April 25 – End May 25, 2019
When you step into P.P.O.W. throughout the run of Carlos Motta’s video Corpo Fechado: The Devil’s Work (2018), you might encounter an unclothed man, speaking directly to the camera, compassionately declaring in Portuguese with English subtitles, “My story can be a single catastrophe, which piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before my feet.” His eyes are teary, but his voice is both self-assured and tentative. Or, the image might be of his lashed back, awash in rashes from the whip beating his skin. The image makes me think of Elaine Scarry’s conclusion in her 1987 book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World that “[…] pain can be apprehended in the image of the weapon (or wound) but that it cannot be apprehended without it.” Under the image of the flayed back is an extract from Italian monk-turned-saint Peter Damian’s 11th century screed condemning sodomy. “A greater penance is on imposed those who fall with others,” he delegates, urging punishment to sodomites, “possessed by the same diabolical spirit with the deranged.”
Motta’s 24-minute film narrates the story of an existent 18th century West African man, named José Francisco Pereira (played by Angolan actor Paulo Pascoal, currently in exile in Portugal after he came out in his country) sold into slavery in Brazil where he made talismans to protect others from pains of slavery until he was relocated to Portugal, only to be tried for sorcery, and later exiled for confessing to sodomy. Motta’s work in film, sculpture, print, and photography has long dissected the ways religious fundamentalism, primarily Catholicism, has condemned diverse representations of sexuality in indigenous cultures. Through the story of Pereira, the artist traces the long history of violence towards those in search of desire outside a marriage bed or those with gender identities that challenge the image of a man or woman. In the center of Motta’s 2016 exhibition, Deviations, was his 2015 film Deseos / رغبات), which intertwined transcontinental stories of a woman tried for being intersex in the late 19th century Colombia during the late colonial era and a lesbian Lebanese woman finding solace in marrying her lover’s brother.
The intrusion of Western colonialism is most vividly reflected in the piece Corpo Fechado, where we see a hooded Damian (played by Motta’s lover John Arthur Peetz) and a Portuguese conquistador (played by Vicente Wallenstein) playing chess. The style of Damian’s robe and his competitor’s agitated expression recall Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, in which an exhausted knight sits for a chess battle with Death. Unlike the dreariness of the Swedish shore in Bergman’s film, the backdrop here is an earth-toned map of the Americas accompanied by a Medieval tune. Another text Pereira cites in the film is Walter Benjamin’s essay On the Concept of History (1940), which the German philosopher wrote while fleeing Nazi occupation of France. In his questioning of history as a means for progress, Benjamin famously refers to an angel, Paul Klee’s 1920 mono-print Angelus Novus, a figure fixated at the past behind him with his eyes unable to resist the wind blowing from Paradise—or the future. Walter Benjamin saw the angel as the embodiment of Modernism’s in-between state torn by tradition and progress, similar to Motta’s thesis on the impacts of local history and colonialism over self-governance. “It’s known that the sodomites were forbidden to look into the future for in it every second is a narrow gate through which God could enter,” explains Pereira, as we see his head suffocated by Damian’s hood.
In the exhibition’s back room we witness Pereira’s story of enslavement, pain, and marginalization transform into an S&M scene. Rendered with a selection of mixed-media works Motta exhibits not only in response to the history of colonialism but of contemporary art itself. For Self-Portrait with Whip (After Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portrait with Whip, 1978) (2019), Motta darkened the inkjet print, which shows him reenacting Mapplethorpe’s infamous portrait with a whip emanating from his buttock a lá Lucifer, almost to invisibility—the viewer has to move around the work and catch the right angle of light to comprehend the image. Here the whip is also placed next to the image, reminding us of Scarry’s comment on pain and its relationship to the tool of Pereira’s pain and pleasure.
“Where does Angelus Novus look now?” Motta asks of the sodomites, a question relevant in the exhibition’s other video, We The Enemy (2017), which shows the Greek artist Despina Zacharopoulou reading from the manifesto of the artist collective SPIT! (Sodomites, Perverts,Inverts Together!) that Motta is a part of. “We the sodomites, the perverts, the inverts, the faggots, the deviants, the queers, the keepers of spoiled identity,” We are all there in the gallery, subjects of Zacharopoulou’s vehement list, claiming a space in schools, hospitals, courts, bathrooms, galleries, clubs—whether welcome or not. The artist’s concluding words are both a punch in the gut and a fist in the air: “The promiscuous, the popper sniffing fist fuckers, the bottoms and the tops” who “[…] are and will always be the enemy.”