New YorkPartecipant Inc.
February 3 – March 10, 2019
Viva Ruiz is the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, a Queens native, and an artist for whom showing in a gallery is the exception rather than the norm. For the last two decades, she has forged a collaborative practice in and around institutions, gracing nightclubs, telenovelas, and online spaces as equally vital forms of engagement. Most recently, her ongoing project Thank God for Abortion (TGFA) (2015 – ) appeared as a float in the 2018 New York Pride March, mobilizing a crew of dancers, activists, and performers to advocate for free, safe, and legal abortion. Ruiz’s work inhabits rich social worlds outside of the gallery, and it is a challenge to preserve their vitality inside of it. It is her deft navigation of this tension in ProAbortion Shakira: A Thank God for Abortion Introspective that makes its presentation at Participant feel joyously, dangerously alive.
The works in Ruiz’s show were originally conceived of as “practical protest gear,” and were used just a few months ago in her float at Pride. These include riot shields, protest posters, “ABORTION” flags, and t-shirts that feel fugitive in the gallery; it is not hard to imagine them getting pulled off the walls to be used imminently, given how her platform invites right-wing extremists. Two riot shields lie propped against a wall, placed directly on the floor. Gold mannequins she calls “Icons” wear TGFA “Party Looks,” custom costumes that were previously worn and are “infused with the energy of many conversations and actions.”1 Clearly, Ruiz is interested in the lives that these objects hold outside of their temporary run in the gallery. This emphasis on the use-value of the objects, on the lives they will return to,creates an atmosphere that feels immediate, providing what Ruiz calls both “safety and agitation” in the space.
This tension between safety and agitation is nowhere more evident than in the strategic language that surrounds the exhibition. The phrase “Thank God for Abortion” is a precise linguistic intervention that juxtaposes rhetoric so often used against abortion in direct proximity to its advocacy. It is a speech utterance that, in its repetition in various media, works to rewire our dominant cultural associations. Others phrases, like “God loves me, and blesses the two abortions I had” recounted in an Artforum interview,2 or “We are already the miracle of life,” installed on a wall in the gallery, register with cognitive delay: you have to read them twice to grasp them. This delay is evidence of residual stigma, and Ruiz’s language works to condition our ears to a world where those phrases are commonplace. Her project hopes to bring about the conditions of its own redundancy, a future where claims to bodily autonomy are a self-evident, even boring, platform.
Much of Ruiz’s work is indebted to her experiences as a nightlife organizer and as a member of activist circles, and those social worlds press themselves into the gallery in a mix of spirituality and pleasure. Three “Icon” mannequins pose in mid-rave or mid-rapture, hands in the air, hips cocked, with elaborate headdresses evoking both the Pope and drag performance at once. Hung high on the back wall of the gallery, a neon-lit dove (the graphic symbol for TGFA) occupies the place of a cross. This church-like atmosphere serves as a backdrop for a series of discussions moderated by Ruiz, featuring speakers from Planned Parenthood, New York Abortion Access Fund, and Shout Your Abortion. These “TGFA TV Talk Show Sunday Prayer Hours” give a sense of the partners that she aligns her artistic practice with, as well as the constituencies that she serves. Ruiz’s long-time investment in these circles evidence a trajectory that does not hold museum/gallery display as its target; rather, the show is like a pit-stop, a garage to hold her stuff, a fabulous floating-through.
In this touch-and-go relationship to the institution, she articulates a way of engaging with cultural institutions that feels apt in a moment where their funding structures feel more fraught than ever. She’s here for the resources, but she’s not interested in your retrospective. By emphasizing the use-value of her works and foregrounding the primacy of the social worlds these objects live in and will return to, she aligns herself in a long lineage of community-based work that existed far before the rhetorical gymnastics that modernism had to flex to arrive at “social practice.” It’s a potent critique because it’s not really a critique; it’s against having to be against the institution at all. The contradiction of art historical institutional critique, as articulated by now-canonized artists like Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke, was not that it was swallowed by the institution, but that it married itself to the museum. By making the crux of their practice wholly dependent on the object of its animus, it melded itself in an odd, unhappy marriage. For Ruiz, it’s not so much institutional critique as much as indifference towards a project that enacted (and continues to enact) countless acts of violence against her ancestors and friends; she has her own projects to attend to. Ruiz is single, free, and flirty, and this gallery show is a one-night stand where she steals from her lover.
Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is a 2018-2019 Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and serves as the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute.