The life experience and the artistic expression of any artist interconnect – if not, then the art does not really reveal its “mystical truth”. However, what matters to the viewer is the final transformation, the artistic result, and not what the artist’s life experience actually is or was. Passion for the art, no compassion for the artist. As an example in literature, when reading Varlam Chalamov, who spent twenty years in the gulag and nurtured from this experience his extraordinary Kolyma Tales, we usually feel extreme admiration for the excellence of the writer, but little compassion for the man, a man we actually never even met in real life.
Obviously, when the artist stands right in front of us, the lack of compassion is more difficult to achieve. When watching for example late Jacques Coulais at work – a tetraplegic French performer who painted with the wheals of his chair gorgeous paintings about movement, whether physical movement or spiritual elevation – it ends up to be quite difficult to talk about Coulais’ art not mentioning the fact that the artist was tetraplegic (the work by Jacques Coulais has inspired the video Painter by Ali Kazma). In another way, Jhafis Quintero (born in 1973), who will represent Panama at the upcoming Venice Biennial (2013), could raise our compassion: has been in jail for ten years, and became an artist while in jail. For him, creativity has been “essential to survive in jail”, according to his own words, just as painting has been essential for Jacques Coulais to “live through”. It is also quite difficult to watch Quintero’s videos, in particular We Only Exist When We Communicate, without being aware that the artist spent ten years in jail.
What makes us so interested in the fact that these two artists – among many others – have actually been fighting against extreme conditions of imprisonment, whether in their body, or in the concrete walls of a jail? These situations of extreme suffering awake our indestructible taste for what Paul Ardenne calls “The passion for the victim”: our taste for that special frisson that grips us while looking for example at the innumerable representations of Christ on the cross. In Jhafis Quintero’s work, as in Jacques Coulais’ paintings, the Baudelairian “delicious horror” is more in the history of the artist than in the art. Whenever the artist – or anybody in the end – is suffering, this results in the viewer feeling stronger, more alive, nearly eternal.
But this is not what Jhafis Quintero is looking for in his art. He is not trying to awake our (com)passion for the victim he doesn’t want to be. He rather aims to confront the viewer to his own imprisonment, to his own inability to communicate, to his own fears. He was an inmate but neither his art nor his life is confined to jail. Life in jail was for him an extremely rich experience – as any life experience if we dare embrace it all. Jhafis Quintero’s art is not about jail, it is about life.
When we hear him shout “We only exist when we communicate” on the video with the same name (2010), he talks to us about ourselves and about the abyssal fear of the unveiling that any true communication requires. Love doesn’t exist without taking the risk to be killed by the person we want to communicate our love to. When Quintero boxes himself in a ludicrous play with another self, that other self we all have inside us and who doesn’t have a shadow (Knock Out, 2012), he tells us about our own difficulty to reconcile our manifold faces. When he shows us the impossibility of man and woman to talk to each other in a decipherable way (No I, 2011), he tells us about a major anxiety that wrings our neck whenever we try to reach to the other – whether from a different gender or a different time or space -, and to have him or her understand us, listen to us, love us. When Quintero writes with dust unreadable words that are told to him by a mysterious, masked, indistinct ghost (Sweet Powder, 2011), he tells us about our own fears of being led in our lives by unknown and uncontrollable forces.
The power of Jhafis Quinteros’ videos has nothing to do with our possible compassion for the inmate he has been. The power of his videos, at the contrary, lies in the fundamental transformation of a personal experience in a universal one, the exact type of conversion that makes the artist tell us “the mystical truth”. When looking at Jhafis Quintero’s videos, we have no more compassion than we may have for Varlam Chalamov. But a similar admiration for the excellence in the conversion from personal life to universal art.
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