Of A Wondering Spirit (2003-4)

 

When I set out to make a selection of the most recent photographs of Carlos Betancourt to be exhibited in the Spinola Palace at Teguise (Lanzarote), which unexpectedly coincided with his one-man show at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, I was not only motivated by the relationship his work has with the surroundings, nature, the surface and the body, so relevant to life and to the development of the island of Lanzarote but, more precisely by the relationship that the artist has with his ancestry, with his  historical and biological origins. It was already evident in his work that writing on the skin, other lost signs and rituals are the axis through which his core narrative is maintained, but this was not the only reason to cross the Atlantic with his work. At that time I intuitively knew that there was an intense relationship between Carlos Betancourt and the island of Lanzarote. The key laid in his last name, but I had no idea that precisely in the old island capital of Teguise, right outside where I had proposed to show his photos, was the place where he would find his own genealogy and a link to a direct descendent. But why am I now interested in his roots when past texts I have been calling attention to the surface of his spectacular photographic work?

In the essay for the catalogue that I recently published for the Insular County of Lanzarote on the work of Carlos Betancourt, I made references to the skin, to the surface, to the limits of a photographic expression " locked" in the mirror and in its own narcissist investment; leaving, however, the door opened to other deep and replicating readings that at the same time glanced at his late grandmother, who's photograph, in the last image of the publication, was hidden in the hand of  the artist, at the end of the book where hidden in the hand of the artist,pointing to more hidden and enigmatic directions of the hereafter, pointing towards a spiritual and religious place.

I mentioned his recent exhibition in the Lowe Art Museum and also the exhibition at the Spinola Palace because in both places , somehow, we sense what was to come to fruition: the logical progression towards the live-performance space,  a frozen ritual differed and transferred, that Carlos Betancourt had been offering through his still photos, surface documents loaded with desirable intentions, always gliding.

If in the Palace of Spinola Carlos Betancourt reoccupied a space previously meaningful to his ancestors: an old, colonial and now public space in Lanzarote (Canary Islands), - located a few hundred kilometers off the coasts of the Sahara, in "the other Atlantic shoreline" -, where his photos engaged in a dialog with the furniture, domestic scenes, the kitchen, the dining room, the halls and the chapel of his direct ancestors, reinventing the entire space, dynamicaly reactivating it: in the Lowe Art Museum with his grandmother's objects , Carlos Betancourt definitively lay the ground work that would fuel his new live performance dimension, beyond the mirror where the artist and his work had been looking into: the objects of his grandmother.

II

Since then, and I mean the exact moment that these objects appeared (dressing table objects, shoes, mirrors, glasses, gloves, etc), I assume that there was a change of direction in the meaning of his work, (not in his actual material works), which he would substantiate soon in Loiza (Puerto Rico), for PR'02 (On Route), and where the performing artist would hand over the camera to the spectators, returning the glance to them, so they would be the ones defining the framework of the direct action being witnesed, so as to be the onlookers the ones returning his abducted image. Loiza a town in Puerto Rico, populated mostly by people of African origins, is close to where Betancourt spent his childhood with his family. The ritual that took place there occurred entirely in a corner of a room in a popular eatery. An old man, hired by the artist, sat doing nothing in front of Carlos Betancourt, who half-naked and stained in front of a mirror, wrote on himself. Although the old man did not intervene in any way, he appeared as relevant as the artist and the personal belongigns of his grandmother that were in the space, covered in  blue glitter marking the protection and defense barriers of his backwards writing actions in the mirror in front of the only man who he had invited to penetrate the scene. The transient action which every offering opens: the milk of innocence falling on the head and shoulders of the artist from outside and in accordance with his directions, the soil and the blue glitter in his hair, the fruit placed in a corner at the entrance of the space and the soil that covered the floor, completes the animist referential transient framework opening the doors to other invisible dimensions that all offerings brings.

I say transient, because we still had the opportunity to see two of his interventions, immediately following this piece under the perimeters of "Context", in Santo Domingo, where once again the shiny travelling objects that belonged to his grandmother came out of the artist's suitcase in a street procession at a pedestrian mall in colonial Santo Domingo, mixing with pedestrian and finishing at nightfall in a memorable architectural ruins, in the same colonial sector, forming in the ground of the ruins other spontaneous figures until their next showing in ARCO. If in the Afro-Puerto Rican village of Loiza the scene of the performance was deliberately vulnerable to the elements: in a semi-open space adjacent to a popular bar (I can still remember the sound of water drops falling  from the ceiling made as they hit the pots, buckets and containers), with his illusive walls opened to the glances of the passersby and guests; in Santo Domingo, the arches of an old palace hardly offered any protection from the sun rays that reflected themselves at will over the objects in the colonial city. The pedestrians volunteered to  arrange the objects on the walkway making them adopt different forms and activating a very surreal and curious narrative between the volunteers and the objects that was finally opening the scene to randomness and initiating a festive and warm dance in the sun with the world beyond.

III

We have stopped referring to his photography since the exhibition in the Lowe Art Museum in Miami and the Palace of Spinola in the Canary Island of Lanzarote and, yet, without photography we would not have been able to begin this story, specially without the photographs in which the artist appears with the photo of his grandmother in his left hand, which appears at the end of the book, nor without the photograph which documents the beginning of this sequence, of this ritual, in the lordly and insular palace of Teguise, where his photos engaged in a dialog with the antique furniture and the architecture, placing in contact his"reversed" mirrored ritualistic  photos, with the time and place of its ancestors.

His works are deliberately loaded with that spiritual dimension, beyond the live-performance invisible to it and the camera. For this reason the artist draws a slow developing process in stages, distant and different: first, in the corner of the room in Loiza, respectfully, almost hidden, cleansing himself with milk, dirt and shiny blue glitter, protected by his grandmother's objects and the light of her old candle and the reversed script of the mirror,  and ( delete "the ") fruits, like offering to the Gods and, later, in the morning, making contact with the people on the street and even, at night, in the historical ruin, with another (delete "also") naked body with his back to the audience. Although also naked and cornered, the artist maintains an almost secure fetal position ,yet equally vulnerable and protected by the objects.

They are not exclusively aesthetics ceremonies. The artist directly connects the spirit of his grandmother with his own body and,with both, he loads the objects and images with significance. His photographs are also loaded by his previous civic, non-orthodox and conventional ceremonies ,  by his intention and faith. In any case, spirituality plays an essential very corporal, very skin deep, pantheonic, promiscuous role, that embraces his antagonistic pair: the artist's body and spirit, with his grandmother' s spirit and objects.

Carlos Betancourt's objects and images have that  personal implication,  that open and eloquent nakedness with nature and the hereafter, with creation and sexuality, because they are fruits of his spontaneous experience with life, of his offerings as much as of his calculated capacity of ritual transference, placing other attractive dimensions into play.

In any case, the work of Carlos Betancourt which we will see in ARCO is not the final journey in this spiritual story, more like the temporary  rest in the art market of an unfinished sequence with the objects of his grandmother, as well as his photo-performance, by which he is deservedly known.