Paula Santiago’s body of work produced during her Artpace residency revolves around the body. Sensations and thoughts are experienced, interpreted, and understood in a process by which the body is both a tangible as well as an abstract entity. The domain where these concrete and ethereal zones of the corporeal meet and criss-cross, is the site Paula Santiago mines for her art. The complementary and contradictory nature of these zones, and the aesthetic procedures they are subjected to, pertain to the notion of numen. Numen, an obscure term in classical Spanish, refers to ingenio, a particular talent with which invention is formed from one’s Geist, from the mind/spirit, and one may add, from the body. Given its fragmentary nature, Santiago’s Numen brings together diverse concerns in a concentrated manner, giving the public various cues and clues, at times contradictory, with which to come to terms with her artistic corpus.
The works in Numen make reference to the body in the outskirts of the territories of representation. In contrast to the work of Annette Messager and Kiki Smith, the body is not dealt with in a direct and representational fashion, no matter how oblique this procedure may be. Numen is more about the absence of corporeality and the gestures involved in trying to maintain the tension between the materiality of the works and their complex set of references.
The incorporation of bodily fluids such as her own blood and bodily matter such as hair, along with natural materials charged with meaning such as wax and flower petals that provide both materiality and subject matter, make this procedure no easy task. One is left with an immanent sensation of fragility and borderline experiential states of the body and mind upon entering the site of Numen. No resolution is sought nor is there any attempt of balance. For the artist, Numen is about process and the engagement of the viewer as witness.
The body in Paula Santiago’s work is present in its absence: its materiality is there in the form of memory traces and sensations that evade systematization. In the Baroque period, hair and fingernails were considered key bodily memento mori. Still today, they signify inevitable death; they trace our upcoming absence. Hair—collected in Victorian mourning lockets, exchanged between lovers, placed in scrapbooks as documents of childhood—is a memento par excellence. Today, given postmodern taxonomies and DNA analysis, hair also plays a role in forensic and medical identification procedures. In Santiago’s artistic corpus, the use of the body and its traces derive from an allegorical impulse. It refers back to itself in a complex operation by which it refers to something else.
The artist privileges the déjà vu, ingenio, and chance. Santiago combines a layering of disquieting images strung together by obsessive procedures that can alter the work at any moment. That which has been is now absent and can only be expressed in an oblique and at times fragile manner. To conjure and give concrete form to that absence would level its evocative power and its empowering dimensions through process. For Santiago, the body is the foundation and means by which one perceives, knows, and engages in art making as a sensual domain of knowledge and culture. Pre-occupied with discursive practices that center on the body as the site and means of subjectivity, art for Santiago is the beginning, the process, and the end of coming to terms with experience.
The modernist conceit of form as content is a point of departure for Paula Santiago from which to engage in a sort of postmodern aesthetic flânerie, that is to say, a hyper-state of wander and wonder, without a particular goal or object. This wondering and wandering circumscribe the artist’s process with respect to her immediate surroundings, as well as the personal and cultural baggage she lugs with her in this quest. The early modern flâneur lived the social world through his/her gaze in the form of shock impressions, that in turn led him/her to attempt to piece together those snippets of experience into a whole, a task that is from the onstart an impossible one. Hence the emphasis on (grand) narratives and panoramic concerns that strive for totality on the one hand, and on dense symbolism in poetic prose and poetic visual arts on the other.
As a postmodern flâneur, Paula Santiago is not concerned with the whole, but with the aesthetics of fragmentation. She has recognized that the fragment is just as rich a vein to explore, whether in the form of a universal detail; a quotation one has heard or seen in passing; an allusion to something one understands, pretends to comprehend, or recognizes the desire to contemplate; and, an apostrophe to a shared reference from different socio-cultural locations that include but are not limited to sexuality, gender, and cultural geographies.
Victor Zamudio-Taylor is a lecturer in the Art History Program, The University of Texas at Austin.