Yolanda Benalba’s performance work, inspired by her mother and her grandmother, deals with the theme of violence against women in her native country of Spain. For RP 15, Benalba performed Españicidios: Viva el vino y las mujeres / Spanicide: Viva the wine and woman. The performance was short and quite simple. Standing in the center of the gallery with a bottle of red wine, Benalba, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, poured the wine over her head, staining her shirt. After ritualistic lifting the shirt over her head, Benalba placed sticky gold foil numbers on her chest. Drenched and half undressed, she repeatedly shouted out those numbers: 959. Moving to the back of the gallery, Benalba threw hatpins into the wine. The performance concluded with Benalba kneeling on the floor while mopping up the pins with her hair.
The allusions to Catholicism, blood, sacrifice, and male violence were pretty obvious in this performance. The wine represents both the blood of Christ, His sacrifice, and, by implication, the sacrifice of women. Wine also alludes to the alcoholism and unemployment that creates the conditions in which women are beaten and murdered. The hatpins, with their long, lethal points and bulbous white heads, suggest both the societal strictures that create these unequal relationships and force women to stay in them and the seemingly innocuous domestic implements that are used to inflict terrible violence. Thus when Benalba finished the piece, and stood up with her hair a tangle of wine and straight pins, she became the female equivalent of Ecce Homo, or Behold the Man: the image of Christ, whipped and mocked with a crown of thorns, standing on the balcony and displayed to the crowd.
What was most interesting about this piece, which was performed in front of a largely sympathetic art audience who for the most part resists hetero-normative roles, gendered violence, and religious excess, was not so much the metaphorical allusions to a class-based violence that is all too common as it was the allusions to the way that violence is implicated in art and art history. The image of Ecce Homo is an image of great violence inflicted on a body, a violence that prefigures blood sacrifice. It suggests our fascination with, and desire to view, violence even as we turn away from that violence. Ironically, there has been a recent and well- publicized act of violence on a 19th century painting of Ecce Homo in Spain. Elías García Martínez’s Ecce Homo, painted for the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain, was recently restored beyond recognition when an 80 year old parishoner and amateur artist “restored” the Ecce Homo beyond recognition, creating the much loved Beast Jesus.
The Ecce Homo “restoration” produced another sort of violence as well—one that implicates those whose existence occurs on the margins of society. Cecilia Giménez, the woman who restored Beast Jesus, was doubly marginalized: an elderly woman, who was seen as lacking the acuteness of youth as well as the criticality of a true artist. Benalba’s piece references the work of other artists who have enacted similar gestures in the name of those folks who remain vulnerable and disenfranchised, and whose marginality is actually reinforced through the discourse of art. The hatpins recall Ron Athey’s Resonate/Obliterate (2010-) which begins with Athey violently brushing and then removing a blond wig that is held to his head by the same type of cruel hatpins that Benalba mopped up with her hair. Athey’s piece references the religious ecstasy and fanaticism of his youth in a Pentecostal church. It also speaks to the queerness of Athey’s body, as well as our fascination and repulsion with blood, which in this case was real.
Even closer to home is Janine Antoni’s Loving Care (1992). In that performance, Antoni repeated dipped her head in hair dye and then painted with that hair. A feminist remake of Yves Klein’s Anthropomètries, which involved dragging naked women dipped in blue paint over a large canvas on the floor, Loving Care exposed the relationship between the objectification of women in art and in culture. Benalba’s use of her hair to collect the spilled wine and hatpins unites the violence against Cecilia Giménez, the religious excess and self-mortification of Ron Athey, and Antoni’s feminist re-performance of Klein. It is in this nexus of real and metaphorical art world violence that Benalba’s work is most powerful.