Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is gifted at researching, performing, and filming alternative narratives of Caribbean cultures that incorporate anthropology, cosmology, and spiritual beliefs while also paying attention to the ways that politics and government may alter/distort/interfere with those cultural traditions. Muñoz’s solo exhibition at El Museo del Barrio on view through April 30, 2017 has traveled to New York from the Perez Art Museum, Miami and was curated by PAMM Curator Maria Elena Ortiz. El Museo has invited Muñoz to curate her selections from its collection as well, starting with the Taino objects at the opening of her exhibition.
In the following interview, the artist explains the importance of the Taino people and their ancestors in Puerto Rico, the ways that objects play pivotal roles in her body of work, and the symbolism of the mirror object she created for her exhibition A Universe of Fragile Mirrors.
Jan Castro: Why are certain objects and physicality central in your films?
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: When you have an object, it provokes a kind of time travel. However distant it may be in time, when you have an object in your hand—when you’re looking at its materiality, the weight of it, how you imagine it was made, or why it was made—all of this becomes very close and important. So it allows a kind of empathic relationship with an imagined subjectivity so that you can begin to imagine another metaphysics—the metaphysics that gives birth to these objects. Some of them are really confusing. Some objects are described in the archive as pestles or phallic objects. There is a big difference between a pestle and a symbolic object that refers to sexuality. We still don’t know what a lot of these objects were used for. We can imagine, and I’m interested in that process of imagining through the materiality. It resonates for me to use these objects because I’m interested in materiality and sensoriality.
For example, La cueva negra (The Black Cave) refers directly to the Taino origin myth. I’m interested in the two boys in the film: the way they touch each other and look at each other and move around in the space, the way the light works in that space that they’re very familiar with, the ways they test the materials –they pull on the vines to see if they will hold their weight; they talk about the leaves, about whether or not something is poisonous, whether or not something makes you itch. They refer constantly to being in the place as a sensorial experience. I think there is a direct relationship between experiencing objects phenomenologically – their weight, the way they look; through them, you can imagine new forms of life and new subjectivity.
Castro: Could you discuss how the Taino symbols inspiring The Black Cave were discovered?
Muñoz: The only way archeology happens is Puerto Rico is when there’s a building project like the 1992 highway. If they hit something in the process of construction, the law requires them to do limited archeological research. The place was discovered to have held possibly up to 6000 years of settlement of Taino and pre-Taino cultures. It was a place where there were houses, where people ate, cleaned their food, were buried. There were findings of objects used to cook with, to fish bones used to sew with, and importantly, more than one hundred skeletons showing the ways they were buried. For instance, you would keep the head bones of an important ancestor in your house, so in the burial, you might find the body without a head and the head buried someplace else or the feet buried someplace else. We don’t know whether the kept bones were important lovers or people of the community.
Castro: I read in your book that there was a buried skeleton of a woman giving birth with the baby intact.
Muñoz: Yes, that was amazing.
Castro: What are some reasons why you’re interested in this?
Muñoz: This archeologist was telling me about the ways in which indigenous cosmologies transform – from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost tip of North America – how you can see the cosmologies changing through time. For example, you can see the repetition of the cosmic twins, the lazy bird or animal that will not even create a nest for its eggs. As the natural elements change, the tropes and images change, and the story is transformed. I thought about how this way of thinking, this transformation of cosmology, would change if we were to tell the story now, with the trash and the stolen cars and the highway. What would be the black cave, and how can these different mythological figures be part of our way of thinking about place? This, for me, responds a little bit to the romanticization of the agricultural past. So I’m trying to create different images of place in which the complexity and the violence of all these different encounters that have existed in the place over time can co-exist in one moment so that we experience all of what is there at the same time. What I tried to do in La Cueva negra was to put it all together, violently as well, without much subtlety… The boys have a deep knowledge and experience of the place, and that is the most important thing about the work – the way you can see these two boys coming to know the place, being in it, and the way they are with each other on screen. They’re cousins, 14 and 15 years old.
Castro: What are the sculptural qualities of Otros usos (Other Uses), the film you made using mirrors?
Muñoz: It was shot, as well as the other piece in that room, at a place that was a U.S. Navy base for sixty years. That part of the base and Vieques, where the Navy was testing bombs, were all part of the same complex. They bombed on land and sea for sixty years of “training,” leaving depleted uranium. The base began in the 1940s and closed around 2000 after a series of civil disobedience protests. Of course, people had been protesting since the sixties, but in 2000, there was an accident, and an errant bomb fell on a civilian guard; a new protest movement coalesced … and the base closed in 2003.
I went there with my camera in part because I wanted to think about how one could think about the place in a way that was not overdetermined by its military history. I found that it was quite difficult to look through a camera and not simply reproduce the monumentality of the military structures. It was the largest base outside of the continental U.S. in the entire world, and everything was on a colossal scale. In an island that’s 100 miles by 35 miles, that’s a lot of land.
When I go there, the military structures of a miles-long dock continue to impose themselves. I don’t want to see like a machine, like a plane that drops bombs. How can I fold and re-shape the image? I brought mirrors, and started playing with the mirrors in front of the camera to try to make the image an object, to reshape it. Obviously, it’s a distortion. For me, that’s trying to think of the image as an object. I started playing with that in 2014.
I get asked a lot if the mirrored object has a relation to Lygia Clark’s work. All of my work is influenced by Lygia Clark’s work – not necessarily formally up to now – but in the way she always thought of her work as a process of transformation of subjectivity. So she used these objects, which she called bichos, which you can play with and transform with your hands. My video works are all objects to break the rational plane of the camera.
Muñoz’s fractured mirror is a sculpture in her El Museo exhibition, and is also used to distort, reverse, and frame, her film Otros usos. The artist’s projects demonstrate why the interrelations between people, objects, nature, and animals are essential and the ways that contemporary institutions may disrupt or harm all of this. The films do not directly show the actual harm from cancer, leukemia, etc. that the bombings at Vieques have produced.
The PAMM catalog A Universe of Fragile Mirrors, is an insight-filled 225-page journey through the artist’s research, the poignant images & symbols in Muñoz’s films, her scripts, and essays by scholars including Maria Elena Ortiz, Francis McKee, and Javier Arbona.
In 2016, Muñoz was an artist in residence at the New Museum. She is completing a long film with a Creative Capital Visual Arts Grant. Her work has been shown in important group exhibitions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Tate Modern, London; and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City.