PRINT April 1992


IN VENEZUELA, A LARGELY CATHOLIC country like much of Latin America, the most important event of the year is the “Miss Venezuela” pageant. Broadcast into every home, from the largest Italianate villa to the smallest Latinesque rancho (shanty), via the miracle of television, it is an event of epic proportions—the coming of the new madonna. The winner’s name is known to everyone, daily incantations of it making it as important a part of the Spanish language as the ever-growing slang. No Miss Venezuela, it should be noted, has ever married. These beautiful women become the mistresses of bankers and politicians, thus maintaining, at least symbolically, their traditional and much appreciated virginal status.

For his debut in the exhibition space at the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Romulo Gallegos in Caracas, José Antonio Hernández-Diez chose to explore similar territory. Offering a techno-pop view of Catholicism’s most beloved symbols—the cross, the shroud of Turin, the bleeding heart, and, most interestingly, perhaps, the obscure legend of San Guinefort—Hernández-Diez’s latest series of sculptures explore what he himself has described as “the new Christian iconography.”

In Corazón Sangrante (Bleeding heart, 1991) the heart of a bull was encased within a Plexiglas crucifix, submerged in plasma, and then attached to operating-room equipment. The heart literally palpitated, slowly releasing blood until the plasma became opaque, necessitating a transplant. As if in enactment of a newly created ritual, the plasma was drained and the heart replaced weekly for the duration of the exhibition. A replica of the shroud of Turin tumbled away within the cross-shaped contraption of Lavarás Tus Pecados (You will launder your sins, 1991), hypnotizing the audience much as the “real” shroud has mesmerized believers throughout the centuries. And in a third work, entitled Mano Poder (Hand power, 1991), a small video monitor, playing a loop of footage documenting the first heart transplant, lay embedded in an enlarged plaster cast of the artist’s hand. Here the artist’s hand became the surgeon’s, deeply probing the other’s themes.

These pieces remind me of Leonardo da Vinci. Not the church’s beloved Leonardo of Last Supper fame but the one who would have been a dead man had the church known what he was really up to, the Leonardo of the anatomical studies and of horizontal water-wheel fame. What Hernández-Diez has in a sense accomplished in his new series is to merge both—the religious and the scientific, the believer and the skeptic—into a sinister view of Christianity that has a particularly Latin American flavor.

Not long ago in the Venezuelan Andes, lavish parties would be thrown to welcome new angels into heaven. This so-called angel was in fact a recently dead child, who rested on a table decorated with colorful paper flowers in full public view. In an even older ritual, finally prohibited by the local authorities in the 1950s, the dead child was boiled, dressed, made up as an angel, and hung from a hook at the top of the front door where the grieving parents lived so that every passerby would know that a new angel had arrived in heaven.

This kind of overdetermined metaphor can be seen most clearly in Hernández-Diez’s San Guinefort, 1991. According to the legend of San Guinefort, which dates from the Middle Ages, a dog charged with the protection of an infant was forced to engage in deadly combat with a serpent in defense of the child. Arriving at the scene of carnage, the child’s parents mistakenly assumed that the dog had killed their first-born son, and the father put the animal to death. Discovering the child unharmed, the family realized their fatal mistake and gave the dog a royal burial. Word spread of the sad episode and mothers with sickly children from nearby areas began to make pilgrimages to the burial site in order to pray for the deliverance of their own sons and daughters. Transposed into post-Modern terms, the canine San Guinefort, a mummified mutt, was placed in a Plexiglas case to which the artist added two pairs of the neoprene gloves normally used to handle hazardous materials. Connected to the box was an oxygen tank: technology charged with the miraculous responsibility of reversing fortune, and bringing the lifesaver back to life—as much an act of faith as it has always been.

Hernández-Diez’s gothic, grisly worldview is unique in its involvement with religion (a practice that most artists today avoid, and with good reason), but his use of technology runs parallel to Matthew Barney’s and Allan Rath’s, among others. He lives and works in the valley known as Santiago de León de Caracas, yet his work looks researched and produced in a different valley—Silicon—and thought out in yet another—Death.

The current Miss Venezuela is Carolina Iszak.

Meyer Vaisman is an artist who lives in New York.