Essays

TATIANA GARMENDIA’S EPICS

“Water shapes its course accord­ing to the ground over which it flows”
Sun Tzu The Art of War (62)

Tatiana Garmendia’s Epic series, large-scale paint­ings and many draw­ings, explore warfare aesthet­i­cally, metaphor­i­cally, and philo­soph­i­cally.  The large paint­ings are star­tling: huge nude figures in a seaside land­scape, with a missile erupt­ing or a mortal battle in the back­ground. A giant fury surrounded by insects hovers over a tank. For Tatiana Garmendia, the ground over which her artwork flows is shaped by her unusual expe­ri­ences and those of her family.

The erupt­ing missile is imag­i­nary: it evokes the fear and anxi­ety of a child who actu­ally played in missile trenches in Cuba. Garmendia was born just after the Cuban missile crisis, and missiles were buried on beaches near popu­lated areas.  In the late 1960s, her father, a doctor, fell out of favor with Fidel Castro. When Garmendia was about five, the family was sent to live in a one-room apart­ment at a relo­ca­tion camp patrolled by armed guards. Children were bused to school; teens worked in sugar cane fields or sorted coffee.

Her father was tortured. Her young brother survived guards randomly shoot­ing at him for sport. The family escaped to Spain because of her mother’s Spanish pass­port. Her mother also was born in the midst of violence, during a bombard­ment in the Spanish Civil War. She was left an orphan. Thus, the family stories behind these paint­ings are charged with terror, disori­en­ta­tion, and survival. The family moved to Miami, but her father died young. Coming to the United States was a welcome refuge for them.

Thus she has been aware since child­hood of the pres­ence of good and the power of evil in the world. It is telling that one of her refer­ence points is the Bhagavad-Gita, that ancient Hindu philo­soph­i­cal trea­tise which is a conver­sa­tion between Krishna and Prince Arjuna, as he sits poised for battle, but full of the uncer­tainty of killing his own friends, family, and advi­sors. The conver­sa­tion contains the basic prin­ci­ples of Yogic philos­o­phy at the same time that it speaks on the moral respon­si­bil­i­ties of a leader who must go to war to oppose evil. Garmendia’s explo­ration of war is, then, not a simple oppo­si­tion. It is an acknowl­edge­ment of the need to counter evil, to survive oppres­sion by strate­gies and defenses.  The “art of war” as conceived by Sun Tzu thou­sands of years ago is filled with strat­a­gems for confronting enemies, of offense and defense, of subtlety and secrecy, and, in most detail, the types of terrain on which warfare occurs.  Garmendia’s dozens of black and white draw­ings are partially inspired by that text.

As we look at the full sweep of the ink draw­ings, we see confronta­tions between mostly nude men drawn in black ink on Mylar. White gesso creates opaque frames that suggest terrains or dramatic stages on which armed oppo­si­tions take place. Washes of India ink skill­fully shape figures as well as imply outpour­ings of blood.  These men are the warriors of all cultures: Maori, Aztec, Greek, Spanish, Chinese. They are both ancient and contem­po­rary. They are actively perform­ing and they are suspended in mid move­ment. In Epic 1 two sets of light skinned men confront a dark skinned man. All are wield­ing swords. Between the groups of three men is a river of blood flow­ing down. There are facts: the fact of blood loss, as well as the fact of confrontation.

But in these draw­ings there is no victory. There are no heroes. In Epic 6 one man seems to stop the warriors all of whom are lung­ing, but perhaps in the wrong direc­tion.  Many seem to be engaged in sense­less acts of fight­ing, as in Epic 24, in which forces in oppo­si­tion fill one space, as a single fighter in the fore­ground thrusts a spear forward, spew­ing blood, but with no oppo­si­tion. In Epic 28, a warrior has fallen, but he is facing away from us in a pool of blood. These images are full of clas­si­cal refer­ences: in this case we think of the dying Gaul.

In some cases moder­nity appears, as in Epic 100, in which a man is drop­ping dozens of para­chutes that contain what the artist calls “the terri­ble seed­ing of war.” They are falling far down below and behind him. Epic 101 includes an airplane, 102 has a refer­ence to Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, but it seems to be falling apart. Other draw­ings include horses, bring­ing to mind the age of the crusaders in partic­u­lar, although horse mounted warriors are still part of war today. The draw­ings contain no judg­ment, no emotion, only the prac­tice of battle; they contain little refer­ence to the impact of war, only orches­trated acts of aggres­sion and defense.

Let us return to the paint­ings. In Epic, Death at Low Tide, a large diptych, there are two nude women in the fore­ground one observ­ing the men fight­ing and dying in the back­ground, and one ignor­ing it, look­ing at us. We are impli­cated in the scene by her gaze.  Epic, Advancing Storm brings us back to the missiles. Set in a dark beach land­scape, a preg­nant woman and a man turn away from the sea in agony and distress, as a missile roars into the sky in the back­ground. Another woman reaches her hands toward the sea, as if trying to prevent the deaths that are coming by plead­ing with all her energy. Unlike the draw­ings, the paint­ings lay out the fear and help­less­ness of ordi­nary people caught up in acts of war.  Finally and most dramat­i­cally is Epic, Ground Force with Fury, an asym­met­ri­cal diptych with a huge crone land­ing with one foot on a small tank. Around her body hornets seem to attack her. But they might be part of her power. It is not clear. Does the giant woman repre­sent civi­liza­tion or its betrayal?

Over the last eight years we have seen the disas­ters of war online and in photographs. Garmendia does not show us that. Instead she gives us the pecu­liar fasci­na­tion and mean­ing­less­ness of war, which can be viewed as an art, a slaugh­ter of human beings, or a strat­egy that allows the power­ful to subdue the weak. She does not give us answers.

Instead she reminds us that war and conflict are a perma­nent part of human exis­tence.  Although the outcome of war is destruc­tion, fear, and death, the prac­tice of war is inevitable.

“The art of war is of vital impor­tance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War (40)

 

– Susan Noyes Platt, PhD
Seattle