Vendors and Squatters
artist Jesús Palomino
The fragile constructions of Jesús Palomino caused quite some uproar. One was mutilated, another torn down, and all were treated as objects of suspicion, wonder, dislike or ridicule. Reactions not at all comparable to the contemplative ways his works are received when exhibited in museums or galleries, showing the extent to which such "neutral" spaces sap the critical and social implications of art. As Vito Acconci says, "outside the museum, the world is in your hands, and you’re in the hands of the world."
In his preliminary visit to Panama City, the Spanish artist marveled at the countless kiosks and market stalls that occupy sidewalks throughout the city, taking advantage of overhanging eaves, columns, walls and roofs of contiguous buildings and houses, melding with them and with side-by-side kiosks, in clever symbiosis. As homage to this economic culture—precarious but multiform, ingenious and vital for a large sector of the marginal population—Palomino created his own personal image of those stalls and placed it in front of a luxurious boutique in an important banking district. For weeks customers and family members of the shop owners complained incessantly about what they regarded as an ugly excrescence. On the other hand, a civic group wanted to know if they could use it for a bake sale, and district officials were most interested in understanding and divulging the message of the work.
Palomino also constructed two "shanties" at other central locations, in plain view of everybody: one next to a high-rise apartment building and the other in front of an enormous empty billboard in a vacant lot. The artist made them not only with the same materials that the poorest of the poor use to build their houses (pieces of wood or plastic, cardboard, cloth, rope and little more), but also with similar eyes and hands, given his intuitive handling of the many inherent possibilities—transparency and density, color and texture—of humble materials.
The radical contrast between the shacks and their surroundings emphasized the power to communicate "the human basics," and to evoke the harsh reality of a person who "carves his home out of desire," as the artist once said. The mere presence of these tiny houses, with their intimate, fragile and multicolored poetry, seemed to question and defy the real-estate depredation about to swallow them up.
In the large empty lot, placed in front of what seemed to be a huge blank screen, the artist’s shanty created an unusual landscape, almost theatrical, and full of insinuations. But for the potential buyers (who will soon turn the site into another mega-shopping center or cluster of skyscrapers), the only thing Palomino's house suggested was the awful threat of squatters. Two weeks before ciudadMULTIPLEcity was over, a crane demolished it.
Across the façade of the shack next to the high rise was written: "How many people died tonight in Iraq?"—in obvious allusion to the war that had just broken out. The owner of the property wasted no time in erasing the writing and threatened to tear the shack down if it appeared again. Thus a parallel between the voiceless, here and anywhere, was implicitly established; a global parallel suggested by the artist with a simple query drawn on his imaginary shack in Panama City.