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La paz es una promesa corrosiva: Herbert Rodríguez at the 59th Venice Biennale

By Hunter Garrison | 27 Oct 2022

Perú, silkscreen on paper, 1990.

After a brief postponement due to COVID-19, the art world has once again flooded into Venice for the 59th edition of the Biennale: The Milk of Dreams. As fifty-eight countries attempt the highlight the greatest of their visual artists, curators Jorge Villacorta and Viola Varotto have selected the works of Herbert Rodríguez to represent Peru in the exhibition entitled La paz es una promesa corrosiva (Peace is a corrosive promise). As opposed to the works of many other artists at the Biennale however, Rodriguez’s work does not represent his his country of origin or its capital city and his birthplace Lima in a positive light, but openly critiques the Peruvian government and the oppositionist Communist party Sendero Luminoso both of whose violence shadowed over much of his formative years at La Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Most of the works on view at the exhibition come from this period between 1985-1990, known as the Arte-Vida, when the main theme of Rodriguez’s work was this chaos and the seemingly endless and fruitless pursuit of peace.

Upon entering the Peruvian Pavilion, guests are greeted with a large open room divided by cardboard walls interspersed with wooden tables containing archival newspapers, photographs, and other relevant materials that contain information contextualising the work of Rodriguez and providing visitors with a basic knowledge of the barbarism that occurred in the name of the Sendero Luminoso (SL). While the use of string and foldback clips to hang the collages onto the cardboard walls is any conservator’s worst nightmare, by displaying the works not in frames, but how they were originally intended to be displayed around the campus of the Universidad Nacional and in underground concerts, the curators have remained true to the subversive and agitprop nature of Rodriguez’s art. As the exhibition catalogue points out, the university was a major stronghold of the SL, and by displaying his pacifist messages around the campus, Rodriguez was constantly putting his own life at risk.

Mao, collage on paper, 1985.

Following in the ideology of Mao’s ‘people’s war’ the SL used violent guerrilla warfare in their effort to establish a socialist state. While originally, they only targeted election sites and infrastructure, the second Belaúnde administration (1980-1985) responded by providing military training small communities in the Andes and using soldiers to interrogate, torture, rape, and murder anyone suspicious of being a member of the communist organisation. This provoked the SL into committing their own atrocities, murdering entire villages, and, as the Truth Commission Report (2001-2003) has stated, attempting to “induce genocide”. As the decade progressed the SL became increasingly brutal and began to target anyone they determined to be against them, and therefore Rodriguez’s critique of their murderousness in works such as Mao made him a prime target.

Top to bottom: Los métodos desquiciadores (The unhinged methods), tempura on paper, 1985;

Violencia estructural Perú (Structural violence Peru), collage on paper, 1988.

As many of the pavilions at the Venice Biennale are sponsored by their national governments, it is not surprising that the majority of the exhibitions catalogue and accompanying text focuses on Rodriguez’s condemnation of the SL. The exhibition catalogue even calls the decades in which the guerrillas operated as a “long period of violence unheard of in Perú”. while omitting the genocide of the Inca and colonisation that occurred under the Spanish Empire. While the barbarity and atrocities the SL should not go uncriticised, a closer look at the artist’s work shows a much more intricate struggle for peace. The pieces Los métodos desquiciadores [The unhinged methods] and Violencia estructural Perú [Structural violence Peru] not only denounce violence in its more general form, but they also are a direct reference to the equally heinous practices of the Peruvian government and military. The hypocrisy of the government to pledge an all-out war against the SL while also murdering indigenous and rural communities in the process, can be clearly read in Rodriguez’s labelling of the practices as “unhinged methods”. In a predominantly Catholic country, which had witnessed a military coup d’état only a few years prior, the imposition of martial law in areas under the influence of the communist party was a clear violation of ‘traditional’ religious and social values and the same type of totalitarianism that the SL hoped to implement.

The artist’s denouncement of the cruelty in Peru during the 1980s did not end with a critique of both the government and communist party but continued with general consumerist culture. Asco [Disgust] for example shows his literal disgust with sensationalism, depicting popular films, rock music, and pornography imported by American businesses while Peruvians were dealing with horrific mass murder and rape. In this and other works, Rodriguez seeks to highlight the hypocrisy of a people which turned to normalised violence as a cheap form of entertainment in order to forget the chaos that surrounded them.

Clockwise from left: Asco (Disgust), collage on paper, 1985;

Feliz Navidad hipócritas (Merry Christmas hypocrites), tempura on paper 1985;

Papa Noel me llega (Santa Clause pisses me off), collage on paper, 1985.

The works of Rodriguez provide a valuable insight into Peruvian politics and society, and the exhibition creates a narrative of the brutality and oppression of a nation that lasted for the better part of two decades. While the curators have focused on his condemnation of the SL for many of the works chosen for the display, it still allows the public to be able to understand the lesser-known history of the modern nation of Peru. In contrast to many of the other nations represented at the Venice Biennale, it can be stated that the works were not chosen for their overall aesthetic qualities, but instead for the way in which subversive and underground art and artists, can tell the story of the nation’s constant and continuous struggle for peace.

*All images are the author's own.*

Hunter Garrison is an MA student at the Courtauld and is Deputy Editor for The Courtauldian.


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