Not Body, but Person

Curator Abril Zales and artist Calixto Ramírez converse about the body as a tool for art and resistance, the impact of the daily gesture, and the power of the singular within a body-collective.

Not Body, but Person

Exposing the body is also an exercise in resistance. An exercise that is strengthened when the body-individual is de-configured as such and is assumed into a body-collective, a body made up of many bodies. In other words, taking on the power of the singular within a body-collective, in the plural, not only reinforces visibility in terms of dimension, but also in terms of complicity, protection, and companionship. Thus, exposing the body implies making its organization, its physicality and subjectivity, vulnerable in order to reveal its power.
Some of the questions that knit together this conversation seek to emphasize the conjoined dialogue; to leave aside third person narratives that tend to become alien and, like the handprint inside a cave, become first-person narrators; to understand the body far from the individual “I” and to reconsider it as a function of collectivity, as an emergence. Vulnerability is power.
Abril Zales: Calixto, you trained at the art school Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” (National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Printing) in Mexico City (2004-2008) seeking to work as a painter. During this educational period, you began to develop your work through your own body, a practice which has provided you with a way to anchor yourself to the physical spaces where you happen to find yourself, be it a natural or architectural environment, in order to transform it using your body. More than just representing, you present us with a possible reality under the eye of the camera, a perspective that seems to derive from an ontological interest.
Even if your use of the body is constant in your work, you do not consider yourself a performance artist. Far from a pictorial interest, you focus on action and in past conversations, you have returned to the example of cave paintings, specifically the handprints that appear on the stones. From this quantum jump from prehistoric times to the present, how do you move between the pictorial and the corporeal?
Calixto Ramírez: We make the mistake of understanding time linearly; in reality there is no gigantic leap between the present and prehistoric times. A handprint in a cave continues to be a current way of justifying our existence. The selfie could be characterized as the same thing, an attempt to justify our same existence before a world that reveals itself to be a great void.
My transition from the pictorial and the corporeal has been a process of almost thirteen years. It’s true that I began painting, perhaps influenced by the spirit of Romanticism, and this led me to question what medium could permit me to take my work with me in a life of travel. Other types of questions also emerged: in what way and from which spaces could I produce in such a way that involved an “other” audience? What language could I use for it? Where does the work take place, in public space or through its documentation? These initial questions caused me to transition from one medium to another and to begin exploring non-objectual sculpture, which in turn led me to use photography and video in relation to the movement or stillness of my body.
This transition, which included a student exchange trip to Bogota during my degree, led me to understand that my body, like the brush and oil paint, is also a tool. I returned from Colombia with only the pieces that my body could carry, mainly videos of actions and photographic documentation of sitespecific interventions.
Using the body as a tool puts together my works that occupy the ontological horizon that you mentioned before. How I use and show my body enables a reading in which it is impossible to evade my way of being in this world. In my case, to borrow a phrase for Luis Sepúlveda’s novel Un viejo que leía novelas de amor but substituting the verb “to make” for the verb “to love”: “To make for the sake of making without any other purpose than making.” That is to say, one simply makes, and the inaction also makes, as happens in several of my works. There is nothing more ontological than this, except maybe Descartes’s dictum, I think therefore I am. This brings me back to the cave handprints. This simple gesture acknowledges the certainty of the body as a presence and provides the possibility for justifying existence. Therein lies the great power of the body. Who am I? Is it perhaps necessary to adjust to that other that exists outside of one’s body in order to organically inhabit this world?

AZ: I agree with the power of the living body to which you refer regarding its presence—that which the daily gesture complements, reinforcing it through a particular context and political exercise.
During very specific decades of the twentieth century, art moved from the pictorial gesture towards embodiment. The explicit visibility of the artist’s body, the use of bodily fluids, the transgression of physical and psychological limits redefined the body’s presence in art, not from contemplation or the pictorial, but from action. The aforementioned reveals the urgency of questioning the re/presented body and its social implications—in terms of class, race, sex, identity, power—empowered by an action that, wrapped in this temporal context, drew strength from the poetic to manifest itself.
Thinking about these manifestations of the live, physical body and taking into account the current context of political instability and polarization and the social anesthesia that divides us and that is injected into us via banal entertainment, how do you approach the qualities and commitments of working with your body? What is the reach of the message (from the body) and what are the implications for the medium (photography or video)?
CR: I started to work with my body out of a necessity of movement, an economy of mediums, the immediacy and practicality that working with the body—which, together with the camera, is one of my main tools—offers.
In the works I create, my interest in the body comes from the simplest, most banal and ordinary gestures. From this position, ironically, I seek to generate a disequilibrium through the radicality that we can find in our daily body language as an answer to the political siege of an unbalanced society, such as the Mexican one. If life is subjected to hypervelocity, which is in part the cause for this state of disequilibrium in which we find ourselves, there is nothing more radical than immobility, the “I would prefer not to” of Bartleby the Scrivener, one of Herman Melville’s characters.
Maybe that is why I bet on and find strength in ordinary actions: they bring us closer to a sense of belonging with others. We come back to the handprint. Beyond oral and written language, it is an individual expression that makes possible pack-recognition. This enables the possibility of opening communication. In the case of my work, I do not limit my pieces using a specialized language, even in those which involve multiple reading levels. The reach that photography and video bring in terms of their ability for reproduction creates an echo in the actions; they enhance their duration. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this reach comes from the medium of technology, but rather from the way the body uses it, this other medium.
AZ: Apart from the socio-political context that we were talking about, space-time in particular also exerts an incisive domination on bodies—the political siege that you mentioned, where public or private institutions and these space’s construction condition our behavior and movement. There is a sort of imposed choreography that limits the socio-collective body.
These impositions enhance performance as a disruptive practice where the body is a core element. I would like us to pause in subtlety, the quotidian, and the potential of these actions, and how you formulate them in your work.
CR: They have made us believe that ordinary actions do not have the capacity to be transformative because of their apparent banality. Actions that every person can do—sweep, jump, dance, exhale, press with their hands, or shout to generate an echo—allow us to find ourselves in that which is in front of us and which passes us by unnoticed because it has been normalized and naturalized.
Through the symbolic and the metaphorical, art—in the case of performance—allows us to change reality and to detonate a reflection of the body out of our instincts. Therein lies the possibility of connecting with the spectators, through gestures that are recognized as achievable.
AZ: Continuing with the idea of imposed choreographies and the link with the spectator, could we say that the global context encourages immobility, disappearance? Do you think that this condition generates points of impact between the language-code of the ordinary gesture and the narratives that are generated out of it?
CR: For example, Dicen que dicen (2014) [1] is an action recorded in video lasting barely thirty-one seconds, where the frame contains a stage produced by the evident stillness that results from the chromatic cut between a cool color (the sky) and a warm one (the sand). This composition is violently shattered by a body running away from something—no one knows exactly from what or why. At the end, the body falls.
The micro-action of the fall is a metaphor to talk about a context that continuously forces risky escape; it could be that of drug trafficking in Mexico, that of the mafias in Italy, or that of the Moroccan, where I made this video. Dicen que dicen relates something that a friend told me had happened to the cousin of a friend, but someone else also had another version of the story: the impossibility of knowing what really happened. The interpretation of the geographical dislocation in relation to the gesture situates us in a non-place, at the same time that it augments the level of confusion in which we find ourselves.
Another work that explores the idea of the ordinary gesture as a latency between the material and the immaterial, the memory of the architectural, is Washington y Platón Sánchez (2011) [2], an action I conducted in Monterrey. I took the demolition of an ancient house in the historic quarter as context, referring to the global problem that insists on tearing down the city and its architectural heritage and constructing nondescript buildings and standardizing spaces in the interest of developers. The gestures in the performance copy the daily acts performed by neighbors, who come out to sweep the sidewalk in front of their houses. In this case, the action does not search to clean but to reveal the tiles of what used to be a house and which later became an OXXO. A sort of urban archeological excavation.

AZ: These works contrast with actions that involve using the live-body in a specific site where you cannot control the context. With the instability that comes with live acting, you must take into account certain audiovisual strategies (planning, framing, and composition) and begin narratives with partial information in order to allow the spectator to imagine other possibilities and outcomes. From which specific projects do you make evident the narrative, performative fragmentation, and disappearance through the intervention of the body?
CR: I would like to mention one of the few pieces that I have made that is really performatic, in the sense that it was in front of an audience and not performed for the camera lens: Sin título (2016). Held in smART Polo per il Arte, in Rome, I hid myself behind a curtain inside the exhibition space for two hours during the opening. The audience searched for the area where the performance was to take place and it was the toddlers in the audience who informed the adults that there was something happening behind what appeared to be the main space. The performance drew inspiration from the popular game of hide and seek as a way to enable another approach to disappearance. In a similar way to that of my photograph Manca (2015), it wasn’t only the disappearance, but the fragmentation of the body that allowed for the approach to the theme of current violence, in this case, in Mexico.
Using the body does not mean that it has to be present. The time-sculptures that I create have their own performatic character because they often are the result of an action, nevertheless, they are destroyed as they are created. They are sculptures that reveal a body through its absence. For example, Un sasso sulla scarpa (2015) [3] is a piece consisting of wood with sand, with a shoe buried in it, and a fan. The fan sculpts the sand and reveals the presence of the shoe with the passing of time, and the shoe in turn marks the absence of the body. It is a time-sculpture of the tragic. A poetics that criticizes a country full of clandestine graves filled with human bodies.
AZ: To conclude, let’s talk about your most recent project in the city of Monterrey. The curatorial program for Desde el cuerpo, la tangente (2018-2019) centers on works created from and through the body and corporality. With an interest on the spectators’ bodies and the possibility of transit and movement, the piece encourages the audience to move beyond the exhibition space in service of the project. For this program, we worked together on the project Puño de tierra in January and February of this year. Under this curatorial discourse, we spent twenty-two days at the Escuela Superior de Música y Danza de Monterrey—one of the few eighteenth-century constructions left in the city—where we implemented a site-specific intervention [4] that was exhibited for a day. Our idea was that the project would expand itself beyond its architectural container, so Puño de tierra continued in La Cresta (five kilometers from the Escuela Superior), with a more traditional exhibition format featuring photographs and sculptures that were also produced at the Escuela. This continuation of the project did not aim to translate the pieces from one architectural space to another, but to invite the audience to traverse the city to end with the exhibition, thus completing their journey; something similar to touring exhibition galleries, but with all the chaos and traffic of the city in between.
In your practice, working with different spaces and diverse contexts is common. How does this invite the spectators to reconsider their experience of/with art in relation to the body and corporality? Do you think that this can be a destabilizing element for the spectator as well as for traditional exhibition formats in Monterrey— specifically for the exhibitions that take place “in the wall,” under the premise of the white cube, and generally in institutionalized spaces?
CR: I don’t know if it’s destabilizing in general terms. In that sense, maybe it was in the context of Monterrey, since a good part of the audience came predisposed to the contemplative. The audience did not know what to do since the pieces where not placed in a white cube as normally happens. It was necessary to encourage them to go through the Escuela so that they would recognize the displaced pieces in relation to the architectural space inhabited by the daily activities of the students and teachers within the context of the school itself, in terms of the auditory and the visual, but also in terms of the performativity of habits, apparently ordinary gestures, and repetition. Adding the displacement of another location in the city to this initiative in order to complete the viewing of the exhibition, one sets up another dynamic, through which the audience can reconsider their experience of art through their own body as it travels through three spaces (the Escuela, La Cresta, and the city)—spaces that are more than mere containers that create a relationship between spaces and pieces—thus, moving away from the restraints of the white cube.
I would like to think that, for the spectator, Puño de tierra could be a revelation, not so much because of the work that was exhibited, but because of the sum of the different sensorial elements. In other words, the spaces inhabited, the displacement, and the experience of being in contact with a city that is constantly transforming itself and us.

Despite this and at the same time, the question remains, is it possible for art to impact those who experience it? I think it is worth trying in every way possible. Something has to happen!


  1. Video available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/112223238 [Consulted on May 31, 2019].

  2. Video available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/100600203 [Consulted on May 31, 2019].

  3. Video available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/230604020 [Consulted on May 31, 2019]

  4. Some interventions of Puño de tierra are availble on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/317853644.

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