Lorena Wolffer lies on a bed. She slowly sits up and begins to remove her shirt. She displays her breasts to the audience, and then bends over to remove her pants. As she caresses her body, the background music fades and we begin hearing the monotone voice of a police report. Wolffer pulls out latex gloves and displays them to the audience before putting them on. The reports about dead women continue, and we hear details of the victims’ clothing. One was six months pregnant, raped and strangled.
Wolffer removes a pen and begins to carefully mark up her body, as if preparing it for an autopsy, making lines around her breasts, between her legs, on her neck. Periodically, she stops, and assumes a meditation pose. The marking continues, and the lines become something else, less medical and more a circumscription of the parts of the body that are a focus of rage and desire. Finally, she caps the pen and replaces her clothes, slowly transforming herself into an ordinary woman again. She shrouds herself in black blankets and wraps a sheet around her neck and head, covering herself completely.
In Wolffer’s performances like the just-described Mientras dormiamos (el caso Juarez) (2002-04), the Mexico City artist locates a mystery at the heart of violence, creating a black hole of negation and a paradox. It is a place where desire and hatred are closely in-tricated, one where society’s violence against women is cut into the flesh. Physical wounds kill and maim, yet psychic wounds can be inscribed as well: wounds from silence, from memory being driven deep inside into a place of suffocation and emptiness. And this violence not only marks the body of the individual, but also the body of the nation.
“Violence against women.” In what many are pleased to call the post-feminist world, this phrase almost seems to have a dated quality. Most of us are aware of the statistics about domestic violence and rape, as well as the inequalities in pay distribution and the like, but there remains a tendency to detach such statistics from the constellations of beliefs and attitudes that subtend them. When fourteen women were gunned down at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal for being “fucking feminists” in 1989, I remember being struck by how swiftly the media suppressed discussion about what the massacre revealed about attitudes towards women in general. No, the killer was a lone gunman. A madman. When Robert Pickton murdered scores of women in Vancouver, there was some talk of racism and poverty, but little about what both the murders and the police inaction revealed about the disposability of women. Why the unwillingness to connect the dots? What is the dirty secret?
The artist can reveal connections that a newspaper report cannot. Watching Mientras dormiamos, I think of Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil (2002), a piece honouring the disappeared and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. By using their own bodies to display violence–and its consequences–artists such as Wolffer and Belmore remind us of its intimacy, even when violent acts occur in larger socio-political contexts. And underneath violence, hatred remains linked to desire, with the connection between the two operating through bad intensity.
The title of Wolffer’s piece translates as “while we were sleeping,” and it speaks to the hundreds of women murdered in Cuidad, a city on the border between Chihuahua and Juarez Texas. This border is lined with maquiladoras (factories), where poor women come to work. It is a place where the atmosphere of violence is palpable, and fear permeates the energy of the streets. (One is struck by the contrast to El Paso just across the river: bright and shiny and dead in another way.) Black crosses have been painted on telephone poles as memorials to the murdered women. Everyone knows what’s going on here, and everyone deplores the ongoing murders and disappearances, but little has been done. I once spoke to a young Oaxacan woman and her brother who were travelling to Juarez to find work. The girl stared into the distance as her brother told me he hoped to keep his sister safe. It was like talking to soldiers on their way to war.
How can we explain this?
Wolffer is telling us that, at some level, we choose not to see; we prefer a kind of unconsciousness. Why are we sleeping? There is a great deal at stake in veiling reality. For some, it is simply too difficult to confront. It is easier to think of the extreme violence in Juarez, Vancouver and, now, Winnipeg, as something that happens to “them”–to poor women, streetwalkers, aboriginal women, Mexicans–a displacement that derives from a deep fear of our own complicity. It can be reassuring to focus on the specificities of the places and circumstances where these things happen. But all reveal a truth about the disposability of women. By manipulating her nude body, Wolffer underlines the paradox of desire and disposability, intimacy and fear. The Juarez murders are extreme, but violence most likely comes from someone we know and often love, from our intimate enemy. Another paradox, and one that, for many, cannot be said.
Looking at the documentation of Wolffer’s performances, I am reminded of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which he wrote in 1914. In this story, a machine called the harrow inscribes the condemned prisoner’s sentence on his back, which eventually kills him. The machine works slowly and the prisoner, unaware of the nature of his transgression, understands his crime and sentence only at the moment of death.
So I ask myself, is the crime being female?
Although Wolffer is known for the performance pieces she created in galleries, after Mientras dormiamos she became less interested in the art world’s elite spaces and began to bring her work into the street. In Zona de tolerancia (2007), she created street signs representing prostitution, poverty, violence and narcotraffic and placed them in areas of the city where these activities take place. This intervention brought to light the social realities that are, in fact, permitted in society despite laws to the contrary, suggesting that what takes place on the margins reveals truths about the nature of the larger society. As well, Wolffer began thinking about the women being killed closer to home–often as the result of domestic violence. She began to work with a women’s shelter, and Muros de replica (2008) came out of this practice and out of her desire to create interactive interventions.
Muros de replica began as an experiment: would ordinary women be willing to speak publicly to their aggressors? Some would, and these early responses were published in the newspaper La Jornada. Then the question became whether women would do so in public spaces such as the subway, the university and in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square. Banners were raised in the Zocalo, and walls were erected where women could publicly write to the men who had abused them. On the walls was the statement: ” I am a woman who has been a victim of male violence. This is my name and this is what I must say to my aggressor.” Women began to line up and, for four hours, dozens of women wrote their stories while hundreds watched. Some, particularly younger women, wrote quickly; others took their time. At first glance, the concept behind this project seems simple–to create a space for women to speak back–but this intervention has the potential for far-reaching effects on the lives of the participants and for the people viewing the actions. In a conservative society that tends to blame the victim for “provoking” the aggressor, Muros de replica was the first place many women had been able to make their truth visible. And they chose to do so in a public space in the heart of Mexico City.
In collaborative projects like La ropa sucia se lava en casa (2009), with Arturo Ortiz and Federico Gama, Wolffer continues to intervene in public space, this time through the creation of billboards. Based on the look of a real estate ad presenting inexpensive housing as a lifestyle dream of modernity and upward mobility, the image of a pristine house shows a broken window. The title is printed as an advertising slogan that translates as “Don’t wash dirty linen in public,” and is accompanied by the statistic that 88% of Mexicans agree that what takes place in the home should not be made public. Wolffer wanted to raise the question about where people believe the law stops in domestic violence, and remind us that what happens in private space does have public implications. Despite the media’s representations of the dream lifestyle, ugly truths lie underneath the image.
Because of the complex history between Mexico and the United States, Mexico has long been a site of projection for the United States: a place of fantasy, of longing but also of suspicion and hatred–another version of the paradox. In If she is Mexico, who beat her up? (1997-99), Wolffer constructs an analogy between body and nation. The body of the artist stands in for the body of the nation like a magical spell, where what happens in the larger arena is enacted in a small space. Dressed in the colours of the Mexican flag, Wolffer poses on a catwalk, as if part of a fashion show. In the background, a U.S. senator discusses whether Mexico should be “decertified” because of its difficulty in controlling the drug trade. As Wolffer moves, cuts and bruises appear on her body, but she continues to strut and pose, her heavily madeup face empty of emotion. Here, “Mexico” appears as an entity whose social and political health is being decided by an outside entity, namely the United States. At the same time, Mexico must present itself as healthy and beautiful, both to itself and to the outside. Again, reality is papered over. The cuts and bruises on Wolffer’s body remind us of the violence associated with the Mexican drug wars, violence that also links back to what is happening to women in Juarez.
Listening to the U.S. senator’s words used in this piece, I am reminded that Mexico occupies a peculiar place in the gringo imaginary: it is the USA’s more interesting neighbour. It’s a place of lawlessness and excess, the place gringos go to get into trouble. If, in some respects, Canada’s relation with Mexico is more nuanced than that of the U.S.–the obvious media biases and the recent decision to impose visa restrictions on Mexicans reveal a deep set of prejudices. By projecting drug violence onto Mexico, a screen is created for the violence happening here. Drug wars in Mexico? Yes, but where are the drugs going? In Latin America, Canada is known as an exporter of chemical drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy. Who’s supplying the arms for these wars? Corruption in Mexico? True, but is that to suggest that secret deals aren’t being made in the U.S., or here? Dead women? Only there? I’m not suggesting that, because perceptions of Mexico are structured by long-standing tropes, we shouldn’t pay attention to the reality of the Mexican drug wars or to the murdered women in Juarez but we should remember that projection structures often conceal what’s happening at home.
Foucault wrote that what takes place at the edge of empire reveals the nature of the empire. In a sense, women exist at the border of empire, something Deleuze and Guattari understood when they talked about devenir femme as a way of escaping the fixity of power, the molar lines that emanate from the centre. But an empire is still a system of political power. If we recognize the United States as an empire, the countries that border it can show us something about the structures that make its authority possible. Would the United States exist without Mexico (and Canada)? Would our present social system exist without the women murdered in Vancouver and Winnipeg? The centre does its best to show the benign face of power, but the drug-related violence and the dead women of Mexico’s border cities strip away the mask, revealing the reality that lies underneath for all to see. If we choose to look.
In places like Canada, many of us choose precisely not to see; we prefer the comfortable certainties of the centre. Because wealthier geopolitical entities (like the so-called “first world”) relate differently to the benefits of empire than more marginal places do, the centre’s shininess can disguise the brutality that inevitably subtends imperial power. Here in Toronto, life is relatively easy (for some), the infrastructure is relatively intact (for now), and we have a safety net (in theory), and a belief that the system works and has the potential to be reasonably fair. But if we are implicated in what happens elsewhere, then the south’s drug wars and the killings in Juarez, Vancouver and Winnipeg reveal that our lives are underlain by systems of violence that are closer to home than we may wish to acknowledge.
Wolffer reminds us that we’re all implicated. By embodying the interplay between what happens in the home and what happens in the world–and by bringing this embodiment into the street, she winnows the issues down to their key elements. The spareness of her performances and interventions condenses the paradox to a single gesture: is the woman’s body alive and strong, or has it been abused or murdered?
* Deborah Root is a writer and critic interested in intersections between visual arts, cultural politics and contemporary theory. She the author of Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference (Westview, 1996), and is currently based in Toronto.