of Héctor Velázquez Gutiérrez
Karen Cordero Reima

From its earliest stages, the work of Héctor Velázquez has centered on the exploration of the body as a signifying unit, as well as on probing the limits of individual identity and the integration of the senses, thus challenging the base concepts of the aesthetic exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”. He questions the role played by the senses in the constitution of human experience, exploring the metaphorical potential of their iconography, and at the same time appealing to them in a very physical manner. Likewise, his sculpture seeks to establish a dialogue with previously-held notions concerning the body, representing genealogical and affective ties through the sharing or intertwining of bodies.

The first time I saw one of his pieces–although it was only later that I linked it to his professional development and authorship— was in 1993, at 44 Temístocles Street in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, in a house which had been temporarily loaned to a group of young artists who organized collective exhibitions of installations. In the kitchen, a series of piled up bags of soil emerged from an opening in the wall (originally intended as a passageway to other rooms), invading the everyday domestic space, as if they could no longer contain themselves–a phallic intrusion in a traditionally female environment, and also an inversion of the spatial conventions codified by traditional gender roles. The architectural framework expelled the bags of soil, as if it were a kind of bodily orifice. This ephemeral piece—which survives today only in the form of photographic documentation— effectively evoked tactility and movement, energy and impulse, through the disposition of a few, rather simple elements.  The work recalls the feminist transformation of Womanhouse—organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in the 1970’s–, a project that gave three-dimensional artistic form to female experience;  Héctor Velázquez’s installation, however, rather than enunciating sexual difference and articulating its social manifestations, transgressed and questioned those limits, challenging and expressing a dissatisfaction with these dichotomies, an aspect that characterizes his work to date. In contrast to the cerebral manipulation of the precepts and icons of male conceptual art (Duchamp, Smithson), by his contemporaries that shared the exhibition space, in Velázquez’s work the body emerged as the protagonist.

Indeed, his creative process since the 1990’s remits us to a longing for the child’s bodily union with the mother, to the pain of severance that puts an end to the period during which the human body literally forms part of another, where the separation from the other does not exist, and where the dichotomy of the sexes, of the masculine and the feminine, is not operative.   Another of Velázquez’s early pieces, titled Aparatos eléctricos para vivir (“Electronic apparatuses for living”), clearly expresses this desire with a hint of irony, combining an idyllic photographic image of a mother and child (with the stereotypical idealization that characterizes images used in advertisements) and a representation of his own body wearing a strange creation –a white outfit that is somewhere between a scuba suit and medical garb (he who penetrates aquatic surfaces and he who maintains scientific distance); the suit exteriorizes a circulatory system of vital sustenance, a sort of artificial umbilical chord  that facilitates corporeal autonomy while simultaneously evidencing its fictional status.  Charité, a piece produced in1995 and shown in the 1997 exhibition titled Las transgresiones al cuerpo (“Bodily transgressions”) at the Carrillo Gil Museum (Mexico City), underlines the author’s interest in the metaphor of medicine and its apparatuses, as vehicles which seek to maintain and reinforce the body’s functions, while at the same time generating a sense of alienation from the visceral body.

Other pieces by Velázquez from the 1990’s create a distinctive marriage between performance and land art., reinforcing a metaphorical relationship between the body and the landscape that is fundamental for his future production. In a piece made during his days as a sculpture student in Stuttgart, he literally wraps his body with bags of soil that are reminiscent of a giant intestine; again suggesting an inversion of the relationship between the inside and the outside, the visible and the invisible, another element that persists and is further developed in his later work.  In addition, in this piece, the rather ambiguous affective ties between the human body and its “wrapping” (Does it embrace him? Does it strangle him? Does have a prosthetic function? Is it a parasite?) introduce the theme of  monstrosity and mutation, subjects that subtly unfold as an axis of expression in Velázquez’s ensuing artistic explorations.

The series entitled Cabinas (“Booths”, 2002) is of particular eloquence in this same sense: a head with shut or sunken eyes connects to a mouth, or to two ears. Here the body is deconstructed in its component parts and the elements most closely linked to the exercise of the senses and expression, are recomposed in order to create a machine-like construct that emulates the perception-communication process. On the other hand, in the Topografías series (“Topographies”, 2003), a multitude of hands are gathered to create “landscapes”, in a representation that defies and transgresses both the integrity and the sense of isolation of the human body, emphasizing its simultaneous connection with the natural-material context and with other bodies.  The work seeks to reconstitute our original integration with others, while at the same time underscoring the utopian and fantastic nature of this possibility. Synecdoche, the part that symbolizes the whole, is, in this case, Velázquez’s vehicle for the production of meaning.

During these same years, the Gritos series and En silencio (“Cries” and “In Silence”), both from 2002, make reference to the bodily production and reception of sound, appealing to our phenomenological identification with these representations. In the first series, open mouths flanked by nose and chin, merge from carmine-colored globes that, suspended in space and devoid of dialogical relationships, symbolically fill the void with sonorous expressions of anguish and desperation. On the other hand, in En silencio, the busts –of a broad range of colors and assuming contemplative postures, with shut eyes and with ears turned inward— produce a certain energetic harmony that alludes to dance and to non-verbal communication. The use, in the same period, of these expressive contrasts and constants, reflects a multifaceted exploration that pushes to its limits the use of the body as a vehicle of sculptural signification. With a slight shift in gesture, color, and mode of interaction, for example, the stylized, disembodies heads of Gritos are reconfigured in the piece entitled Beso (“Kiss”), where seemingly opposing emotions of desire and identification are evoked; in Células para la memoria (“Memory Cells”, 2004) the mouths come together, much like the hands in Topografías, to suggest a spiritual and neurobiological union, thus completing an exemplary semiotic-artistic exercise.

The combination of techniques in Velázquez’s work, and his digression from conventional sculptural processes, also establishes a distinctive relationship with time, history and myth. Since 2002, his work has combined the use of molds and the modeling of the human figure (a prerogative of masculine divinity in the Judeo-Christian tradition) with the use of yarn, a material generally associated with female labor, in the Western context.   He adopts the technique employed in the “yarn-paintings” produced in the Huichol indigenous community, the nierika–representations of the Huichol cosmogony made by shamans, healers or priests (mara’kames),–and takes up both their example of the male’s usage of thread and yarn, and that of the mystical process of allowing shape and meaning to slowly emerge, in a temporal and tactile experience that contrasts with modern-day acceleration and abrupt or decisive intervention.  In addition, his technique recalls–in terms of Western tradition—Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey, weaving and unweaving a shroud in order to pass the time while she waited for her husband to return from the war, as well as to ward off other suitors, thus maintaining her fidelity and her marital union.  It resuscitates a sense of a mythical time characteristic of craft production, in its process oriented, almost ritual character–accentuating the manual production of art in work that, in addition, often makes use of the hand as motif and as referent. The meaningful disposition of the line that defines his technique underlines the conceptual correspondence between sculpture, drawing and writing.

The project entitled Xipe Totec (2002 to date) takes into account, in a more complex manner, several of the elements described above, linking them with a new iconographic referent: the god of the corn harvest who is, in turn, one of the pre-Hispanic gods of war, culture and art. Velázquez adopts, reinterprets and reformulates, from a contemporary perspective, the spring ritual in which an offering was made to Xipe Totec, and according to which blood rejuvenates and renews the earth, man, society, and the god himself. In the ceremony held in honor of the Xipe Totec, called the Tlacaxipehualiztli (the flaying of men), carried out during the corn planting season, a sacrifice took place where the priest would skin the sacrificial victim and dress with his skin for a period of twenty days, an act which symbolized the renovation of the earth with the beginning of the agricultural cycle. Rather than drawing directly on artistic representations of Xipe Totec, Velázquez transfers this concept from a cosmological plane, to an intimate and subjective one, reflecting the overlapping of his corporeal and psychological identity with that of the people close to him—symbolized by the taking on or inhabiting of the skin of another;  the importance of the “other” in the building of  one’s “own” self, thus becomes physically manifest, as does the enrichment and fertilization of the “self” with the relinquishment of one’s physical and spiritual isolation.

In the first works of this series, the hands and feet once again play a central role; fragments of the author’s body are combined with those of his interlocutors in order to produce a single sculptural body, and red and purple tones dominate the coloristic scheme in an apparent allusion to the symbolism of blood as an element of renovation. The paired hands –echoing a characteristic trope of the representations of the Xipe Totec (for example, in the Borbonic Codex)— are intertwined in different gestural configurations, suggesting the different aspects of identification in each case: through sharing, protection, or the longing for protection. In the works based on faces, one contains the other, and the “open” eyes of the external figure are “inhabited” by the shut eyes of the artist, in a symbolic fusion of vision and conscience. Once again, as in En silencio, the accent is placed on inner vision, in contrast with the ocular paradigm that dominates the contemporary Western world. The work echoes the concept of continuous renovation symbolized by Xipe Totec, and as expressed by Paul Westheim: “The concept of the eternal disappears completely in light of the birth and death dynamic, which is not only a manifestation of the creative force, but informs the interpretation of all cosmic occurrences.” This initial stage of the Xipe Totec series was exhibited at the Berlin Ethnographic Museum in 2004, underlining the dialogue that it establishes with pre-Hispanic images of the god; despite its ideological distance and evident formal difference, the representations are related through the integration of the “other” into “oneself”, in order to achieve spiritual and social renewal.

After having produced this group of pieces in which he inhabits the skin of several people with whom he shares a close relationship, Velázquez has once again taken up the subject of Xipe Totec in a second part of this series:  another group of pieces in which the skin is opened out and becomes a surface for the elaboration of designs that bring to mind U.S. military camouflage, as well as the foliage patterns used by the British pre-Raphaelite artists whose work explored the relationship between man and nature. The mythological imbrication of opposites in Nahua cosmology, serves as reference for an exploration that draws not only on ancient sources, but also on science-fiction fantasy, in its interrogation of the physical and conceptual limits of the self. In a manner similar to Gerardo Suter in his multimedia photographs and installations from the 1980’s and 1990’s, Velázquez redefines and desacralizes the symbolism of pre-Hispanic art from the vantage point of the contemporary body, stressing the subjective implications of an iconographic and symbolic referent that had been traditionally subsumed in modern Mexican art as a “classic” and distant past.

Hence, Velázquez shows a clear desire to create another symbolic corpus, as well as to break with the conceptual divide between Mesoamerican and Western traditions. The latter certainly calls to mind an interest that has been manifest since the Romantics, a certain degree of Orientalism evident in the first archaeological explorations and representations. It is not by chance that these concerns should surface in a Mexican artist trained in Germany, the birthplace of Romanticism, and whose relationship with that country–both on an artistic and personal level (his wife is German)— has been continuous.  Transatlantic and transcultural relationships also imply a process of confrontation with “the foreigner within the self”–in the words of Julia Kristeva– and the consciousness, objective examination and reformulation of the identities one has taken on.

In this second part of the series, the sculptural work of Velázquez acquires a greater pictorial dimension, as it is developed mainly on a two-dimensional plane, even though relief and texture maintain their importance. The open, flayed skin–associated though not connected to the head, hands and feet—is worked in green, brown and black areas,  accentuating the aspect of the pre-Hispanic ritual that alludes to the renovation of nature and earth. The vulnerability of these “open portraits” and the incomplete or in-process character of the integration of the bodies with their natural context, is stressed: areas of black–greater in some cases than in others—give way to other foliage tones on the edges of the figures.  The pieces are reminiscent of an earlier ceramic work entitled Escultura para una guía personal de jardines (“Sculpture for a personal guide to gardens”, 2001), produced during the first of two artistic residencies in Banff, Canada, that inaugurates Velázquez’s exploration of the “open skin” motif.  In the most recent pieces of the series, Velázquez once again makes use of ceramic materials, of earth as a medium, in order to intervene surfaces allusive to the flayed skins in a more gestural and expressionist manner, as if to underline, not only in a metaphorical sense, but very literally, the process of reintegration of his work into a natural context. Likewise, this “return to the earth” recalls the central role occupied by this material in his earlier work, underlining a cyclical quality that echoes the symbolic narrative of Nahua mythology.

Thus, the unfolding of the body, as well as its inversion and redefinition, takes on diverse guises in the work of Héctor Velázquez, confirming the conceptual richness and multiple shades of meaning unleashed by the formal and iconographical vocabulary employed in his work, and boding a continued fertility in the future explorations that it may generate.