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In her paradigm-shifting text Ghostly Matters, cultural theorist and sociologist Avery F. Gordon employs the concept of haunting to describe “an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known.”1 Unlike trauma, which is transfixed to a moment in time, haunting is a dynamic entanglement with what once was, rupturing illusions of linear time and putting the past within our reach. This notion of haunting feels especially resonant as I enter Cuban artist Carlos Martiel’s exhibition Peso, a multimedia meditation on the weight of Black embodiment, in which—through acts of corporeal vulnerability and endurance—Martiel crafts an aesthetic language for how intergenerational social violence manifests in the body.
Peso features a series of recorded durational performances, each of which finds Martiel working to counteract some relentless downward force: that of a shackle, an American flag, and, always, that of his queer Black body. The show’s characteristic heaviness is most evident in the footage of Cuerpo (2022), performed and filmed in the gallery before the exhibition opened. The indelible nucleus of the exhibition, the video shows Martiel suspended with a noose around his neck, cheating asphyxiation only because others take turns carrying his weight. Much like the generations of anti-Black violence his performance references, Martiel’s labored elevation seems to last eternities, as his expression oscillates between states of willful resilience and exasperated resignation.
From this center point, a number of equally haunting specters emerge. In Al abrigo del viento (2022), Martiel’s ankle is chained to a hefty slab of welded iron that reads “Libertad,” as he walks barefoot toward Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Onlookers sneer, avert their gazes, and record smartphone footage, mirroring a society that treats Black pain as both a nuisance and a spectacle. In Monumento II (2022), filmed in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, he stands fully exposed on a slave auction block surrounded by a panopticon of voyeurs whose gazes render him both hypervisible and tragically effaced.
While many artists work to inspire feeling, Martiel’s work deliberately communicates through and to bodies. Watching him writhe under the ropes confining his wrists and neck in Cuerpo, his jaw and abdominals clenched, I feel my own breath quicken and become faint. I fight an overwhelming urge to flee, to shut down, to succumb to denial. And there, within the otherwise sanitized walls of the gallery, I am transported to a space of raw and insufferable recognition that I, too, am burdened by that relentless, perennial heaviness. It is through this somatic conversation that Martiel makes his message known: no body was ever meant to carry burdens of this magnitude.
Peso should not be mistaken for a historical re-enactment of past terror or a trite reality check for a painfully forgetful public. Instead, the work offers a glimpse into ancestral strife that defies temporal bounds and linguistic categorization. Meeting his audience in that aching and solemn place, Martiel offers a pathway to greater revolutionary praxis—to know the truths of our society in our bodies, and, hopefully, to someday know liberation there as well.
Carlos Martiel: Peso runs from October 1–29, 2022 at Steve Turner (6830 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038).