Rosemberg Sandoval is an artist who takes a walk on the wild side. The Latin American performance pioneer makes himself and his audience uncomfortable, and he has been doing so since the 1980s. He unsparingly confronted his viewers in innumerable brutal actions with the political and social situation in his country. And today’s harsh reality of Colombia unfortunately proves him all too right, exceeding by far as it does all that Rosemberg Sandoval expressed in his performances.
Rebellion or art?
«I knew that I was going to produce things that I wouldn’t be able to sell, which was contradictory since my family was poor, and making art that won’t sell is absurd when one is such a poor wretch. I’ve always had the liberty of doing what I’ve been able to do without rules and this has made my work move forward from beginning to end. I studied art for ethical, aesthetic, and moral reasons, and as a young man I had to decide: either I join the insurgence and become a guerilla leader, or I become a lucid delinquent or a transgressor-artist, and in the end I said: “No, I am going to make art.” (Interview with Hans-Michael Herzog, Cantos Cuentos Colombianos, Daros Latinamerica/Hatje Cantz, 2004, p. 206)
An artists’ artist
Rosemberg Sandoval has spent his life in and around Cali, and all his life he has been true to himself in the sense of being straight and incorruptible. Many of his artist contemporaries made him their model early on; he later became a tip for insiders, an artists’ artist. He never reaped any profit from it or embarked on a steep career, however, like his European colleague Marina Abramović who became so famous. Cali, after all, was and is too much off the beaten track of the global art scene, even if the Festival de Performance de Cali has achieved legendary fame far beyond the Colombian borders. Sandoval reached a level of performative activities that can hardly be surpassed, neither in terms of quality nor quantity, and these activities have been preserved for us as highly topical documents.
Merciless & intelligent impertinence
The study of Rosemberg Sandoval’s works clearly reveals that he knows what he is talking about. His pronounced existentialism stems from first-hand revolutionary experience. Few artists have succeeded in carrying through their work as tough and uncompromisingly as he did. Merciless, Rosemberg stopped at nothing and realized his artistic ideas regardless of the consequences—nota bene: without ever abandoning his cultivated intelligence or turning pamphleteerish. He always maintained his cool professional distance from his works, in which he usually performed himself, although more in the capacity of a director than an actor. He blended 20th century art history with Christian iconography and symbolism as well as with the requisites of human suffering and death that he borrowed from hospitals and morgues, thus creating impressive productions that posed psychological and physical challenges to both the actor and the audience and remained unforgettable to all who were present. Rosemberg Sandoval does not elegantly sublimate the violence that prevails in his country; instead, he just opens our senses to the surrounding stench of pestilence. In his extremely conservative country, of course, this was perceived as the impertinence it was ultimately intended to be.
«People say all sort of things. At the beginning of the 1980s, Marta Traba was still alive—she was an authority on criticism in Latin America. Very intelligent that woman, but very hard on me. She was concerned because I didn’t paint with oil or acrylic and, because I worked with such dirty materials, she considered me to be a pig. I was stunned. … In the 1980s—which is my generation—she was thinking like it was still the 1950s, and so she suffered some sort of lag, but in any case she was very respected all over the continent because she acted like the pope of art. Good thing she died.” (Cantos Cuentos Colombianos, p. 212)
Rosemberg Sandoval precisely calculated the navigation of his performances on the verge of feasibility, of tolerance, and sometimes slightly beyond, intentionally driving them to the point of pain. He was never vulgar or abusive, but he always liked to stake out what was just barely morally acceptable and what definitely constituted a transgression of human dignity. Criticism in this context all too often and all too quick overlooks that reality is much crueler than its reflection in art—sometimes it takes a good helping of realism to shake us art viewers from our phlegmatic lethargy.
Blood and dirt
Sandoval definitely welcomed Christian icons and symbols with their frequently brutal traits in his artistic proceedings. In his performance «Rose-Rose» (2001–2004) he literally seized on the crown of thorns when he lacerated his own hands with rose thorns until they bled; in the performance «Baby Street» (1998) he alluded to the rite of foot washing and to the veil of Veronica by picking up a homeless person («indigente») from the street, washing his feet, and subsequently wiping his dirty face with a cloth. For his performance «Mugre» (1999), Sandoval took another «indigente» to the Cali art museum and rubbed the dirty body on socle and walls, «painting» them with the body – in a deliberate analogy to and «spiritual kinship» with the «Anthropométries» by his European artist colleague Yves Klein from the early 1960s… Unsurpassed in astringency is the 1984 performance «Síntoma», in which Sandoval wrote words such as «desaparición», «temor», «violación», «muerte», «asesinato» on the museum wall of the Museo Antropológico in Guayaquil, Ecuador, using the blood-soaked tongue of a dead political prisoner from the morgue, until he used up his «writing tool»: a human tongue.
«Hans-Michael Herzog: What notion of beauty do you work with in your art?
Rosemberg Sandoval: The purging of the inhumane. In a cruel society like ours, what I try to do is re-destroy by illuminating.» (Cantos Cuentos Colombianos, p. 228)