PRINT March 1995


Transformation and metamorphosis have always been central to the work of Paco Vacas, whether he is exploring the fungibility of gender designations, embalming himself in a cocoon, or intervening in the work of nature. For Vacas, transformation inevitably has a sexual dimension that opens onto questions of desire. The territory he explores is precisely that which has been foreclosed by what Michel Foucault perceived as the Western obsession with an individual’s true sex—an obsession written in and around the body of the hermaphrodite. For centuries, it was widely acknowledged that a hermaphrodite had two sexes. Biological theories of sexuality, changes in juridical practice, and new forms of administrative control at the beginning of the 18th century led to a denial of the possibility that two sexes could exist in a single body: to each one sex and one alone. It is this notion of the true sex, a reflection of rigid norms that constrict identity and legislate the strict separation of the masculine and the feminine, that Vacas questions.

In the Super 8 film Back Door, 1994, the object of desire undergoes a metamorphosis. The film begins with a man walking down an alley, afraid that he is being followed; he reaches a door, knocks, and a woman answers. Shots of the inside of the house; cut to a bedroom. As the man stares at the light projected onto the mattress, he enters a kind of trance. A fissure, dripping a whitish liquid, appears in a shapeless piece of flesh before him on the bed. Suddenly we enter a dark tunnel; seconds later we emerge through a woman’s ear. A hairy hand runs up and down her body, pausing where one would expect to find the woman’s genitals only to discover an organic bulge that makes us doubt her gender. The man spreads her legs and prepares, or so it seems, to penetrate her (him?) from behind.

Vacas has always explored the notion of the mutability of sexual identity. In the photographic work Titula (Entitle, 1989), Vacas himself appears dressed as a woman with his legs crossed and a pair of stiletto heels lying next to him on the floor; the image is doubled, as if the artist were contemplating himself in a mirror. For Contracción (Contraction, 1990), Vacas asked a transsexual named Bessy to pose in front of a video camera. Lying naked on a bed with legs spread, Bessy looks like a spider waiting for its prey. In this one-minute video, the camera remains fixed on Bessy until just before the end, when the image dissolves, like a balloon being deflated. This is a body in transit—a body crossing into another gender—though Bessy thinks of herself as a woman. The phallic camera gazes at Bessy’s indeterminate sex, but there is no anal penetration. As the title suggests, the gaze directed at Bessy’s supine body is an impotent one. Similarly, in Back Door, the male character spreads the legs of the woman who is not a woman in order to penetrate her from behind, but again actual intercourse is never shown: the desire of the male for a body that seems feminine, but that is actually ambiguous, is thwarted.

Vacas’ work is not always concerned with explicitly sexual metamorphoses. In preparation for his installation Elipsis (Ellipsis, 1994)—a collection of several works, revealing the complexity of his use of the idea of transformation—he kept hundreds of larvae at home in boxes, hidden from the light, until they turned into chrysalides. Because Vacas had arrested the developmental process, the larvae would never become butterflies. Vacas wrapped the cocoons in string and hung them from hooks in the ceiling—a reticular membrane covered in Vaseline, especially constructed for the installation. At the back of the space he erected a screen made from plaster molds of his own body covered in successive coats of Vaseline and contact glue, next to which he positioned a sheath made from the same materials, inside which he spent an entire day. Illuminated by a slide projector, the room revealed the wrapped cocoons in the early stages of decay dangling from the ceiling. On the second day, the screen was taken down and the film Back Door was projected through a crack in the sheath, now empty and suspended from the ceiling. On the third day, and for the duration of the exhibition, all that remained were the decaying cocoons and the innumerable strings from which they hung.

Wrapped in his own skin, plunged into the darkness protected by an amnion, the artist is hidden yet exposed by the fissure. Vacas has created existential spaces in which the physical acquires the sticky texture (skin, Vaseline) of a body, inviting the viewer to reflect on the fragility of the self (the uterine bag), which is surrounded by death (the strings of the chrysalides). In this installation, the concept of transformation is linked to what the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu has called Moi-peau (self-skin)—the site of exchange between the psyche and the body. Thus the fissure in the “skin” that conceals Vacas’ body is a crack in the self of the artist. By projecting Back Door through this opening, Vacas makes clear that unsatisfied desire is the weak point of the protective barrier we try to erect around the self—when it is penetrated, we become vulnerable to pain and anguish. The only escape seems to reside in the search for the Other in order to make it part of ourselves (the feminine side of the transsexual in the film), though as Vacas suggests, this desire can never be fulfilled.

Juan Vicente Aliaga contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent T. Martin