Growing up, María José Arjona had no interest in becoming a visual artist. The Bogotá native was a ballet dancer who began training when she was 6 years old, until her practice was cut short by an accident that broke her knee. “I became scared of falling," Arjona says. "And when you’re afraid of falling and you’re a dancer, it’s a bad sign.”
In college, her interest in art was piqued when she read a photocopy of a book exploring the contemporary art movements of the '60s and '70s. She sought out the images that accompanied the text and pored over them with interest. "I knew I needed to use my body,” she recalls, so for her, performance art was the perfect alternative to her first artistic medium, dance.
And a good alternative it was. The 45-year-old artist can already boast an impressive career. Arjona has performed at the Louvre; in Marfa, Texas; at the MFA Boston; the Watermill Center; and other prestigious institutions and festivals. A major solo exhibition of her work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá through May. She’s heading to MDC's Museum of Art + Design (MOAD) in Miami this week for a provocative performance of an "unconsummated striptease" at Miami Light Project’s Light Box that speaks to the experience of women worldwide.
Arjona began working in long-durational performance under the mentorship of Colombian performance art pioneer María Teresa Hincapié. The discipline she learned from dancing helped her in this medium. Arjona says she “started questioning contingencies of choreography and dance.” Her first performance, influenced by an exercise in a Yuko Kaseki workshop, was called 365 Days, in which she positioned that number of eggs to stand on their bottoms — apparently not as easy as you'd think. From there, she was invited to the Festival de Performance Cali. She saw French performance artists there who braved the violence of the region to present their work. They were the only artists who received media attention. “It was a breakthrough for me,” she says of seeing their commitment and the reaction to them. So she left her homeland for a period of time to bring her art to the world, beginning in Miami.
Here, she worked with artist Robert Chambers on the show I Bring the Ocean. It was in Miami that she encountered Marina Abramovic at the Frost Art Museum. The two developed a close relationship, and Arjona eventually performed in a reenactment of her work, Clean the House, at MOCA in New York. “She was meticulous about the performance,” Arjona says. “She was specific about how she wanted it performed and choreographed.” The video of her original performance screened nearby, and spectators could compare the video with the reality. But that exactness didn't appeal to Arjona when having others perform her own work.
At her current MOCA Bogotá retrospective — the first exhibition by a performance artist in Colombia — she invited other artists to perform her works, such as 2016’s Fight Plans and 2011’s Permanence. Instead of training the performers to reenact her work like Abramovic does, she says she is “precise about the concept of the work but not how to do the work.” She’s not into strict lines but wants to keep the artists safe by creating a space for them to work. So these artists “reactivate” her work with her original idea in mind, not reinterpret it. It's similar to when singers cover another musician's song — their own voices still shine through.
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“I wanted to see how they would actualize the work,” she says of the process. “It’s a completely different work. The work reads differently, the experience is different... It detaches you from your own work, so there are so many questions about authorship.” She uses younger artists and enjoys seeing the way their millennial bodies are mediated by technology in the performances. The artists reactivating the work, she observes, “are learning how to move their bodies toward a concept.”
MOAD’s executive director and chief curator, Rina Carvajal, asked Arjona to perform All the Others in Me as part of a series of performances that comment on current events. It's a “striptease without taking your clothes off,” Arjona explains. It's a take on Martha Graham’s dance Lamentation because it also uses an elastic dress. Arjona wears hundreds of pieces of underwear beneath an elastic dress and slowly strips from the inside of the dress. She adds that it's a sculptural work. “When a piece of clothing drops, it remains on the floor, and you’re shedding.”
When she performed it at the Marrakech Biennale, it was the first time a woman was allowed to perform in that theater. “The concept of a striptease, in that area, it’s extraordinary that it happened,” she recalls. “The audience was mostly men. I was trying to convey not how the female body is seen by the Muslim eye, but through the male eye everywhere.” The 35-minute work is about disenchantment. “They’re waiting for you to get naked, and then, in the end, you never get naked. It’s a very awkward feeling. I could see in their eyes what happened. I like that feeling. They think you’re an entertainer, but you’re not — you’re creating some kind of thought you’re not there to entertain.” A week after her performance at the Light Box, she will have a male performer reactivate All the Others in Me at her exhibition in Bogotá, where she'll let him take her concept and lay it almost bare in front of an audience uncomfortable with anticipation.
María José Arjona: All the Others in Me. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Miami Light Project's Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami; mdcmoad.org. Tickets cost $15 for general admission, $10 for faculty and staff, and $5 for non-MDC students with student ID; MDC students with RSVP and student ID get in free.