In August 2017, I interviewed Isabel Ruiz about her work, her life, and her philosophy surrounding the rich exchanges between the two: or, perhaps, better said, the inextricability of life and the arts. That interview stretched over many hours and many themes, always circling back to the role of the artist and her physical manifestations of a culture’s history and thoughts. Born in 1945, Ruiz studied art at the Universidad Popular in Guatemala from 1964-1968. She was involved with the Galería Imaginaria from its inception in 1986. She has worked extensively in printmaking and painting, and is widely known for her installation and performance work. In December 2017, she received the Carlos Mérida Award for her contribution to Guatemalan culture. She has been at the center of Guatemala City’s vibrant artistic communities for decades, collaborating in works of theater and film, teaching, and illustrating books. Most recently, her work was included in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition Guatemala from 33,000 km at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara. I include here an excerpt of our conversation.
Isabel Ruiz - When we talk about visual arts, or sound art, or art in general, we are talking about the body. Although they call me a visual artist, the truth is that I can’t state more clearly how my body is engaged in everyday life. I start from there, from everyday life. You don’t live just with your hands or your feet. You live with your body.
I have focused on that, on how everything is in constant motion, and, by nature, so is the body. Furthermore, when I work, I cannot work without music. That is how I start to bring all the arts together…
So, let’s say I have been making art, “art” in quotation marks, because I am not so concerned with art alone. I feel my concern is life, life and how it moves… I first became interested in performance because I realized, ever since I was a child, like I told you, that it was a reflection of the collective, the reaction of the collective to social pain and also turmoil. At least for me, as an artist, social issues take up a lot of thought… That is why I was saying that, for me, art is not art, but life.
I was always drawing; I have done prints, but, I mean, when I engage in the act of working, I am not working in my head alone, but with my hands also…
So, I work with my body, and that is why I don’t think it’s in any way unusual to sit beside you (as I did in one performance), wearing a stethoscope and putting it on you. There is nothing as close to you, and nothing so far from you. I don’t know you, but you are there, I can make you listen to my heart and I can hear yours. That’s what I am saying (when I talk about the difficulty of reaching science): there is nothing as close, and nothing as far away.
I did a performance in Antigua, Guatemala, with the Spanish Cooperation organization. I thought of making the wall part of my contribution. I told them that I wanted to be outside the building, because all the other artists were inside; and I told them I wanted to be outside because I was from the outside, I was from the street, I have always wanted to capture the street. So, they allowed me to mark on top of the wall, [counting] like this: One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five, I started to count the Guatemalan disappeared five at a time, and I figured out how much space that number would take up, per meter, because I knew I had to get to a very large number without losing count. So what I did was figure out how many I could get in a meter until I reached the approximate number; it took me two days, standing in the street.
When I was in the street a lot of people insulted me, because to many people Antigua is sacred, a city that cannot be touched.
LA - I am interested in the connection between the movement of the body, the gesture, and emotional life. Being in mourning, which is not scientific but is part of the body and of inner life. How do you think this connection between emotional life and motion?
IR - Showing emotion requires action. Emotion is always mediated by action. Your reaction is so strong that you cry, you are enraged, or frustrated. So, you go and turn that into something. I wanted to make something that was close to what I like, which is art, and that is how I participated.
LA - Who was part your community in those years, in the 1980s, when you started? Other artists, your family, or both?
IR- It was a mix, because we are talking about the 1970s to the 1990s. I graduated from school, beginning my contribution as an individual artist. School has its limits, because school teaches you that there is a limit and a solution to everything. Someone who is a creator doesn’t think like that, creators think that things go further, and that is where they begin their research.
That’s when I began to write about how the collective is not separate from the individual. I am a part of a collective and I react the way I do because I am a part of that collective.
People will probably have a different reaction somewhere else, a different attitude, but to me, everything leads to motion, to anger; sometimes I may cry inconsolably or laugh trying to find a way out, but in the end, it is all in order to get to art - art is just the showcase of life, that’s what it is.
LA - You from Guatemala City, right?
IR - Yes, I am from the capital, but when I was growing up I went to Sololá and Santiago Atitlán all the time because my father and my grandparents, whom I never knew, were from Santiago Atitlán…
LA - Do you have a very strong connection to that place, that land?
IR - Yes, it is very strong. Every day I think that I want to go back to Sololá and Atitlán when my health is better; I feel I need it, and it gets more difficult every time… But I would really like to go back, because I really need it.
LA - How so?
IR - It’s my childhood, my youth. Right? Also, when I am there, I can breathe a special kind of air, that is sad, and also happy.
LA - It’s a sacred place.
IR - It’s like a ritual. I feel that seeing that landscape moves me. It calms me.
LA - Beautiful. I understand. What do you think is the connection between ritual and your work?
IR- Creating a work is performing a ritual, it is a ritual. It’s a process that isolates you from everyone so that you can concentrate and make something that you tear from here, you pull it from your heart and you pull it from your mind. Because both must to go together. That’s how it is…
LA - Can you tell me about or describe to me some of your experiences during the 1980s?
IR - Yes, yes, in the 80s the army hurt the country a lot. Anyone, really, that they would capture, they would kill… They took words from outside in order to scare us; it was easier to kill people when you accused them of being a communist; and this country was never communist. Most of the time it has been ruled by the military, and countries can’t be one thing or another. They are what they are, that’s it. Societies react to their own times, their geography, how their corporeal self can develop in a specific geography…
LA - You said that they brought words from the outside, that, in a way, it was a war of words. In a country with so many languages, with many words…
IR - 22 languages.
LA - Yes. It’s incredible, isn’t it? So, you can use words to cause harm, to instill fear; it’s very powerful. You work with words also…
IR - I do. So, we have that problem. We are so small and so divided that it’s hard to get by. But it is hard for them as well; the military are cunning. One thing is fundamental: they don’t want the country to grow because it’s better for them if the population is ignorant, so education is very poor. Education should be practical. If it’s not practical, it is useless. I am not so interested in knowing only historical stuff; I don’t want to live off of the past; I want to live the present, and talk about the present…
That, and I am also excited about doing [a new project]: organize a choreography where the dancers are dancing with walkers, crutches; I want to show them how…. Because I feel that is something I can explain.
LA - So, what does it meant to you, or what does it say, this gesture of dancing with walkers…?
IR - It’s capturing an object I live with everyday, and bringing it into the moment that I am living.
I think that everything I do is because I have thought it through ahead of time. That’s how it is; I do it spontaneously because I have thought it through so much. Things never come out of the blue, everything in life comes from something we have lived. Nothing comes from nothing.
LA - Could we talk a little about books, about reading?
IR - I suffer from visual fatigue, but I read for at least one hour every day. Right now, I am hooked by a scientist. He talks about the craziest stuff, because I feel art is everywhere, it’s just a matter of being informed, right? So, I am fascinated by this scientist’s ideas; the one in a wheelchair, Stephen Hawking. I am reading him. He is hard to understand, but I want to see how much I can grasp about the birth of the universe, the way galaxies separated, about light, how light is affected by gravitational waves, things that are hard for me to understand, because they are things I can’t see, but I would really like to, to get it, right? This scientist helps me imagine it.
LA - It’s interesting how you bring together the past, memory, and imagination all at once. There is physical memory in the body also, of course…
IR- You know what I have figured out? The life of the scientist is very much like that of the artist’s. It’s daring; you dare to think about what others have not, and you try to make it a reality, by any means possible.
LA - Yes, that is very nice. I love how you approach life as research…
IR - I reject anything that sets limits. Because, you must transgress, you must challenge authority. You must jump over them if you have to, you have to surpass them. Because there is a limit to authority. And authority is closed. Research is not.
LA - What do you think about the demonstrations that are happening now, the current political situation?
IR - I am moved, because although the congress say there was no support for the demonstrations, I did see it, I did see they were massive. The population is small, and they can easily all go out and pack the Central Park, Constitution Square. If there is one thing that moves me is youth participation.
LA - Incredible…
IR - The people who are living the present are the ones who can best talk about the present. I was very eloquent about my present when I lived it; now I live somewhat off of memories and whatever is thrown in. You could say that I lead a sedentary life right now; but young people don´t. Young people are out there, looking, watching, seeing. That fascinates me.
LA - One thing that really shocked me when I moved here was this idea of being self-taught, because there are [so few] art schools and institutions here, but there is a real search. Not just among young people, but among people of all ages, who want to know and learn, and become informed, and ask… I think that, that search and research, it is associated with protesting without fear. Because if you have questions and you are not afraid to ask, you are not afraid to take the streets and push for answers. It moves me because it´s something that we are not used to in my country. We have a box for each thing, we take classes at the university, we work, but we very rarely protest.
IR- Yes, because the authorities are not interested in improving education. And I feel that education doesn´t have to be the way it is here, nor how it is in the United States; we have to invent it.
LA - Yes, re-invent it. That too.
IR - You have to think that what we are talking about right now, this recording, is already in the past. It is past. Why are these things happening? That is what needs to be very clear. That yesterday is the past, no matter how close it is. And that perhaps this is a day when I can change something; I have to think about that always, that each day is for change, because the sun came out again and I can see the light, and if I can see the light, I have to learn to think clearly.
LA - Yes. That´s a great philosophy. That if there is light, you have to go on.
IR - You have to go on.
IR - I belong here, in this land. This is where my country is, this country names me and gives me my surname. So, this is where I belong. And all this we are talking about, it feeds my artwork.
LA - I like the idea of belonging to a place, like a seed.
IR - It´s the essence. That is what I was telling you about: if I had been born in a different country, maybe I wouldn´t be like this; I probably wouldn´t be like I am. Not even the way I dress, the way I talk; nothing.
LA - Nor the way you think, the way you feel.
IR - No, nothing. I would do something else.
LA - And what do you want for your Guatemala?
IR - I would like a country with equality. I know that it is very difficult, but understanding one another is fundamental. Not to impose one’s ideas, but to share ideas. We haven´t understood that no one owns everything. We are all owners, and we want to learn to know that we have to live as a community…
LA - Do you miss the streets?
IR - Yes.
LA - Walking and seeing…
IR - And walking. You always learn a lot by looking, getting on the bus, going to the market, hearing the different languages, looking at the different produce of the land, there is abundant food in the market, where they sell local food; they sell hilachas, subanik, pepián…
LA - I think there is also a lot of knowledge, about walking as a process, just from walking, from the road, your body there; it´s experience.
IR - As you walk you enjoy, you see with your eyes, feel the different textures with your hands, taste things. That is why I say the body is a constant performance. That is what the body is to me, a constant performance.
LA - There is something intuitive, animal in us, too, I think.
IR - Oh, yes, that is especially true. We are very instinctive.
LA - And how have your ideas changed, being stuck in here, a little holed up at home?
IR - I am distressed realizing that I can’t to go out, but that´s why I read, I watch television all the time, I like to be informed about what happens here in Guatemala and what happens outside. Just now I was worrying about what is happening in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Two countries that have suffered the consequences of climate change…
IR - Well, I see you have met my friends. We are not as far apart as we think. We don´t check on one another, because I can´t go out, but I know where Mario [Santizo] is, I know where Julio [Serrano] is, I know where Gabriel [Rodriguez] is, and I know they are all doing what they have to. I trust them blindly, because they are young, and that is a guarantee in itself. There is a continuity. Nothing dies here. Everything goes on. The good and the bad.
LA - They are very good artists. There are some very complex artist communities here; they are incredible.
IR - Well, and you have a chance to see the artists. Because the community doesn´t know that artists exist; they never go to galleries or anything. But we artists know that they exist, and that what we breathe from the community is what we produce. They are there. That takes the community places it can´t even imagine. They go show themselves to the elites, to people outside of Guatemala, everywhere. Ideas move, they go, they flow. Because what we, as creators, make is the product of life, of this country´s everyday life.
They are the voice. I feel the creator is the voice of those who think they don´t have a voice. But it flows.
LA – Can you tell me about some of your collaborations with other artists?
IR - When I was in the street, I was always with a group. The group that left more of an imprint on me was Imaginaria. It included Luis Gonzalez Palma, Pablo Swezey, an American. When Pablo Swezey came to Guatemala, because he came from the university in Austin he had these ideas and this philosophy, everything very clear to him, right? And he always questioned us, so I would tell him, “look, cabrón, what you have to do is learn to live here. Live here and then you´ll talk just like us.” And that´s what happened…
LA - But how did collaboration work in a country with so much frustration and lack of trust?
IR - You know what Pabo Swezey used to tell me? He used to tell me: “Look, Chavela, every time I see you coming I feel you are headed straight for a mess… it´s a mess when you leave, and then you come back and it’s a mess.” That’s what he’d say.
The thing is, I was the only woman…. It’s very curious. I grew up with four brothers, all males, and I’ve also been the only woman in the groups where I’ve been involved.
So I always felt I had to learn to yell the loudest so that I would be heard… I don’t think I am going to change. If this country doesn’t change, I will. If I weren’t able to live here I wouldn’t have stayed for 72 years. At 72 I look 85 because of my health and all that. Can you imagine what I am going to look like at 85, if I make it? I want to die fighting. That’s what I want. And talk through trouble.
LA - Talk through what?
IR - Talk through trouble, the best way to survive. What’s nice about trouble is that when you go from fight to fight you are always trying to defend yourself, and you end up learning how to defend yourself.
LA - How did you manage? Defending yourself for 70 years?
IR - I don’t know.
LA - Aren’t you tired of always being in the defensive?
IR - No… The thing is, you have to learn to have emotions in order to connect to life; someone who is young should never see a defeated person when they look at an elder; they should see someone vibrant, experienced, a fighter. That is how it should be.
LA - Yes, because there is the present, and also we don’t have a past when we are young. Then there’s this tension with knowledge…
IR - Yes, because after I die I think that everything I think about and that I have said, is only going to be written, but I won’t be there to speak with my voice, with my anger, with my anguish, with my fighting spirit.
LA - With your body.
IR - Yes, with my performance. I am not going to be able to perform. So, I want to die performing.
LA - Thank you very much for this visit. I feel honored to have met you. I wanted to ask you about performance, and here we are, talking about life.
IR- And that’s the performance.
LA - Yes, exactly.
IR - And it’s as old as humans themselves. But before that, the planets already performed.
LA - With movement, that’s right…
IR - Yes, because what the media show is the present. The cries of demonstrators, the locked words of congressmen, the great lies of the president. Those are words; words only. But it’s incredible, because with these words they perpetuate this twisted idea of life in Guatemala. So, you can use words for good, and you can use them for evil.
LA – Yes, absolutely. It’s fascinating.
IR - One word can hit you harder than a punch. It can do as much damage as when you tell a child “you are a brute, you are an animal,” and the child grows up thinking she is a brute, he is an animal. But if the child goes to school and grows up with words taken from reality, then the child grows better. We always communicate through words, words in constant performance.
LA - With the body.
IR - Yes, with the body.
LA - Yes, words are a performance, absolutely. That’s one thing that has been hard for me here. It’s not my language and I work with words. So being here, not having that ease with words is such a powerful experience.
IR - But that forces you to do research, to interview people. And that is research.
LA - Exactly! I think that it can be an advantage that I don’t have all the words, so I can ask: But, what does this word mean to you? What does it mean, what is it? Explain the word to me. It’s an advantage because, when I ask this as a gringa, as an outsider, they have to explain it, this word, in this country, at this time, means X. But the lack of words is also hard for me. That’s why I read poetry, because there is space between the words and the ideas. I think in a mix of words and experiences, because here I don’t have all my words.
IR - To me poetry is music, it’s dance, it’s theater. Sometimes a metaphor can change your life.
LA - And a way of thinking. It says a lot about a country. When you are reading poetry from a specific place that’s not yours, you have to learn a lot: its current history, its customs, its turns of phrase. That is where it lives, there, as in art, as in performance.