The alchemists believed that extensively cooking all alchemical ingredients to a uniform black matter was the first step in achieving the “philosopher’s stone,” a substance used for rejuvenation and immortality. This “blackening” was considered a ritualistic cleansing and was named Nigredo. Jung, a student of alchemy, further developed Nigredo through his work with analytical psychology. Jungians interpreted this “black work” with the process of an individual confronting the shadow within to balance the conscious and unconscious. The shadow is sometimes hidden, repressed or rejected by the conscious ego. Confronting the shadow is a complex process, an exercise in humility, vulnerability, and patience. The outcome, however, establishes equilibrium and creates a deeper sense of the authentic self.
Vela Phelan participated in this “black work” over 5 weeks at Close Distance, at Boston’s Mills gallery. Close Distance, curated by Liz Munsell, exhibited Boston-area Latino/ Latina artists working across diverse media and national borders. As anticipated, much of the work on view at Close Distance addressed multiple concepts around identity in relationship to place. Vela did this as well; creating a sacred space within the gallery that housed a series of his assemblages, his body, and an audience to witness his creative process and the relics that this process yields.
Let’s start with the clandestine space. When I use the word space, I’m usually referring to the concept of place, but in this case, “space” means something in between “place” and “outer space”. Vela began with a black void that he entered through a triangular door. A bell hung at the doorway, a sonic signal that an activation was about to take place. Within the black void, Vela’s assemblages looked like planets. They were absurd, yet familiar; planets ruled by ET, Mr. Burns disguised as a Mexican Wrestler, a blackened Big Bird hanging upside down by an extension cord. In the center of the space, Buddha sat on top of a structure made of golden bricks, cradling a gilded Baby Jesus. The heads of both figures were cloaked in black fur. We learned early on that this Buddha/ Jesus fusion was the most powerful planet, besides Vela himself. Together they create a trilogy of sorts: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost.
Ego Shadow generated notable departures in Vela’s work. The most apparent being the shift in the relationship between Vela and his objects. Vela’s assemblages and his signature objects used in performances have always felt like an extension of his body and being. Over the duration of Ego Shadow, these objects seemed to inhibit his movements. The abundance of black clothing, mirrors, the countless sound producing devices, the idols, the carefully chosen smells of anise, tequila, rum, and crushed chili peppers became cumbersome. When he entered his sacred space each week, his messenger bag and the objects it contained compromised his ability to fit through the opening. Once inside, his actions fluctuated between curiosity, menace, labor, and prayer. He seemed to be involved in an attempt to take on the identities that the objects conjured, in an effort to transcend them.
Each week Vela repeated the action of pouring rum or tequila over himself or over Buddhesus. Over the weeks the smell accumulated and became oppressive, causing fits of coughing. He would suck the liquid off the ground. He would drink the liquid that would collect on the objects ritualistically placed at the feet of Buddhesus, appearing to ingest the idol’s piss. During the 2nd performance, he took in the liquid and released his own. He used the force of his breath to sound the bell at the entrance of his sacred space. These were existential moments, relieving the perceived functions and obligatory preciousness associated with these objects. But is expropriating an object’s identity enough to transcend it? Each week, Vela would threaten to destroy Buddhesus, holding a baseball bat in a ready to swing stance. He would hit the idol just hard enough to produce a sound, but never enough to break it. Over the weeks these actions became empty threats. Buddhesus had a unique hold over the artist. Week after week, Vela would somehow end his performance engaging in actions with Buddhesus that demonstrated his devotion.
Another notable departure in Vela’s work happened in the first week of Ego Shadow. Vela surprisingly left his sacred space during his performance to interact with the galley’s architecture. He mimicked the placement of Daniela Rivera’s sculpture, leaning head first into a column that supported her form.
He stood in the doorway that led to a room housing Ricardo De Lima’s videos. Vela transformed into a sculpture as Ricardo’s videos of different locations near Boston poured over his body. The other work featured in Close Distance stayed within its designated space. Using the transient nature of performance art, Vela infiltrated his colleagues’ work, giving the audience the opportunity to witness the work with another dimension. Even the work he didn’t directly interact with was affected by this choice. Raúl González III’s multimedia drawings and his collaborative sculptures with La Die took on new meaning when experienced as a background to Vela’s actions. Mariá Guest and Rafael Rondeau’s sound and video installation that was projected on the gallery’s windows provided a gentle transition from Vela’s performances back into the “real world”.
The same sensitivity was given to the neighborhood during Vela’s “artist talk”. Vela held a speaker that amplified a recording of his voice speaking about his work and his connection to the color black. Vela’s past work has found equilibrium within the black void, however he spoke of a soul mate in this recording. He explained that the performance that was about to occur required balance that only this soul mate, dressed in white, could provide. The black and white figures carried Buddhesus out of the gallery and into the plaza in front of the gallery. They engaged in a series of cleansing rituals. They burned incense, washed the idol with red wine, milk and finally, they sprayed Buddhesus with a fire extinguisher. The wind carried the white dust through the plaza wafting around a child hopping over puddles of wine and milk and drifting between the legs of onlookers desperate to capture this moment with their iphones.
During Ego Shadow, Vela painstakingly cooked his identity and we watched it melt beneath him. We spent 5 weeks involved in the anticipation of how this process would unfold and whether or not he would ultimately destroy Buddhesus. During the final week, he finally struck the Buddha’s head. The head anticlimactically tumbled to the floor and it was over. No explosive sounds, no shards of ceramic flying through the air threatening injury, no signs of the annihilation we were secretly hoping for.
It was in this moment, it became clear how profoundly mundane this performance was, despite the beauty of the objects and the ritualistic nature in which Vela interacted with them. The decapitation broke the spell. Vela’s ego had been exposed and confronted. Those of us, who accompanied Vela on that journey, were left with a piece of this transcendence.
Vela believes in magnifying the energy of objects, sounds and actions, blending subconscious with spirit and allowing the unknown to present it self. He enjoys transforming & altering modern and ancient energy’s into a new unknown universal existence. Vela’s art embodies many methods, he considers himself a outerdiciplinary artist, always shape shifting and adapting to his instinct and the unknown. From performance art to VJing, to animated gifs and assemblages, he has been activating and creating since 1994, both nationally, internationally and in the World Wide Web.
To learn more about Vela Phelan’s work visit Temple of Messages
photos by Bob Raymond