“There are things whose name cannot be mentioned
Actions which precede language, names, meanings
Desires which resist being recorded
Instinctive irrational human moments
There are things that happen, that exist outside cultural constructions”
–Carlos Motta, text from “Nefandus”
What would happen if we looked back–past the contemporary Western civilization that we know? Past governments that try to regulate use of bathrooms depending on the biological sex written on birth certificates? Past governmental restrictions on who can be served at what establishment? Past rigidly constructed sexual and gender identities based on science, law and religion? Past, as Foucault described, biopower and biopolitics? What would happen if we looked back to cultures where there were no identities only acts?
In his first solo exhibition at PPOW Gallery, Colombia-born and New York-based artist Carlos Motta mines the aesthetics of history to find ruptures in the given strict sexual and gender binaries. Spanning almost two decades of his work from 1998 to 2016, Motta’s current exhibition Deviations reveals his rich and extensive artistic exploration of marginalized and silenced narratives in order to destabilize the Puritanical erasure of same-sex love and gender fluidity in past cultures, as well as the dominant understanding of identity today.
In his essay “Living Close To The Knives” in his collection Close To The Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, David Wojnarowicz–whose Estate is also represented by PPOW Gallery–describes the division between two worlds–The World and the predetermined The Other World. Wojnarowicz writes, “The Other World is where I sometimes lose my footing. In its calendar turnings, in its preinvented existence. The barrage of twists and turns where I sometimes get weary trying to keep up with it, minute by minute adapt: the world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien. But there’s the World where one adapts and stretches the boundaries of the Other World through keys of the imagination…” (87-88).
Like Wojnarowicz who also looked to indigenous cultures as a means to reinterpret the present, Motta’s art allows for a glimpse–even if fleeting–of “The World” beyond these preordained societal structures and institutions. With the title Deviations, Motta’s exhibition references deviations from the established norm, recalling the repressive pathological terms sexual and gender deviants. However, Deviations can also be read as a changing of course–an essential reconfiguration of alternative forms of being.
From presenting two women’s experiences as sexual and gender outlaws during the early 19th century in his moving film Deseos / رغبات (Desires) to delving into the sexual cultures and their representations of the pre-colonial Americas in his series of itsy bitsy sculptures Toward a Homoerotic Historiography and finally, his timeless surreal self-portraits, Motta presents three distinctive bodies of work that also consequently represent three deliberate time periods in the development of sexual and gender identities. Whether purposeful or not, Deviations seems to trace a reverse chronological history of the Foucault-theorized biopower and its transcendence through either a look back at earlier civilizations or an imaginative development of his own.
Deviations immediately confronts viewers with a monumental screen bisecting the entrance of PPOW Gallery, playing Motta’s 2015 film Deseos / رغبات (Desires). Co-written by Motta and Lebanese anthropologist Maya Mikdashi, Deseos / رغبات (Desires) centers around a powerful and cinematic years-long correspondence between two women on different sides of the globe who feel “the world is at war with us.” Despite their geographical, economic and linguistic differences, the two women experience differing yet cohesive forms of repression due to same-sex love and gender trouble.
Living during the end of colonial rule in Colombia, Martina is an intersex woman who is threatened and tried for being a “hermaphrodite.” With a beautiful and classical 3-D printed sculpture of Martina’s nude body on display near the film, Martina describes the poking and prodding of her body by scientists and the judicial system. Through her trials, Martina is forced to reconcile her gender and body as she never had before without the interference of science and the law. As she says in the film, “I hear them say I am unnatural. But if God has given me my body, how can it be unnatural?”
Likewise, Martina’s pen-pal is Nour, a Beirut woman living under the late Ottoman Empire rule. A noble woman in contrast to Martina’s poverty, Nour marries her lady lover Aisha’s brother Ahmed in order to preserve the possibility of their relationship. Detailing the oppressive nature of domesticity, women’s presumed household responsibilities and undesired sex, Nour eventually ends her correspondence with Martina on a happy note with Nour and Aisha together at last after the death of Aisha’s husband and Nour’s husband taking on another wife.
Set in the 19th century, the time frame of Motta’s imagined conversation between these two women places it directly in conversation with the development of biopolitics and its hand in the construction of identities as analyzed by Michel Foucault. In his collection of lectures Society Must Be Defended, Foucault pinpoints the emergence of biopolitics. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Foucault finds a transition occurring in which science and power align to control both the individual and the population’s body and biological processes.
In his lecture on 17 March 1976, Foucault highlights sexuality as an essential place for regulation and control during the 19th century as seen in Motta’s film. Questioning why sexuality grew in importance during this era, Foucault observes, “On one hand, sexuality, being an eminently corporeal mode of behavior, is a matter for individualizing disciplinary controls that take the form of permanent surveillance…But because it also has procreative effects, sexuality is also inscribed, takes effect, in broad biological processes that concern not just the bodies of individuals but the element, the multiple unity of the population. Sexuality exists at the point where the body and the population meet” (251-252). As both Martina and Nour discover in the film, Foucault continues, “Sexuality represents the precise point where the disciplinary and the regulatory, the body and the population are articulated” (252).
Despite the oppressive biopolitical system that both Martina and Nour endure through Deseos / رغبات (Desires), the imagery in Motta’s film attempts to locate ghostly signs and remnants of same-sex desire within archives and landscapes. During one of Martina’s letters, Motta films a woman perusing letters in a library, indicating that these moments of queerness and transgression can often be found within archives. Even more frequently than archives, Motta meditatively captures the landscapes of both Colombia and Beirut, seeking a haunting sign of same-sex love and homoeroticism emblazoned on the environment.
As Motta writes in his screen print with text from his film Nefandus:
“The landscape does not confess what it has witnessed
the images are out of time and veil the actions that have
taken place there. If we watched attentively the current
of the river, the foliage of the trees or the weight of the
rocks would that reveal their history? No. We have need
of instruments, documentations, signs.”
Pointing to the necessity of documentation or signs naturally leads into another body of Motta’s work at PPOW Gallery–his 2014 miniature sculptural series Toward a Homoerotic Historiography. Ambitiously displayed in a innovative gallery room designed to resemble a history museum arrangement, Motta’s Toward a Homoerotic Historiography presents numerous, extremely tiny gold-washed silver sculptures, modeled after real sculptures from indigenous cultures depicting homoeroticism. From penises to blow-jobs to orgies, the sculptures in Toward a Homoerotic Historiography represent ancient artifacts that typically go unseen. Either destroyed by the religious fervor of the conquering Christians or the continued pearl-clutching of the social sciences, these hypersexual sculptures saw centuries of censorship.
Conducting in-depth research of the pre-colonial cultures of the Americas, Motta discovers sites of fluid possibilities in these cultures–cultures that did not define identity by sexual acts. Through Toward a Homoerotic Historiography, Motta provides a reexamination of the intersection of pleasure and identity. Like Motta, David Wojnarowicz also saw the potential power in indigenous cultural artifacts’ transcendence of the restrictive binaries existing in the more modern and contemporary era. As Wojnarowicz wrote in “Living Close To The Knives, “Traveling into primitive cultures allows one a sudden and clear view of the Other World; how the invention of the word ‘nature’ disassociates us from the ground we walk on” (88).
Right outside the velvety gallery with Toward a Homoerotic Historiography, Deviations also features a series of Motta’s black-and-white self-portraits. Photographed in 1998, Motta’s gorgeous and startling self-portraits have not been shown in a formal exhibition previously.
Fantastical and hallucinatory, Motta distorts his body and face in the photographs, allowing for a gender fluidity separate from the deliberate and commonplace markers of identity. Set in wooded landscapes and ambiguous interspaces, Motta’s photographs appear almost out-of-time as if the figures in the photographs could be from the cultures reflected in Motta’s later sculptures. By existing in this non-identification zone, Motta’s photographs reveal a freedom in self-fashioned gender and sexual performance related to indigenous cultures.
Seeking this moment before concrete divisions in gender and sexuality, documenting their subversion in his self-portraits, as well as his entire exhibition, Motta describes in Nefandus:
“I look for marks of an unknown and undocumented
moment. I search for an image of desire before it was
created, manipulated, altered, judged
I look for another history: one without violence or
oppression. I seek to construct a lie in which I can
see myself reflected. I escape from knowledge.
I look for myself in a non-existing state.”