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ARCHIVAL REBELLION

Sergio Zevallos’ Exercises in Transformation at the HKW Berlin.

  • Review
  • Feb 20 2024
  • Dr. Sarah Goodrum
    is an art historian and Professor of Theory and History of Photography at the SRH Berlin School of Design and Communication. She co-developed the Photography MA program, whose first cohort started in 2022. Her own research and writing have focused on Cold War photographic cultures, primarily in the GDR, as well as contemporary photographic and artistic practices.

A compact but sweeping retrospective of the artistic output of the Peruvian artist Sergio Zevallos closed recently at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW). The exhibition, entitled Exercises in Transformation (21.10.23-14.01.24), highlighted 40 years of Zevallos’s artistic practice, beginning with his work with the Grupo Chaclacayo artists’ group, founded in the 1980s in Lima, up to more recent work. Along with interactive happenings in the exhibitions space, referred to as “activations,” and a series of performances, this show comprised graphic artworks, collage, performance documentation, and even a listening station with a group of audio works outside the main space of the show. 

A large photo of the Grupo Chaclacayo studio from the 1980s welcomed visitors at the entrance, featuring mainly works by Zevallos and expanding the exhibition space visually. The energy and movement captured in the drawings featured in the photo echoed throughout the exhibition. The overall impression was of a thoughtfully curated showcase, providing a rich insight into the artist and the persistent themes driving his work. The show also encouraged contemplation on the significance of the exhibition space itself and prompted reflections on democracy, particularly in light of the performances presented.

Zevallos is known for his work challenging the contemporary violence in Peru during the 1970s and 80s—most notably, the bloody conflicts between the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Peruvian government—and the ensuing tensions created by homophobic, religious, punitive, educational, and ideologically authoritarian institutions, and disciplinary environments. The works in the exhibition critique, derive from, and include religious imagery, as well as images from popular media, orgiastic hallucinatory drawings, and even educational and instructional diagrams. As the HKW’s Curator of Exhibition Practices, Paz Guevara, put it during a gallery walk-through, each artwork was a kind of exercise, engaging in experimentation and probing the boundaries of convention, be they social, religious, sexual, or educational. 

The exhibition at HKW highlighted Zevallos’ work during his time with Grupo Chaclacayo (active 1982 to 1994), an artists’ group he co-founded with German artist Helmut Psotta and Peruvian artist Raul Avellaneda, as well as more recent work, and even a suite of artworks commissioned by the HKW. In these works, the artist engaged with the publication Sociedad y Política (Society and Politics) (1972-1983), for which his father, Abraham Zevallos, was active as a co-editor, confronting and playing with both the conceptual and physical nature of the archive - including what Guevara and Zevallos call the “subtractive reading” contributions of termites that ate parts of the magazines, creating patterns through the pages, while they were stored in the home archive of the Zevallos family. [1] Zevallos engaged with these subtractions, both as traces of performances and collective interventions, speculating on what these “contributors” read and the stories and perspectives that they may have brought to the debates within the decolonial discourse of Sociedad y Política. The artist also directly intervened in the magazine’s discourse, including writings and drawings that featured marginalized voices, such as Amazonian peasants [Scripts for transmutations (2023)].

 

fig. 1

 

The gallery guide served as both a catalog of texts related to the show, and a new extension of Society and Politics (Issue number 14, 2023). A kind of scrim hanging in the exhibition space presented one of the termite patterns at monumental scale, giving the insect “collaborators” a central role in the space. [2] According to HKW Curator of Performative Practices, Carlos Maria Romero - aka Atabey - the exhibition design used colors commonly seen in institutional environments in South America, but also challenged conventions of institutional display by featuring an Agora-like space for interaction. There, visitors could directly engage with reproductions of performance and process-related photos (each marked with a stamp, designating them as “illegal copies”). This space was also the site of Zevallos’s “activations” of the exhibition.

 

Fig.2

 

The exhibition also featured a slideshow of Zevallos’s first performance presented in Germany after his emigration from Peru, as part of the exhibition Todesbilder: Peru oder Das Ende des europäischen Traums (1989), which appeared at various sites around Germany, as well as the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. [3] In this performance, the artist literally unpacked his boxes containing performance elements brought along on the journey of emigration: a form of "wandering archive,” which is also the title of one of the artist’s most striking series of performances, where he often embodied decidedly queer religious figures rebelling against repressive colonial-homophobic regimes in both their queerness and frank sexual display and in their abjection and decay. [4] This idea of critical, mobile decolonial archives permeated the exhibition, along with a decisive focus on the body and the ways in which colonialism, convention, regimes of knowledge, and ultimately, violence, act on its physicality, beyond the discursive threat of the archive. 

 

fig. 3

 

The idea of visual archives also permeates much of Zevallos’s work, including circulating archives of press images, religious archives of sacred images, and family archives, each infused by their accompanying knowledge systems. In Estampas (1982), the artist worked with traditional prayer card images, such as those of Santa Rosa de Lima (a Catholic saint, a figure understood to function as a connection between the church and the local population under colonialism, but who ultimately became an icon of white supremacy, as she is mostly depicted with a white complexion and traditionally European features). The artist infuses these images with collage and overdrawing, introducing a hallucinatory sexuality and frantic, sometimes violent, transformative power that gives the impression of the figures writhing on the page.

As a historian, I am obsessed with archives, both as physical (and increasingly digital) spaces, and as conceptual, discursive spaces. Archives are also sites of power and hierarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and even violence. Zevallos’ interventions in archival and institutional narratives, inevitably entangled with colonial systems, infuse his entire body of work with a pulsating urgency that transcends temporal constraints. Within the exhibition, viewers were consistently confronted not only with questions regarding archives and epistemologies but also with the visceral reality of the corporeal: the body, manifesting as a locus of violence, oppression, control, and colonization. The colonized body, the body as a medical, educational, and political subject, runs throughout Zevallos’s entire oeuvre. And the queer, gender-fluid body specifically is emphatically present, as in the Wandering Archive performances. Zevallos’ suite of artworks, Simbolos - Huellas de un crimen [Symbols - Traces of a crime] (1986), initially intended as sketches for future performances and installations, were among the most striking works in the exhibition. They synthesize these inquiries surrounding documentation, archive, and corporeal presence. There is such a stark quality to these sketches, and a kind of bone-crushing distortion of the physical body. The images, as instructions for performance, sit at an uneasy juncture between 2-dimensional image, document, and future action, and the animation of the figures highlights this ambiguity. The works seem to exist as processes of transformation, roiling on the page.

 

fig. 4

 

One of the most cryptic and complex works in the exhibition was Zevallos’s timeline artwork, “Mapa Esquizocronología [Map of Schizochronology]” (2023), which illustrates the events covered in Sociedad y Política magazine, but the work also fills in missing information, adding a parallel history of Cumbia music. Timelines always bedevil the practice of history—they are sites for master narratives and hegemonies, but also indispensable conceptual tools. 

At the culminating event of the exhibition's finale, “In the Belly of Democracy: Large Divided Oval” (14.01.24), the architecture of HKW became a stage for artistic exploration. Zevallos and Luisa Ungar, who collaborated in the development of  this performance from the initial idea onwards, reimagined the building as not merely a physical structure, but as a living organism, and as a symbolic representation of societal dynamics. Leading the group of attendees on a short tour through the building, Zevallos wove in personal narratives that overlapped with iconic historical moments of the Cold War, while engaging in ongoing dialogue throughout with Ungar about the physical space. Further interrupting the passive viewing experience, the artists addressed the attendees as participants in the performance: for instance, acting out the East/West divisions of the Cold War. Standing in two groups, looking across an invisible Berlin Wall, with curious non-participating HKW visitors milling around, we listened to the artists in our wireless headphones and contemplated the space and the narratives of the performance. This style of performance, developed from Ungar’s performative system of “rehearsed spontaneity,” incorporates archival research, speculation, and storytelling, all in connection with cues and details of the local environment.

The performance culminated, along with our tour, in the auditorium. We were asked to stand in a line, all facing forward. In the end, after we took our seats in the theater, the lights cut out and the sounds of distressed voices and sirens filled our ears. A protest? An attack? [5] It was a powerful combination of narrative, conceptual, and embodied experience, which ended in a dramatic moment of contemplation, sitting in the dark in the HKW’s theater, confronted with sounds of violence in a space ostensibly built in dedication to the idea of openness and democracy. As Ungar and Zevallos phrased it in their description of the performance:, “It’s dark in the belly of democracy and only at moments, when it opens its mouth to swallow, do rays of light come in.” [6] In this case, I questioned  where the sounds were coming from; literally, in the dark of the theater, where were we? Were we perpetrators or victims? Were we witnessing history or reacting in real time to tangible violence in the present? As the lights came up, we were sitting in the theater alone, the artists no longer present to guide us. In that power vacuum, in this symbolically loaded space, the performance ended with a refusal of closure. With no clear choice but to file out of the room quietly (with some nervous laughter here and there), the question of our role in suffering hung in the air as we returned to the bustling reality of the museum space.

 

fig. 5

 

One thing I was left with after experiencing this exhibition, especially its concluding performance, was the productive slippage between distanced gallery viewing, archival contemplation, and the reality of suffering in the present. The works in the exhibition, its design, and the performance interventions challenged us as participants to maintain our humanity in the face of violence, and, indirectly, to remain compassionate and critical of power structures operating in the present. 

The urgency of Zevallos’ work is its visceral, connective tissue, which fearlessly attaches itself to real suffering, real-life physical and psychological violence. Regardless of when each work was produced–what was relevant in the postcolonial moment of the Cold War in South America—and in the artist’s adopted home of Germany—still urgently confronts us in the present. It is safe to assume, after the comprehensive overview the show gave of Zevallos’s perspective as it developed and shifted across time, that he will continue to confront these issues with future works. There is no hope of hiding in archival contemplation of history: for Zevallos, archives are wandering banks of knowledge with subtractive contributors, new timelines, and a rebellious view of institutional power.

\\



  • FOOTNOTES

    [1] These termites are referred to elsewhere in the exhibition catalog by Zevallos, who co-translates their contributions from Spanish into German and English, as “Celectivo las Termitas”: “A collective of paper-eating insects who worked in the private library of Isabel Zevallos.” (“The Workers Facing Repression,” Sociedad y Política No. 14 (2023), 35.)

    [2] Guevara collaborated with both the artist and Fernande Bodo, Curatorial Assistant for Architecture and Spatial Practices, on the design of the exhibition space.

    [3] A catalog with texts by various authors, including Psotta and Zevallos, was published under the same title by Alexander Verlag in 1989.

    [4] For an excellent analysis of these elements in the broader context of contemporary Peruvian politics and underground cultural production, see Miguel A. López’s “Queer Corpses: Grupo Chaclacayo and the Image of Death,” e-flux Journal no. 44 (April 2013), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/44/60146/queer-corpses-grupo-chaclacayo-and-the-image-of-death/.

    [5] To those in our group who understood Spanish, it was apparently clear that this was a recording taken during a blackout in Lima, during which a woman was heard shouting that “they” had turned out the lights. A second recording featured traditional Andean music and women singing. Spontaneous disconnections of transmitted meanings, based on language, seems to me another productive glitch that dovetails well with the principles of “rehearsed spontaneity.” According to Ungar, there was actually some implication of potential violence or negative intent in the first recording, due to the political situation in Lima, and the fact that the blackouts actually might have been intentional. (Interview with the artist, 17.02.24).

    [6] https://www.hkw.de/en/programme/exercises-in-transformation-sergio-zevallos/in-the-belly-of-democracy-large-divided-oval

     

    IMAGE CREDITS

    Cover: Sergio Zevallos, from the series Que tu Carne es el cielo recién nacido (1983), color chalk drawings. Courtesy the artist.

    fig. 1: Sergio Zevallos, SyP – A Memory of political dysfunctions (2023), original magazine of Sociedad y Política N° 8 (1980), intervened by termites. Courtesy the artist.

    fig. 2: Sergio Zevallos, Exercises in Transformation. Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiorio/HKW

    fig. 3: Sergio Zevallos, from the series Mapa Esquizocronología (2023), drawing on paper. Courtesy the artist.

    fig. 4: Sergio Zevallos, Libreta Militar (Military ID Card, 1983), detail. Courtesy the artist.

    fig. 5: Sergio Zevallos, from the series Cuaderno de Matemática [Math Work Notebook, 2014], graphite pencil and tracings on printed paper. Courtesy the artist.

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