Things are Tough
artist Gustavo Araujo
Gustavo Araujo's art is firmly embedded in the real world, though it never projects a specific political message, much less one explicit or moralizing. However, part of his work alludes to contradictory social realities, like his project for ciudadMULTIPLEcity.
La Cosa está dura (akin to “Things are tough”) is a local idiom, a cliché that we say all the time almost without thinking, and that some ascribe to the alleged pessimism characteristic of Panamanians. This bare sentence—without logo, signature, or any image whatsoever, and printed in regular type against a white background—appeared without previous notice on large billboards of the city and in advertisement spaces of newspapers.
Araujo’s use of advertising spaces is without precedent in Panama. These are rented or bought at a high price to persuade citizens to buy this or that, or to vote for this one or that one. Conversely, Araujo invited them to think.
Exhibited on enormous advertising billboards, in view of hundreds of people per minute, that worn phrase seemed to recover the power of its original meaning, along with added implications. The idea was to use only empty billboards (i.e., not yet rented), so that the phrase would appear and disappear like a ghost throughout the city, depending on market demand.
A brief anonymous, familiar saying (that culturally "belongs" to us), floating in immense spaces designated for advertising (in a city full of them), could make us notice how many billboards are left without ads as a result of the current economic crisis. Then perhaps a more introspective reflection might follow, recalling personal experiences and their link to external forces. Cosa, with a capital C, could seem ironic to some and threatening to others. Perhaps certain people saw it as a joke on our use and abuse of the cliché. Obviously the reading and association of ideas varied according to the individual: whether one has all the time in the world or not; whether one is a bus driver, a homeless person, or a banker.
But in addition, a repeated phrase shifts much of its semantic weight to the context; in this case, to its marked contrast with the capricious overabundance of the urban Panamanian landscape, or to the news reports (that always confirm that indeed "things are tough”). Everything that rivaled the austere sentence in black and white could alter its meaning for the spectator. What gave this work its open and ambivalent character was precisely the radical shift: from the unreflecting vernacular speech to its embodiment in urban space or the pages of a newspaper.
La Cosa está dura was planned to appear on ten billboards at the same time, but the project hit a big stumbling block: the paranoia of private business. Even though the company that owned the billboards had agreed to all of this beforehand, "important" clients protested vigorously against what they considered an attack on the "healthy optimism" of the consumer, and demanded that the phrase be removed. Araujo managed to keep the five spaces he already had, but was unable to carry on.
As Orwell may well have said, the spaces of the city are more public—and more private—for some than for others.