Miguel Rivera-Vera With auras, you experience one thing, and then you can’t recreate that experience again.
By Mary Truong October 31st, 2020
The challenge of sustaining human intimacy can be succinctly described by a metaphor that Miguel Rivera-Vera identifies with, the hedgehog’s dilemma— during winter, a group of hedgehogs seek warmth with each other, but to do so, the must bare their vulnerable, soft bellies and risk being pricked by each other. This type of radical vulnerability compels Rivera-Vera to craft “love objects,” or sculpture and installations embedded with personal essays. In “El Mercado,” Rivera-Vera writes a love letter to his mother about his memories of her and grocery stores, and he then narrates the letter in a video that plays in a plastic acorn (also accompanied by a plastic heart and empanada). These love objects often induce a one-to-one, personal interaction; Rivera-Vera requires the viewer to wear headphones to hear his monologue. This intimate interaction, along with aestheticized installation environments, results in an immersion that Rivera-Vera describes as an “escape.”
“Nostalgia is created between image and identity.”
Rivera-Vera says he hopes to share a part of his identity through his art, including his Puerto Rican heritage. In his artwork, he occasionally uses Spanish (El Mercado is spoken entirely in Spanish, but he also provides English subtitles) and the music he composes or uses is influenced by Latinx genres, including bolero and salsa. Still, he seems less interested in incorporating his identity regarding social spheres and instead focuses on a more narrow, individualized experience— a “personal nostalgia.” He says, “nostalgia is created between image and identity,” where image might be a sensory snapshot (an image of a bike, the smell of apples) and identity refers to a personal interaction (riding the bike with friends, baking a pie with your family). He entangles nostalgia with longing and loss; the memories that Rivera-Vera conjures through his love letters are lush with sentiment, but his tone is forlorn considering the ephemerality of these moments.
“I have this idea that we live just to communicate.”
Another metaphor that Rivera-Vera refers to is the Tower of Babel, an origin myth describing how different languages came to be. In the story, everyone once shared a common tongue, and they wished to build a tower that reached heaven, but God struck the tower down, dispersed the people, and confounded their language so that they no longer understood each other. Experience became atomized and community was lost, resulting in loneliness: if we speak different languages, we cannot understand each other. “This feeling of loneliness… this longing to build a bridge with other people is where this work really started.”
In a logic-defying manner, the previous statement’s contrapositive (if we speak the same language, we can understand each other) is false. Language is affected by Lacan’s “screen” that casts a shadow on meaning: the words we use are mired in a greater system that exists independent from any single agent. We can try to relay our personal experience, but it is always diluted by words that either imbue unintended meanings to it or language lacks the capability of genuinely conveying it. Language, the very thing necessary for communication, is also an obstruction to it. Rivera-Vera says, “I have this idea that we live just to communicate. We’re trying to figure out how to speak to each other.” Wanting to be understood is core to human nature, but language is a futile tool to use for this task.
“Let’s question our mortality together.”
For these reasons (the escapism, the futility of language, the quality of loss through nostalgia), Rivera-Vera’s artwork is saturated in death. It is easy to understand the Absurdist quality of his art: he genuinely attempts to communicate a personal experience, but it is impossible for the viewer to obtain the same “aura” that he once had. However, there is also a Romantic beauty to Rivera-Vera’s artwork: allow me to use one last metaphor, of Orpheus. Orpheus, a poet, descended to the depths of hell, experienced the mortifying loss of Eurydice, and ascended back to earth with the knowledge of death. With this knowledge, he was able to compose a work of art, completing the Romantic vision of an artist surpassing evil to obtain ‘truth.’ Perhaps this is too heroic or beautiful a metaphor, but there is also something mortifying in how Rivera-Vera throws himself against the shores of ephemerality, loss, and death in an attempt to be genuine. He is a hedgehog exposing his underbelly, risking his mortality through radical vulnerability, in search for truth with you, the viewer.
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