Interview by Jana Astanov.
VERÓNICA PEÑA is an interdisciplinary artist from Spain based in the United States. Her work explores the themes of absence, separation, and the search for harmony through Performance Art. Peña is interested in global issues such as migration politics, cross-cultural dialogue, peaceful resistance, liberation, and women’s empowerment. Recent works include participatory performances that create shared moments amongst strangers. Peña has performed around Europe, Asia, and America. In the U.S.: Pioneer Works (*2020), BAAD (2019), Smack Mellon Foundation (2018), Triskelion Arts (2017), Queens Museum (2016), Hemispheric Institute (Encuentro 2016), SAIC School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Visiting Artist 2016), Times Square Alliance, Armory Show, Purdue University, Grace Exhibition Space, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, Gabarron Foundation, Dumbo Arts Festival, Consulate General of Spain in NY, amongst others. In Europe: Museo La Neomudejar (Madrid 2019), Fundacion BilbaoArte (Bilbao 2018), Friche La Belle De Mai (Marseille 2018), Festival Intramurs (Valencia 2018), La Tabacalera (Madrid 2018), amongst others. She was selected for the Creative Capital NYC Workshop (2019-20), received a Franklin Furnace Fund (2018), anda Universidad Complutense de Madrid Fellowship, amongst others. She published “The Presence Of The Absent”, a thesis about her body of work; curates “Collective Becoming”, an initiative to make cities less hostile; and is the founder director of “Performance Art Open Call”, a Facebook Community of more than 6,000 members. She is currently at work on her project about freedom, fear, and resistance, “The Body In The Substance”, to premiere at Pioneer Works, New York, in 2020.
You can follower her on @veronica_pena_live_art, and visit her website: http://www.veronicapena.com.
CREATRIX Magazine: How did it all start? What made you a performance artist?
Verónica Peña: I intuitively transitioned from my Drawing and Painting practice to Performance Art after the loss of my father. He took his own life, and with it, part of our own. It occurred in Spain, my native country, on July of 2007. At the time, I was studying at Stony Brook University, New York, but I happened to be in Spain for the summer break. After I returned to New York to continue with my Master studies, I could not remain in my artist studio; I felt it as a waste of time, and painting did not make sense any longer. I continuously reflected about the separation from my family and culture, and the idea of not living together—dying apart from each other—they in Spain and me in the States, became central to my work. Instead of putting paint on the canvas, one day I began to cover my body with it. The instinctive gesture of covering myself under layers of paint, the confinement of the body, the awaiting in stillness, the desire of overcoming physical distance, and meeting the absent, became the foundation of my art performances and installations. Understanding the daily absence of my family as their premature death, I began a series of durational performance installation works that, though confined my body, opened thresholds between the (me) here and (they) there, past and present, life and death.
CX: Were there any people who influenced you in the choice of performance art? Do you have any mentors, artist you look up to?
VP: My performance art praxis began as a natural search for healing, communion, and liberation. After my father died, I started my unintended performances in the privacy of my studio; I did not know yet that what I was doing could be named as Performance Art. My initial steps into the field were influenced by my study of Native American Cultures; for some of those cultures, covering the body under layers of mud was a method of punishment, and I was feeling guilty. One of the first “performance artists” I came across on my research was Kim Jones, whose work I read about in the book ”In The Making”, by Linda Weintraub. Jones transformed his body to become a living sculpture, and walked around sharing his traumatic experience of war with others on the street. His work very much influenced my first public performance installation “Healing Time” (2007, 2009). Artists Ana Mendieta, and Carolee Schneemann, and writers Milan Kundera, and Marcel Proust are among my influences as well. Above all, my work is indebted to my background on Visual Arts: the contained stillness depicted by Piero della Francesca; the moments of communion sculpted by Rodin; and the harmonious coexistence amongst human beings depicted by Bosch in the central panel of “The Garden Of Earthly Delights” have helped shape some of my main performances. If my work addresses contemporary global issues, such as migration politics, cross-cultural dialogue, peaceful resistance, women’s empowerment, and liberation in the public space; my references are often classical, and attend to aspects of humanity that transcend time, such as the endless human search for peace, the confrontation of injustice, and our exercise of violence or violent nature.
CX: You were trained as a painter, how does it influence your performance art practice?
VP: I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist with a focus on performance art. My work certainly brings aspects of painting into my performative art practice. I often understand my performances as paintings that become three-dimensional and alive, new realities parallel to the everyday life that the spectator can temporarily inhabit and activate. When I conceive of a piece, I think on how to transmit the message through a visual impact: I pay attention to the background/context for the performance, the composition of the moment, the type of lighting the piece requires, and the colors, materials and textures that complement the body in its attempt to share a message. On my performance installations, I use elements inherited from painting such as stillness, sustained moments, the metamorphosis of the body, and silence, to promote visual enchantment, concentration, interaction, empathy, and togetherness.
CX: In 2017 you were a recipient of the Franklin Furnace grant. What was the reception of the work you created “The Body In The Substance”, and how this recognition within the performance art world stirred your artistic development?
VP: The Franklin Furnace Fund is prestigious in the field of Performance Art, and counting with the support of its always willing to help team (Martha Wilson, Harley Spiller, and Jenny Korns at the time) facilitated for me to get in touch with art venues and institutions that would have been otherwise difficult to access. Briefly described, “The Body In The Substance” is a large-scale durational performance installation in which I submerge my entire body within a liquid material that slowly solidifies itself over time.
After receiving the Fund, I searched for highly experimental contemporary art venues in New York City willing to host this logistically challenging project: “The Body In The Substance” entails installing a heavy human-size water tank, a demanding body confinement, trials with “the substance”, and it also requires a considerable amount of funding. The project will be presented at Pioneer Works, New York City, on November of this year 2020. http://veronicapena.com/the_body_in_the_substance.html
CX: I have seen many of your performances, there is always intensity in your work usually expressed in subtle ways, there is also the notion of endurance and need for dialogue. Would you agree? How did you develop your aesthetic?
VP: When I perform, I strive for simplicity, and moments of intense presence. I reduce the elements of my work to the minimum necessary to communicate a vision, idea, or feeling. The absence of unnecessary elements eliminates distractions, and allows for the audience, and the performer, to concentrate on the importance of the moment, the intention of the body, the object being used, and the action performed. I have a tendency to hand make the objects I use in my performances: masses of paper which submerged on black paint become birds; dots which glued to my skin can be opened and display butterflies; paper fans that display U.S. migratory questions; large inflatables; a head mask in the shape of a grape; small water tanks; ”the substance”, result of a two years of research.
Endurance, understood as time, presence, hope, and resistance, is central to my practice. An act of endurance is a challenge to the established, an exercise of resistance that trespasses what the system considers to be “the normal”, and on my body a demonstration of immigrant, female, and human empowerment/resilience/unity. Several of my solo and participatory performances involve challenging the limitations of my body through prolonged confinement and stillness, as well as putting myself in vulnerable situations—naked, unable to move, talk, or see—in which I have to remain calm and trust others not to hurt me. On my work, endurance is the performance of sustained hope, an exercise of trust, an act of peaceful resistance against violence, and a means to generate empathy and dialogue amongst strangers.
CX: Do you see your work as sensual?
VP: Sensuality is subjective and hard to define, what may be sensual for me may not be for you. I try for my work to be elegant, attractive, and challenging in its ugliness. I find the human body always sensual, especially when it is content, and radiates presence. Some of my works, such as “Mirror Eyes” (2010), involve audience participation through prolonged innocent touch amongst strangers, and other works, such as “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (2015), use the nakedness and vulnerability of the performer to promote a respectful togetherness amongst strangers on the street. On my work, I challenge the participants to remain in innocent physical proximity, performing a physical contact that does not have any sexual connotations. I find the harmless sense of touch sensual.
CX: What are some of your favorite past projects?
VP: “Healing Time” (Dumbo Arts Festival, Brooklyn, 2009), in which for several hours I covered my body with translucent tape to afterwards lay on a platform installed by the East River, trying to feel the absent.
“Mirror Eyes” (Times Square Alliance, Manhattan, 2010), a participatory performance in which I used living sculptures, still postures, and silence to generate togetherness. I felt my heartbeat when I first saw the people interacting with the performers, especially during a posture that evoked the inhuman practice of stoning women.
“The Garden Of Earthly Delights” (Month of Performance Art Berlin, Germany, 2015), participatory performance where in order to explore notions of vulnerability and trust amongst strangers I brought to live one of the figures of Bosch’s painting.
“Lunares” Dots (Momenta Art Gallery, Brooklyn, 2016), addressing cultural separation, and stereotypes of Spaniards in the United States.
“Carried Bodies: La Máquina Dormida” (Museo C.A.V, La Neomudéjar, Madrid, Spain, 2019), about overcoming obstacles and achieving liberation through Performance Art.
The projects using “the substance”, a liquid material that slowly solidifies confining the human body in a gesture of resistance to violence and inequality: “The Substance of Heaven” (Bunker Projects Performance Art Festival, Pittsburgh, PA, 2016; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL, 2016; Glasshouse, Brooklyn, NYC, 2017; Pøst Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2018), and “The Body In The Substance” to be presented at Pioneer Works this year 2020. http://veronicapena.com/the_body_in_the_substance.html
CX: In your curatorial statement for the performance art series Homeostasis you say: “The search for peace is an endless human endeavor.” How do you find your own peace? “I feel that we live in an increasingly violent and unstable time, and I think it is important to counteract violence and fear by promoting art performances that inspire tolerance and mutual understanding”. How does this statement permute through the works that you are curating as “Collective Becoming”?
VP: In Spain we say “vive y deja vivir” (“live and let others live”), meaning to let yourself be while letting others to be themselves as well. Living under this principle gives me peace. Through my creative practice, I promote the free expression of the self in the public space, empathy towards others, and dialogue about injustice. This is my way of contributing towards the positive, and by it I find some peace.
The concept of “Collective Becoming” refers to our capacity of achieving goals together, and it translates into the mutual collaboration amongst artists in order to show and help execute each artist individual project. Under the umbrella of “Collective Becoming”, I have curated: “The Urban Caress” (Month of Performance Art Berlin, Germany, 2015), “Expressions of Love, Freedom, and Resistance” (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, Chicago, IL, 2016), and Homeostasis (Artists Gallery, Chelsea, New York, 2019). Each of these curatorial projects intended to challenge preconceptions, foster dialogue, and promote togetherness through Performance Art. The live realities created by the showcased artists brought spectators together through participation, shared narratives, and performances that openly challenged inequality, social stigmatization, urban hostility, political negligence, racism, personal disequilibrium, etc. Invited artists were: Kevin Quiles Bonilla, Nicole Goodwin, Jenna Kline, Joseph Ravens, Kledia Spiro, Kathryn Cellerini Moore, Hector Canonge, Eypraksia Kontsa, Elena Soria, Marko Markovic, and Amy Rosa.
CX: Is there a foreseeable end to the world of inequalities we live in? What role – if any – does the art play?
VP: Art generates beauty, educates, and counteracts inequality. Artists, by reacting to violence, inequality, hypocrisy, and the negative, contribute towards the opposite generating a more balanced, open, and just society. In its medical definition, homeostasis describes a healthy state sustained by constant biochemical and physiological adjustments that happen between elements within an entity to achieve equilibrium, and preserve its existence. By overcoming obstacles, and working towards the positive and the transparent, artists publicly challenge personal, social, and political disequilibrium in pursuit of a healthier system/society, and a more harmonious state of being.
CX: What’s next for Verónica Peña?
VP: As happened to several of us, the painful events and deaths caused by the global spread of COVID-19 have kept my spirit paralyzed for several days, and I am just slowly getting back to work in an attempt to recover some normality. Due to the necessary measures of social distancing, several of my art performances and presentations were cancelled or postponed. I am currently focused on finishing the various components of “The Body In The Substance” and “Vinculum”, two complementary large-scale performances that I am excited to premiere at Pioneer Works, New York, on November 8th of this year (date now tentative, given the circumstances). I am very thankful to curator David Everitt Howe, to Pioneer Works, and to Franklin Furnace for their support. I am excited about working with a wonderful team of professionals: fashion designer Karen Honorio-Carrillo, sound artist Ciudadana_Cero, and invited art performers Arantxa Araujo, Hector Canonge, and Tara Gladden, among others.
Last year, I was selected for the Creative Capital NYC Taller 2019-20, in collaboration with the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, and instructed by Carmelita Tropicana and Ela Troyano; and I have recently started working on a new project in connection with the workshop.
I was looking forward to performing in Spain this Summer, but unfortunately my projects got postponed until next year.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Jana Astanov is an interdisciplinary artist, a writer, and an independent curator from Poland based in NYC. Her work includes performance art, photography, installation and new media. She published five collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire, Sublunar, The Pillow Book of Burg, and Birds of Equinox.
She can be found here: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.