A soldier inserts his gun into the vagina of a pregnant woman and pulls the trigger. Pieces of the dead fetus fall out of her womb. The head of a man who has just been decapitated is then shoved up her vagina. Another woman’s breasts are cut off with a knife; she is hung by her neck, bleeding out, like an animal in a slaughterhouse. A mother watches as her twelve-year-old daughter, crying out for help, is brutally gang raped by a group of soldiers on her bed.
These are some of the brutalities that Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo recites in her seventy-minute performance La verdad (The Truth, 2013), her words periodically interrupted by a dentist who injects novocaine into her gums, until, eventually, she is unable to speak. Video footage of the performance served as the devastating climax to her exhibition of new and recent works (all represented by way of video and photo documentation) in Frankfurt. The texts she reads in La verdad are direct testimonies from victims of the civil war that, spanning 1960 to 1996, devastated Guatemala, mainly the indigenous Maya populations, which were considered to be internal enemies by the army fighting the insurgency, and whose members were raped, tortured, and murdered. Two hundred thousand civilians were annihilated in one of modern history’s worst tragedies. The army commanders behind these crimes against humanity have never been brought to justice.
Galindo sees death in nature. This is literalized in her 2012 performance Paisaje (Landscape), where she stands naked with her back toward a man digging a grave in some remote forest. He burrows his shovel into the earth, then flings the dirt behind him. The soil lands on Galindo, burying her as the hole grows deeper. In Galindo’s works, the ground is foremost a grave site. When our bodies are empty of life, we bury them in the hope that they will eventually give rise to some form of new life. Soil is composed of decomposed matter, inanimateness, the rotted corpses of plants and humans and animals, thus serving as the material witness to untold centuries of death and demise.
During the Guatemalan Civil War, bodies were deployed as weapons or treated as refuse. Perhaps that is why, in 2000, Galindo had her naked body sealed in a plastic garbage bag and deposited in the Guatemala City dump. Titled No perdemos nada con nacer (We Don’t Lose Anything by Being Born), the piece is a sort of complete poem, showing that violence renders death just as incidental as the fact of life.
If part of Galindo’s mission is to bring attention to certain uncomfortable truths, her message is not one wholly depleted of hope. In 2007, she created a “survival course” (also represented in the exhibition) for people traveling illlegally to the United States. She hired a trainer who coached ten hopeful migrants in a daylong session on such essentials as avoiding snakes and border guards, what to pack, and how to perform first aid. While mindful of the death that has surrounded her, Galindo ultimately makes paeans to survival, tributes to the suffering of the living.