CHICAGO — A gallery at the Chicago Artists Coalition currently holds more than just a few pieces of art. At first only a presence is felt, but after a few moments in the space contextual clues slowly reveal Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera through the senses. Small sounds can be heard coming from the rightmost wall as a yellow light casts shadows on the ceiling. Within his exhibition In the Absence of a Body, Diaz-Perera is simultaneously absent and present, his hidden occupation of the gallery calling forth the ghosts of history.
The Cuban-born artist is living silently behind fabricated walls in the gallery for the three weeks of his show’s run, holed up with a few clothes and supplies and receiving meals through a small vent each day from his friends and partner, Cara Megan Lewis. Although it might appear as a performance highlighting endurance or pain, the action’s aim is to focus on what’s not present: Diaz-Perera’s body and voice. The artist moved to the United States last year, leaving his mother and others behind in Cuba, and is waiting to obtain his permanent residency through the Cuban Adjustment Act. This requires Diaz-Perera to stay in the United States for a year and a day, unable to return home to visit loved ones. His enacted absence in the gallery speaks to his separation from his family while also relating to the many others attempting to acquire US residency and citizenship. In the Absence of a Body closely follows the December 2014 announcement of the normalization of United States and Cuban relations, a complex political moment that has inspired much reflection on the Cold War and Cuba’s socioeconomic crises and lack of civil rights.
Diaz-Perera has taken a vow of silence for the exhibition, communicating only by small taps that he began incorporating into his routine a week into the run. This declared silence amplifies the small details of his existence behind the constructed walls: his quiet footsteps and soft breathing. The performance is moving enough to potentially carry the exhibition on its own, but two other pieces act as perfect complements, serving as the artist’s missing voice. “The Silence (…) is Overrated” (2014) is a slowly moving microphone, programmed to scratch and rub itself against the drywall until the wall or it breaks. A perhaps obvious symbol for political outcry, the piece is activated by its positioning towards the viewer, seeming to invite her to make statements of her own. The scratching noise is an agitating and consistent reminder of what remains to be said.
This invitation is balanced by “Dissonance” (2015), a two-channel video on the opposite wall. Located near the ground, the piece forces observers to kneel in the position of the prisoner, mimicking the figures seen in an execution image from the Spanish American War presented in the exhibition’s literature. “Dissonance” contains audio from Assata Shakur, a member of the former Black Liberation Army and now a US refugee living in Cuba, and Cuban-born performance artist Tania Bruguera, who primarily lives and works in the US and Europe. Bruguera’s audio is a phone call with her sister from last month, after she was arrested and banned from enacting a piece which would have placed a microphone in Havana’s Revolution Square; Shakur’s is her reading an open letter she wrote to the Pope during his visit to Cuba 1998, detailing how she was targeted and wrongly imprisoned by the US government due to her involvement with the Black Liberation Movement. Shakur’s audio is English with Spanish subtitles, Bruguera’s the opposite.
The videos and their installation make a gesture of punishment, threatening the audience with the potential consequences of political artists and activists speaking their minds. Kneeling down and hearing the women explain their actions, the viewer feels implicated, oppressed by the act of listening. Both women are presented defending themselves to individuals outside their own governments, choosing whomever seemed like the most accessible listener for their expressions of injustice: a family member or a religious leader.
In Bruguera and Shakur, Diaz-Perera has chosen examples that, although they tie together Cuba and the United States, aren’t entirely aligned with his own understated work as a Cuban artist. Yet their inclusion illustrates how governments affect political activism on several levels. Meanwhile, his own performance highlights the quiet moments of political strife, positioning him alongside those caught in the crosshairs of larger decisions, those who don’t necessarily have the tools to speak.
In the Absence of a Body continues at the Chicago Artists Coalition (217 N Carpenter Street, Chicago) through February 26.