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Pandemic Times: Nothing New Under the Venezuelan Sky

[Versión en español más abajo] 

Originally published in Tráfico Visual on May 11, 2020



(…) The plague will deprive me of voices that are mine,

I will have to reinvent every gesture, every word


Eugenio Montejo




The sick boy (1886), Arturo Michelena



A mass grave in New York, more than 75,000 deaths in Europe, quarantine orders and the global emergency alert in the middle of 2020: these are facts that remind us once again that what was once archaic is not alien to contemporary times. With the appearance of a new pandemic that harasses humanity, the international panorama increases in complexity and contradictions to bring us closer to the frequent medieval references of the plague, meanwhile, we narrate individually our own stories of isolation, worry, fear of the other and scarcity of food in the tragicomic environment of a future seen from the Decameron of our present times, in which (as in the creation of Bocaccio) despite death, love, human intelligence and fortune continue to exist.




Along with Ebola, avian influenza, Zika and chikungunya, the new coronavirus (COVID-19) joins the list of massive diseases with a current global presence, the infections in many of the countries to which it has reached being unexpected and unprecedented. However, pandemics are not a new topic for Venezuela: if we briefly review history, we can find episodes such as the smallpox outbreak of 1580 which exterminated a large part of the Caracas indigenous people, the nineteenth-century tuberculosis outbreak and the continuous waves of the bubonic plague between 1908 and 1919, which happened close to the influenza outbreak that killed 1% of the population of the capital and the spread of malaria, to count just a few. All fought, many won, the current century shows that the great achievements of a State with the goal to progress have been left behind, and far from us is the ideal of a modern individual, "not only as a free economic agent ... but also as an immune body.” (Preciado, 2020).


For a long time, calamity has been a part of the Venezuelan present reality, therefore, with the return of epidemics to local territory, revisiting and resignifying images of history is made possible from the premise, that “what all images can do is represent other images.” (Foster, 2001), iconographies that are tied to referents or “real things in the world”. In our case, a fragment in continuous erosion in which - as in obscurantism - pandemic and war overlap in the daily life of decadence, knowing that, from medieval iconography, plagues and struggles have shared similarities that allow us to address them from that which makes them common: their proximity to death, in which decomposition, skeletons, subjects and animals configure the horizon of a city that closes its doors to chaos, even when the disease is already inside.


In these representations, horses push carts full of corpses, transport sick people, or are driven by riders who purvey both salvation and misfortune. However, in the midst of this referential context, an equestrian figure appears differently: Miguel von Dangel's Monument (1975–1985) stands on its hind legs to speak to us from the ambivalence of resistance to falling, of the battle or the loss, of wealth and deposition, while his discourse breaks with the existing time line between the central throne of 'The triumph of death' (Unknown author, Palazzo Abatellis, 1446) and Bolívar's victorious representations of his white beast created by Tito Salas. If the latter has painted to teach history and exalt the great Venezuelan men, contrary to and from a timeless place, von Dangel's taxidermic sculpture breaks away from the patriotic connotations and idolatries to become a monument of national tragedy, marked for the belligerence, the oil and the absence of a tamer.



Monument (1975–1985), Miguel von Dangel





Between equines and the dead, an animal flees without knowing that it carries the plague with it. This is how in the 20th century the bubonic plague arrived by boat as an unwanted passenger to Venezuela, living in black rats and transmitted through their fleas. By then, the government of Cipriano Castro managed to control (moderately) the health emergency in the port of La Guaira, after a quarantine decree and taking drastic measures, positioning itself as a clear episode of immunology in the history of our 'sovereign society ', that which according to Foucault, “manages and maximizes the life of the populations in terms of national interest.” (Preciado, 2020).


This act demonstrates that, as “all living (and therefore mortal) bodies are the central object of all politics” (idem), in times of pandemic, biopower more than ever becomes immunological, that is: it recognizes foreign elements and emits an answer, through the “establishment of a hierarchy between those bodies exempt from taxes (those who are considered immune) and those that the community perceives as potentially dangerous, and therefore, excluded in an act of protection” (idem). In this way, the management of the biological processes of populations is inevitably linked to necropolitical approaches, a way in which to kill or to let live makes us question the limits of the sovereignty of a territory.


In her series Experiment with rat # 4 (2012), Dianora Pérez-Montilla reflects and explores about these limits, the interstices between biopolitics (the control of existence through life and its improvements) and necropolitics (the control of life through death and its possibilities), experimentation in which the artist manipulates, opens and delves into the corpse of a rodent through macro-photography, a strategy with which she registers an unorthodox method of taxidermy by means of a journal and archive process. “In what concrete conditions is that power to kill, to let live or to expose oneself to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right?”, asks Mbembe (2001). The visual products of Pérez-Montilla's essay could give him an answer, turning into representations of recognizable situations for Venezuelans before a State that "has managed, protected and cultivated life coextensive with the sovereign right to kill" (ditto).


Experiment with rat #4 (2012), Dianora Pérez–Montilla



The fictionalized notion of an enemy is also present in the theories of Mbembe, who affirms - and thereby reaffirms Foucault - that the elimination of the opponent is in many cases extended in time and pain mainly to satisfy a multitude, a process in which a “new cultural sensibility arises in which killing the enemy of the State becomes the prolongation of a game (…) –where– more intimate, horrible and slow forms of cruelty appear” (2011). As an emblematic example and crucial image of our history, Miranda in the Carraca (1896) by Arturo Michelena portrays the controversial scene of a universal man, illustrious, and yet, branded as a traitor (therefore, enemy of power) after signing the capitulation of the Patriot Army in 1812. Condemned to confinement and oblivion for the rest of his life, in a punishment as intense as any other, the despair of the hero is reflected in the oil on canvas by Michelena and turned into an inescapable reference to myth and true narration of the hero, in an image in which the “secular anxiety that painfully concerns our conflictive relationship with the world and with the foreigner” is concentrated (Pérez Oramas, 2000). After a long and painful agony, Francisco de Miranda died in prison in 1816, being buried in a communal grave in the Arsenal de la Carraca cemetery.


Miranda en la Carraca (1896), Arturo Michelena



Confined in a different way, in 2013, Joao Dos Santos Correia remained kidnapped for 11 months and 3 days, a time of confinement “in a cell 2 meters high and 3 meters wide in which they placed a bed that hardly fit.” (Pérez Daza, online). The case became famous after his release, and comes to us turned into more than just a news article, to speak to us in terms of 'reality' through the Bunker (2013) of Juan Toro, under the idea that "something becomes real - for those who are in other places following it as «news» - (only) when being photographed” (Sontag, 2003).


In Toro’s series of images, something silent disturbs and bothers; this is his intention: the exhibition of an intact crime scene, in the most frank and heartbreaking way possible, from ruins and shreds, indispensable rubble to "rediscover the exact shape of the vestiges on which the social building rests” (Bourriaud, 2015). The intention to rescue memory is defended by Benjamin, who highlights the artist's duty to pay a moral debt, because revisiting the story's account is doing justice to the vanquished who lie, in disorder, “within a tingling mass grave of semi-erased stories, insinuated futures, of potential companies”.


Bunker (2013), Juan Toro





The mandatory isolation imposed in many countries after COVID-19 is, apparently, one of the most efficient ways to keep us safe in times of contagion and mortality. However, at the same time, it shows:


"the inability of some states or regions to prepare in advance, the strengthening of national policies and the closing of borders, and the arrival of businessmen eager to capitalize on global suffering, all bearing witness to the speed with which radical inequality, which includes nationalism, white supremacy, violence against women (…) find ways to reproduce and strengthen their powers within pandemic zones” (Judith Butler, 2020).


Will it ever be safe to ‘get out’ of confinement? Can we find a safe place abroad? For some people, especially women, the fear of becoming infected is no greater than that of staying at home, and this is because, in a recent UN report, it was warned that in this emergency context the risks of violence, especially domestic, against women and girls increase. Now, what does it mean to protest suffering, as opposed to just acknowledging it? In the video The wounded little wolf (El lobito herido) (1994), Sandra Vivas presents a soap opera 'promo', a direct reference - almost - to The Wounded She-wolf (La Loba Herida), a Venezuelan fiction from '92 that over 214 chapters narrates the misadventures of rape within a family circle. In the work, contrary to the generalization of these cases, Vivas assumes the leading role of an aggressive and unbalanced woman who mistreats her docile companion. Because "the desire for images that show suffering bodies is almost as strong as the desire for those that show naked bodies" (Sontag, 2003), in this way, Sandra Vivas not only establishes a critical position regarding domestic violence , but also questions the roles of men and women continually portrayed and broadcast by the supremacy of the media, hidden under romanticisms that promise "to reach a thousand stars with the hands, to see our sky more than illuminated and walk under the same footprint" (excerpt from the The Wounded She-wolf).


The wounded little wolf (1994), Sandra Vivas