Juan Zavaleta – Beauty, Blood, PoliticsPosted: January 24, 2011
For two years, Mexican/Canadian artist Juan Luis Zavaleta worked in a major meat plant in Manitoba. There he witnessed tens of thousands of hogs slaughtered every single day. His health deteriorated, both physically and mentally, but from that arose a body of work that is macabre and beautiful and political and strong.
I asked both Zavaleta and the curator at Gallery Connexion, Meredith Snider, some questions about the current installation of Souls of God (Get Back to Us) and Slaughterhouse:
AM: Is the work beautiful?
JZ: Any work that offers the opportunity to give a response back can be considered beautiful. The parameters of beauty and ugliness are ruled by social temporary contexts. Therefore, such concepts are merely abstract and cannot be used to label a work of art such as a conceptual installation which was designed and created to convey a specific message in regard of its subject matter. The beauty of ugliness could be considered in certain cases (not in all cases) even more profound and attractive than pure and plain beauty since its meaning lays in the response the audience gives towards it.
So yes, my installation is deeply beautiful.
MS: Juan Zavaleta’s installation The Degradation of Ourselves is aesthetically beautiful, drawing sensory, emotional, and intellectual judgments from viewers. It invokes a sensory experience as one follows arrows on the floor throughout a series of passages, created to mimic a factory style production line. Instead of carcasses and machinery as one would find in a slaughterhouse, viewers walk between bloodied uniforms once worn by the artist and shifting walls of dried, blood-soaked paper towel. There is a vague odor at certain passages that one must assume is blood. It is not so intense as to be revolting but is enough to give the illusion of a scent. One may be struck by feelings of disgust, but upon further consideration, by feelings of empathy for those working in the conditions that are represented by this installation. It requires contemplation and questions; the need for large-scale production based on demand and over consumption; how current century jobs approach human slavery; and one’s own role in this type of industry.
AM: Is it painful?
JZ: My installation is very painful considering the several fibres that its subject matter touches. These topics, such as human misery and animal suffering (although the installation was never meant to be an instrument of animal rights advocacy) can be defined in a series of sub themes such as human slavery, labour abuse, social break downs, physical detriment and many others. Once the public experiences the entire installation, they too get a sense of this pain. As a human being that was directly involved in this experience, it was extremely painful for me, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn firsthand the reality of human bondage inside the 21st century industrial complex.
MS: The installation required monotonous and continuous action reminiscent of the factory job it represented (on a small scale of course!). At the particular pork plant where Zavaleta worked 10,000 to 20,000 hogs are slaughtered every day forcing workers to repeat the exact same cut or motion equivalent times. It can easily lead to injury. The exhibition voices a painful experience shared by many people, including immigrants to Canada who may have come from developing countries for the appeal of a better life.
AM: Is it political?
JZ: My work is always human related. It permanently deals with social issues, and in this specific project, yes, it is absolutely political. I am using this installation to raise awareness towards the cynically open 21st century slavery. This is a new bold strategy to keep people under absolute and ironically volunteer bondage. We are allowed to leave any time we want but we cannot because all of us are bounded to perpetual debt inside the financial system.
MS: The Degradation of Ourselves certainly references the power of a corporation. It brings to light the degrees of difference between the factory workers and those in top management positions.
AM: Is it personal?
JZ: Could not be otherwise. It is very personal since I was directly involved in this 21st century slavery. It is so because I lived the detriment and because I do not want humanity to live under such circumstances any longer. I want my kids to have the opportunity to leave whole lives, unchained from this enslavement, controlled by a tinny but none the less evil elite that we can openly describe as “new world order”.
MS: The Degradation of Ourselves represents a personal experience for Zavaleta, one that was challenging both physically and mentally. When viewing the installation one gets a sense of what it must be like to work on the kill floor of a meat processing plant, the repetition, the monotony, the blood, and the close quarters. It has a human story element that resonates even more strongly than the slaughtering of hogs does. Zavaleta’s own uniforms hang in the installation, mimicking a production line but making a closer link to human than to hog. The most personal component of the exhibition for me is #8, The Marks of Death. The paper towels each have a marking of dried blood that is reminiscent of used sanitary napkins and at the same time several markings appear phallic. Zavaleta
obtained these marks by pressing paper towel to the neck of the hog where it had been cut to bleed out.
Souls of God (Get Back to Us) and Slaughterhouse is on display at Galerie Connexion in Fredericton, New Brunswick until February 24th, 2011.