The Mutilated Subject: The Performances of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit and Carlos Leppe

by on Sep.06, 2013


I am reading a book, Corpus Delecti, about performance art in Latin America, and I found Nelly Richards’ essay, “Performances of the Chilean avanzda” particularly useful. It is a study of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit (to whom Zurita dedicated Purgatorio), CADA the performance group they belonged to) and Carlos Leppe. Zurita’s poetry (and the accompanying stunts, various acts of auto-mutilation for example) has influenced my own thinking about art’s relationship to the body and to violence. And I thought this essay insightful so I’ll quote a bit from it:

“The body is the stage on which this division primarily leaves its mark. It is the meeting place of the individual (or one’s biography and unconscious) and the collective (or programming of hte roles of identity according to the norms of social discipline). That is why its utilizationas a support for art practice entails the dismantling of the ideological use of hte body as a vehicle for images or representation of the ritual of day-to-day living, as material bearer of the means of social reproduction and the models of sexual domination.”

“Whereas Leppe postulated the body as a game of appearances and reinvented its image by maneuvering its external signifiers, Zurita and Eltit promoted the body’s “concrete substance of pain” in acts of resignation and self-denial. Their various mortifications of the body signaled a type of subjectivity modeled on sacrifice or martyrdom. Raul Zurita burned hsi face (1975) or attmepted to blind himself (1980). Diamela Eltit cut and burned herself and then turned up at a brotherl where she read part of her novel (1980). By inflicting these emblems of the wounded body upon themselves, Zurita and Eltit appealed to pain as a way of approachign that borderline between individual and collective experience: their self-punishment merges with an “us” that is both redeemer and redeemed. The threshold of pain enabled the mutilated subject to enter areas of collective identification, sharing in one’s own flesh the same signs of social disadvantage as the the other unfortunates. Voluntary pain simply legitimates one’s incorporation into the community of those who have been harmed in some way – as if the self-inflicted marks of chastisement in the artist’s body and the marks of suffering in the national body, as if pain and its subject, could unite in the same scar.

There were two models of body art which influenced the Chilean art scene: the boy of Leppe, who stimulated the sexual categorization of identity in order to denounce it or interchange its signs, and the stigmatized body of Zurita and Eltit, who used pain in order to recapture the communal body of suffering. These bodies organized or even opposed two kinds of discourse regarding the ideological maneuvers that each favored or rejected: Leppe’s materialistic body, or the theater in which the fiction of hte body is dismantled, and the utopian body of Zurita and Eltit, whose sacrificial scars evoke the humanism… on which the metaphysics of identity depends…”
Obviously this is a small excerpt from an entire book, but I find it interesting to think about in terms of Mark Seltzer’s wound culture (which is according to him a sign of the pathological state of our capitalist country, in Zurita the wounded body is perhaps even more dire); Jacqueline Rose’s argument that the criticism of Plath for her holocaust imagery is really about an opposition to metaphor (you have to have been in the holocaust to write that corpse-body) (and in fact Zurita has – like Plath – been accused of megalomania etc); and in terms of all my other preoccupation with violence, the body and art.

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