Analysis of Beauty
artist Yoan Capote
Yoan Capote came to San Felipe in mid-March and, as planned, started rolling the garbage dumpsters from the streets into one of the neighborhood houses. For lack of space in the hall, the tinacos* soon invaded the sidewalk.
San Felipe is now a neighborhood in what used to be the second settlement of Panama City: seat of the Metropolitan Cathedral, of the Presidency, of the Ministry of Government and Justice, and of the Museum of History, among other important sites. San Felipe is a monumental assemblage of colonial buildings and houses that were gradually abandoned by their owners as marginal groups moved in to occupy them.
Today San Felipe is one of those districts inhabited by a community so strong and alive that outsiders cannot avoid feeling that they are encroaching on a private space. One could say that San Felipe is a large interior space, an immense house whose corridors—the streets—also have names of Christian saints (and past leaders, naturally).
When Capote came to San Felipe, the neighborhood was already experiencing a new phase of symbolic occupation; it was being reclaimed as "Historical Center." The process set in motion already lets one visualize all of the old façades renovated, structures consolidated, palaces restored, empty lots cleared of the jungle that fills them. And those changes will entail a shift in the population. An eviction.
In a neighborhood that is a huge house, the presence of a stranger is noticed immediately. In a short time the Cuban artist had to tell everyone what he was planning: to remove the tinacos from circulation and upholster them with the “prettiest” fabrics he had found in a local shop—dainty white lace, velvet fit for a party gown... But first he had to get rid of all the filth.
Analysis of Beauty had been shown earlier in a gallery in Cuba. In San Felipe, the ability of art to lend meaning and to proffer experiences inseparable from its context, and the discourse that requires objects to lose their function in order to reach aesthetic category, came together. How? The clothed tinacos were returned to their usual places.
While official cultural politics centered in noble discourses commemorating the country’s hundred years of independence, Capote focused on garbage. And he turned an automatic function into a dilemma: the neighbors were faced with the fact that they had to throw their smelly, greasy garbage into a transformed object, dressed like a bride or a lover. This posed the challenge of daring to infringe—or not—on the distance established by objects meant to be looked at. Suddenly, everyone who had to get rid of their garbage also had to make aesthetic decisions.
But what about the others? In San Felipe, a tourist (that is, anyone who does not live in the neighborhood) became the equivalent to a museum visitor. For these visitors, the project offered an unexpected element, a reaction inseparable from their role as foreigners. Not being site-specific producers of garbage themselves, they were witness to the fact that objects beautified in such a way could also be nauseating.
Capote's "analysis" states two ideas of public space: one inseparable from the practices of a common daily culture, and the other as a space of discovery encountered by the outsider. These two dynamics are present in San Felipe. What will be the effect of the current efforts of renovation and beautification? In the long run, are the tourists (including non-residents: property owners, and authorities) the ones who will establish what and where beauty may be found in San Felipe? In my opinion as a tourist, these questions undoubtedly lie in the historical, social and cultural specificities, in the fascinating encounter of the monumental and the precarious, of symbolic power and fragility, in this being a space with strong internal rules and at the same time seat of the country’s government. Its beauty lies in being a complex and incredibly rich cultural space that maintains an almost impenetrable, private, quality. But perhaps my vision is overly romantic. The present culture of San Felipe that I call private is incompatible with actual private property. The neighborhood will thus recover its past luster and will begin a new existence that will not lie so much in the historical and public decor, but in what happens in private, the non-monumental, the organic, the nearness, the garbage.
Because otherwise, there would be no city.
As for as the upholstered tinacos, they were removed when they began to look as dilapidated as the buildings in the neighborhood.
*Panamanian slang term meaning 'garbage can'.