Javier Peñafiel

In 1999, “Egolactante”—a strange character with an elegant profile despite its large head—was gestated in the imagination of Javier Peñafiel. In the ten years that have ensued, it has barely changed. Restless in appearance, Egolactante is, in fact, chronically nervous. Though one might think this is due to some emotional or political vulnerability, it is really because Egolactante has decided to live with the fiction that has been installed in its mind. The sum of these powerful components—spastic body and intellectual prowess—make Egolactante into an incarnation of the new Homo aestheticus.

Peñafiel’s art is an attempt to dissect the tensions that contemporary subjectivity entails, and Egolactante has been at the core of that project. Regardless of the specific media used—this exhibition includes video, drawings, texts, and sculpture—Egolactante has always been organized via a textual register. Whether the work consists of drawings, panels, videos, or other supports, writing is the foundation. Indeed, “No verbal, todo por escrito” (Nonverbal, Everything Written) is a collage-exhibition that is essentially a choral group of texts. The work deploys black-on-white words and figures that connect different elements of contemporary identity and, with each episode, perform a diagnosis of it: This mode of subjectivity is always in an incipient state (ego-lactante translates to “ego-suckling”); seemingly skeptical yet subject to passions (“breaks at the drop of a hat,” according to the artist); without projects, embodying pure experience without history; obsessed with erotic confusion; merely a seed of the political or communal; and, above all, an aesthetic subjectivity that is more adaptable to the endless imperfections that surround it than the ethics of an earlier (modernist) subjectivity would have permitted. It is in this sense that Peñafiel stages Egolactante as a kind of Homo aestheticus, because Egolactante refuses both the internal psychology and the social incarnations of emotion. As Peñafiel puts it, there is “intelligent life in illusion.”

The uncertainties (whether sexual, ideological, or financial) that bedevil the formation of identity today have accelerated the process by which late capitalism has become a machine for producing subjectivity: The market offers components for the construction of identity that can be updated in order to configure supposedly free subjects. In the face of this dynamic, the character of Egolactante effects a small-scale subversion, an act of micropolitics—turning its back on received models of subjectivity and beginning a long journey alone. This is a melancholy endeavor, but unlike the saturnine passivity of the old romantic, it is both active and productive. After all, according to Peñafiel, “the science of melancholy is still poorly translated.”

Martí Peran

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.