On April 20th of this year, during one of the dozens of demonstrations against Nicolás Maduro’s government in the last months, 27-year old Hans Wuerich undressed before a group of National Bolivarian Police officers. Bible in hand, he managed to climb one of the police tanks; he descended after exchanging a few words with the officers, his back covered in pellet shots. Then he walked home, still naked, and his family healed his wounds (or so Hans himself told Climax magazine). Professional and amateur photographs abound in protests –at least in Caracas–, so in a matter of minutes the images of Hans raising his arms and waving his Bible were on everyone’s screens.
Public reactions, both condemnatory and condescending as well as glorifying and even “messianic”, emerged immediately. For me, the scene initially provoked an immediate comparison with the performance work of Érika Ordosgoitti, whose discourse has interested me for several years and with whom I had the opportunity to speak in an exchange published by Atlas magazine a few months ago. What Érika does has many subtleties and encompasses different formats and strategies, but, generally speaking, it has become a reference for the questioning of public space through the naked body. However, with the passing of the days and after reading subsequent statements by Hans Wuerich himself, I understood that his was perhaps a more precarious proposal and that it came from a different place; however, it certainly holds important similarities with Érika’s performances. In both cases, Hans and Érika confront the public space, which is besieged by patriarchal-military forces, with their vulnerable bodies, thus sensitizing –through the photographic capture, and not only with their actions in real time– their audience to the issues of marginality and violence.
Much has been already said, and I don’t mean to over-analyze what Hans Wuerich did on the Francisco Fajardo highway that day, but I also think that not talking about it in these terms means conceding too much space to the malicious, sexist interpretations that I found when I Googled his name (keep in mind that, within hours of his appearance, the President of Venezuela made a joke about the size of Hans’s penis on public television). News portals sympathetic to the government refer to Hans as “the opositor (member of the opposition) who set up a show on the freeway,” claim that he was drugged during the event, and they have even found out what kind of pension his father (of immigrant descent, they are quick to note) receives, so as to bring “shame” to his family. All of this because of a naked, injured body.
In an interview with Clímax magazine a few days after his jump to “fame”, Wuerich stated that his actions had been premeditated (not, as I thought, a spontaneous reaction to the siege of tear gas and pellets). He mentioned that he felt the wave of protests thus far needed “something that really created attention,” and that he searched Google for references: “I read about people who stripped naked in Spain to protest bullfighting. I also saw some women undressing against Trump. And a woman in Brazil who did more or less what I did, but she could not stand it. She ran off with the pellets. Of course, I also saw the old lady who stood in front of the tanks here in Caracas.” Even if he did not express it or the published interview did not reflect it, he was clearly referring to ways of protesting individually with the body and through nudity.
A naked body in a protest not only carries the message intended by the undressed. It also generates morbidness, fascination, disgust, admiration, curiosity… In our era, a naked body where we do not expect to see it circulates, it’s shared, commented, spoken about. When certain pro-government news portals refer to Wuerich as “the one who set up the show,” they are mistaken in referring to “show” as a reprehensible strategy: the Venezuelan government, itself a nationwide media empire, knows a thing, maybe two, about shows and shocking images (in fact, many people trace its genesis to Hugo Chávez’s appearance in public television after commanding a failed coup). On the other hand, Wuerich does not seem to specifically consider his actions in terms of performance art, although, as researcher Vanessa Vargas points out in her text Performance en estado de excepción en Venezuela (“Performance in a State of Exception in Venezuela”), published in Danza-RevistaMX, it is closely related to a tradition of Venezuelan performance which has historically been linked to political activism. That is to say, Hans Wuerich has not suggested that his appearance was intended to be a performance but, because of the iconoclastic character and symbolic nature of his intervention, I dare to refer to it in those terms. In regard to this and other protagonisms of the body as a symbolic place of protest in recent demonstrations, Vargas states:
Performance in the protests that we see today in Venezuela, not only those that have been conceived from artistic practice but those that are immanent to their own potentiality as expressive sites, respond, precisely, to an exploration of the body as a redoubt of signs, of images; as an alternative to violence, censorship and self-censorship stemming from the artistic fact, as a space of primitive symbolic wealth, a total exposure of the body that demands to be subject again and that, it seems, performance has the need to rescue.
During demonstrations in which a disproportionate use of force, the invasion of private property, the absence of due process, and the use of military courts have characterized the response of those in power, civilian bodies enact resistance from their vulnerability. Vargas argues: “The idea of occupying the street with the body means not only a redistribution of the body in the homogenous and homogenizing mass, it means to place the body right on the breaking point, as a vanishing point…” Facing police and military forces, civilian bodies re-semanticize space and define the character of the movement they represent –without forgetting that violence in the most fatal encounters has come from both sides, nevertheless framed in an obviously asymmetrical struggle in terms of resources, training and official support.
In a text entitled Cuerpo político/cuerpo dócil: críticas y alteraciones del aparato del poder desde la fotografía contemporánea venezolana (“Political body / docile body: criticism and alterations of the power apparatus from contemporary Venezuelan photography”), published by online platform Tráfico Visual, researcher Lisa Blackmore refers to the configuration of public space since the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Blackmore argues that illustrative photographs of that time show how
the city serves as stage for choreographed demonstrations of docile and disciplined bodies –to use the Foucauldian term–, where military and civic parades and mass cultural events (to name just two common occurrences during the dictatorship) served and continue to serve today as performances styled to reinforce the autocratic power of regimes that are aseptic to criticism and dissent.
More than fifty years after the production of those images, urban space in Venezuela continues to be a stage for the reinforcement of autocratic power, again explicitly represented by military forces: officials of the Bolivarian National Guard are omnipresent and “supervise” all sorts of activities, from the distribution of food to the procedures to obtain a driver’s license. In the same way, the government often employs public space, especially sites framed by monumental symbols, to show off its militia forces –armed civilians– that participate in military-style parades, in addition to the usual Army parades on each national holiday, as well as marches by civilian supporters. Needless to say, during these deployments, no repression ever occurs, which goes to show that some bodies do have the privilege to demonstrate while others do not. In the specific case of this year’s wave of protests, public space has been totally taken over by the armed wing of autocratic power (national and municipal police, intelligence police, anti-extortion police and the National Guard, as well as paramilitary forces), which enacts the repression during the demonstrations and, the rest of the time, can stop, search and detain anyone on the street under the pretext of a state of emergency. This is why the presence of disobedient, undisciplined and unarmed bodies –such as Hans Wuerich’s– in the streets represents the creation of “vanishing points” (as stated by Vargas), the constitution of a “performance” opposed to the choreography of power.
As soon as I saw the image of Hans on the PNB tank, I immediately remembered a photograph of Érika Ordosgoitti climbing a sculpture of a bull in the city of Maracay (two images from that series are posted below this paragraph). Both images are related: a vulnerable body raises itself onto a monumental object that represents the most violent and patriarchal aspects of the culture in which we are immersed. But despite the obvious resonance between these two scenes, Hans does not propose, like Erika, a lay body; in an interview with The New York Times, and in reference to the Bible in his hand, he summed up his reasons for stripping in front of the police: “[I did it] Because the devil is in Venezuela. The devil is in the government… I did not try to follow any political line, I just wanted to express a message with my Bible: we must get the devil out of our country. We must unite and rescue our righteousness. Only with God on our side can we do it.” The vulnerable body also offers itself as a place of purification, and the desire to “cast the devil out” becomes one with his other reasons protest (such as the end of food and medicine shortages and the holding of general elections, as he mentioned to Clímax). Hans poses the national conflict in the very plain terms of “good versus evil” which he understands as “God against the devil”: his totally unprotected and unarmed body against the repressive police. He projects a scenario of radical contrasts and generates not only the moment to evoke it with his performance, but the photographic image that continues and will continue to circulate and represent it over and over again.
Aware of the violence that pervades public space in Venezuela, Érika Ordosgoitti has developed performance works (some of which are quick so as to generate a single image, which she calls “photo assaults”) that consist of situating her naked body in areas of the city that usually have one of two characteristics: marginality or monumentality. In the latter case, Érika destabilizes architectural icons of the city with her presence, to make visible the devaluation of the individual in relation to the ideology represented by monuments that, as Lisa Blackmore would say, configure an urban space designed for docility. With her nakedness (and with the “crime” she is theoretically committing by exposing it), Érika brings marginality to these untouchable spaces. Like Erika, who always seeks to produce an image, Wuerich thought of his performance as a strategy to produce a “strong message,” which is nothing more than an image powerful enough –in a good or bad sense, depending on the audience– to circulate widely. It is also possible to understand Wuerich’s action as inscribed in Ordosgoitti’s discourse: the body that suffers under the economic, security and health crisis, imposes itself on a monument that synthesizes the hegemonic ideology. He confronts power directly, visibly, with its very ruinous effects.