The strength lies in surrendering: Gonzalez-Trejo’s Defacing reveals an artist’s capacity to submit his work to the hand of others. Following the production of a series of portrait drawings, rendered on a large scale in charcoal, gallery visitors are invited to deface these portraits, the result being a highly-charged performance of cathartic destruction. But Gonzalez-Trejo never loses sight of the finished material result. The portraits retain elements of their original characteristics due to the nature of the material; they also carry the traces of the performance and bear the marks of the emotional intervention of an audience provoked. Whether inviting his Cuban family to erase the well-known traits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, or his friends to confront their own portraits, the process of Defacing is far from arbitrary. The gesture is iconoclastic rather than destructive, attacking institutionalized images of public figures, or the image of oneself in the case of Portraits of Friends.
For Gonzalez-Trejo, the notion of interactivity is equally important as defacing. The project is not an overtly political gesture; but perhaps the artist’s background influences his choice of approach, the socially conscious element of the work a resurgence of his Cuban heritage. Gonzalez-Trejo talks of a 21st century notion of socialism: participation and interaction, the likes of which are characteristic of our digital age. Internet users are comfortable having a public digital profile, and can react to online material in the vast intangible reaches of internet space; Defacing is a brave move that brings this opportunity to interact in the real physical space of a gallery.
Participants do not have complete freedom in defacing the portraits; they use the medium provided (white acrylic) in the framework of the exhibition. Thus the participants are not anonymously destructive, but implicated contributors to the artistic process. The defacer is conscious of being seen, and therefore a full participant in dialogue with the artist and the audience. This collective approach evokes the work of another Cuban artist: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Gonzalez-Torres’s work confronts different issues, not least his struggle with AIDS and his contemplations on the process of dying, but what likens Gonzalez-Trejo’s work to his is the notion of participation. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy installations (included in his posthumous show at the Venice Biennale in 2007) are made up of individually wrapped candies, which the audience are invited to take away with them. The candies are constantly replenished so the work is being continually recreated and evolving in and beyond the gallery space. Echoing these installations, Defacing is about the continuing, collaborative evolution of an artwork.
Defacing or appropriating existing imagery lies at the heart of numerous contemporary art practices. Whether as graffiti, a genre which has risen from the street to the auction house through Banksy’s work, or borrowing motifs from the canon of art history as a support for subversive visual gestures, such as Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., or more recently the Chapman brothers’ vandalism of a set of Goya etchings, defacing has carved itself a space. In many instances, however, it is the artist who has the last word. The artist defaces, but his work is consequently untouched, it is protected in galleries and museums. Take the example of Duchamp’s Fountain. The original subversive gesture of presenting a urinal as a work of art is now admired in solemn institutionalized settings – what started out as a fingers-up to institutional art is now given its place in the privileged canon of 20th century art. When Chinese performance artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi attempted to use Fountain for its original purpose at the Tate Modern in 2000 they were swiftly escorted from the premises and banned from returning. Duchamp’s provocative work does not evolve, it is preserved in the state the artist left it. Similarly, the Chapman brothers deface Goya’s work but the defacing process ends there.
This is where Defacing differs: it brings the authorship of the artist into question. Instead of adding the finishing touches and a signature, Gonzalez-Trejo relies on the interaction of his participants; he is the author of the project, whose outcome he cannot completely predict. Instead of claiming authorship of something he has defaced, he leaves his work to be defaced and to evolve beyond his control. This disorientation of artistic norms is in itself an important element of the performance. Not only are participants asked to react to provocative or intimate representations, they are also called on to publicly deface an artist’s work. This could explain why the participants of Defacing often begin by erasing the eyes of their portraits. The most expressive element of a portrait, the eyes are often the first to be attacked during these performances. Once the gaze of the portrait is obstructed, the defacer feels at liberty to continue their work unobserved. Of course the artist is still present during the performance, and the blinding of his – and in some cases their own – portraits does not hinder his own observation of the process, but there seems to be an element of self-consciousness at the beginning of the defacing process, engaging the taboo in disfiguring an artist’s work.
This, and the fact that the original portraits depict figures well-known to the defacers, creates a moment of great intensity, in which the participants’ freedom to deface meets the gaze of the artist and public. The performance is one of social interaction: it becomes a conversation. The original drawings are not destroyed. They evolve.