Artforum, September 1998
Maruch Sántiz Gómez at Galería OMR, Mexico City
Maruch Sántiz’s photographs come with curious tips spelled under them— consider this one: “When lifting a griddle off the fire, one shouldn’t look at the little sparks produced thereof, since pimples would otherwise grow on one’s face, like those on the griddle’s surface.”
Such odd advice is hardly an artsy provocation by this twenty two year old Tzoltzil Indian, who was recruited by photographer Carlota Duarte as part of a community-oriented project in the nowadays newsworthy state of Chiapas. Sántiz’s twenty five black & white prints straightforwardly depict the rudimentary wares of daily tasks which set off the superstitious convictions of the Tzoltzil. For instance, an image of a basket on the dusty ground, filled with dried chile, refers us to a forbidance to shake such baskets so as to cause the chile seeds to rattle, because, otherwise “…when hugging a child, he/she will cry…” An open gourd used as a tortilla container instills us not to eat the first tortilla, since one would be induced to bad-mouth other people.
Sántiz project is meant to be serviceable to her people. As she explains it, her community’s telestic knowledge will be secured from extintion if it is compiled in a medium that can be readily accessed by its largely illiterate members (much like Giotto did for biblical stories in medieval Asisi.) Such an expectation would run in the face of the cultural-relativist’s questioning of the photographic medium’s immediacy. Nevertheless, the unenlightened in theTzoltzil ways will indeed see pictures screaming for mediation.
At the gallery, a dilemma is raised, one which disconcerts our art-viewing habits—because, as much as its austerity befits our post-minimal taste, characterizing Sántiz’s work as “contemporary art” would be as disputable as was the linking of Australian aboriginals’ dot decorations with modernist abstraction.
Appearances aside, Sántiz forces us to choose between first reading the legends under the pictures or else begin by looking at the images, a choice which determines the ensuing type of response. By recurring to the legends first, the images become anthropological ilustrations whose meaning is undone once and for all. On the other hand, by looking first and thus seeking to pinpoint the pictures’ formal qualities in order to derive some kind of significance from them, these qualities suggest themselves by bracketing the photographs into a discourse which is evidently alien to them. Hence, Sántiz works perform in a sophisticated artistic manner, triggering an examination of our semiologies of perceptual and verbal communication—the tensions between which have long been the basis for some cultivated aesthetic attitudes.
Furthermore, these unexpectedly welcome complications lead us to revise the widespread duchampian inclination to define the ontology of the artistic via the artist’s (arbitrary) willfulness to distinguish between art and non-art. The mutual exclusiveness of these two categories, product of the duchampian fixation, is made untenable by Sántiz pieces because they effectivelly function as art eventhough they are not meant to be such, and because their performance as art in turn depends on the fact that they’re, simultaneously, not art.