Carlos Martiel’s Body Is Both Material and Medium

The Havana-born artist and inaugural recipient of the Maestro Dobel Latinx Art Prize speaks on his upcoming show at El Museo del Barrio and the power of corporal existence.

Carlos Martiel. Image courtesy of Maestro Dobel Tequila

The work of Havana-born performance artist Carlos Martiel bodies interrogations of political and physical power. His corporal existence, the spirit within it, and its various identities are often at once subject, object, and content—and viewers, collaborators, or witnesses. In Alter Ego(2022), he lies on a pedestal with a face full of makeup concealed by a veil viewers were forced to decide whether to uncover; in Pink Death (2021), he is held at the neck by a triangle of thread dyed with the blood of an HIV+ friend. Viewers choose whether to join him in the fraught geometry.

This fall, Martiel is the inaugural recipient of Maestro Dobel Latinx Art Prize, a biannual award for Latinx artists given in partnership between Maestro Dobel Tequila and the El Museo del Barrio. Below, in a condensed conversation, he chats with Surface about his plans for the $50,000 grant and showcase in El Museo del Barrio’s Room 110 space, how he began working with his body, and the profound effort in an illusion of stillness.

“Monumento II” (2021) by Carlos Martiel at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Image courtesy of the artist

How did you first come to use your body as a material, or medium, in your work?

I started working with performance art from the beginning. Even with my first drawings, back when I was in school in Havana. To create my drawings, I sometimes used pigments from my own blood. I’d go to the hospital to ask the doctors how to take my blood out to use it as pigment, but they wouldn’t let me draw any more blood for my work. That’s how the whole performance came about. I couldn’t depend anymore on anyone to provide me with the tools I wanted to use to continue creating my drawings. That’s when I decided to use my own body to create art—so I wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else.

Much of your work could be said to involve gestures of immobility. Have you learned anything about your body, about being in your body, by creating circumstances in which it must be still and viewed—by being able to still it, and offer it as art?

Every time I create performance art with my body and it may appear I’m not moving, there’s still movement within the process. I’ve done performances that last 30 seconds and others of up to eight hours. During them, I go into a meditative state. I’d never be able to remain in that state of being without some form of meditation. This may seem obvious, but I’m a being that lives in a body, not just a body. You can express yourself without the necessity of movement or sharing any words. There’s a lot of power in that.

“South Body” (2019) by Carlos Martiel; Biennial of the Americas, Denver. Image courtesy of the artist

Your work also often invites its audience to make some choices in response. Do you think of viewers as collaborators, then? Do you anticipate interactions with them?

I’ve been interested in involving the audience as an active part of the artwork. Their participation enriches and gives new conceptual meanings to my work, while creating dialogues that speak to the human capacity to communicate, share emotions, or remain indifferent to others’ pain. In a way, they become co-creators of the work through their involvement, and the boundary between contemplation and action blurs.

What about the spaces in which the works are staged?

I’ve worked in public spaces and galleries or institutions such as The Guggenheim, but that doesn’t change my work’s meaning or how I’ve approached it from the beginning. It may seem contradictory, but the audience will always be different while simultaneously essentially the same, more or less diversified. Each space contributes content to the artwork, whether it’s the street, a gallery, or a museum, and they play a role in how the work is perceived (or not). Each observer has an individual meaning they attribute to the work based on their experience.

What can you tell us about what you’ll do with the prize money, and what you might show at El Museo del Barrio?

I’m excited about producing new work that I hope will continue to shine a light on important topics for my community. I look forward to showcasing my work in El Museo del Barrio’s galleries next spring. As for what I’ll be showing, you’ll have to stay tuned.

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