Recently, I had a moment of clarity. I was engaged in the requisite chitchat with an artist at a gallery opening when she suddenly looked at her own work on the walls with a degree of disdain, likening it to luxury items such as jewelry or 18-year-old Scotch.
In essence, she said, "You don't need them; you desire them."
Although I found her particular work quite necessary, I've been carrying around her ambivalence like a measuring stick to every art experience since. Do I need this? Did this need to be created? Not to play supreme arbiter, just to run a utility test. These days, I do seem to need work to register a score on that test. Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo maxes out on it.
A retrospective of her politically declarative work, in which she often tests her own body's endurance of confinement or pain, is currently at Davidson College outside of Charlotte. Now Galindo comes to Durham Sept. 18 for a public discussion of her work at 21c Museum Hotel with Davidson curator Lia Newman and Duke professor and art historian Kristine Stiles, moderated by artist Pedro Lasch.
Galindo's work is remarkable for its clarity, relevance and uncompromised, unapologetic emotional power. She is as defiant of oppressive regimes and prejudiced social norms as she is of those too jaded, complacent or fearful to oppose them. Turning away from atrocity makes one complicit in it.
In 2000, to draw attention to the willful ignorance of rampant, fatal sexual violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Galindo had herself wrapped in a plastic bag and thrown in a Guatemala City dump, where sanitation workers continued to work around her as if she weren't there.
In another performance, in 2003, she left a trail of bloody footprints from the Guatemala City Constitutional Court to the National Palace—under the noses of armed palace guards—to underscore the fact that former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt's presidential nomination was allowed to stand despite legislation expressly disqualifying him.
Galindo's work doesn't simply pass some art utility test—it provokes actual political and social change. Her 2003 performance helped raise opposition to Montt, who lost the general election. A role model for politically minded artists and activists alike, Galindo should not be missed on her visit to Durham.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Art you can use"