Transmutación physically began on November 16, 2018 with my diagnosis of HIV while living here in Mexico City DF, Mexico. That date at 10:32 AM was the punctuation on 35 years of living with the fear of AIDS.
Fear is a very powerful element that carves splitting lines through everything in life. It can cut through the middle and it can divide. It can also draw lines connecting things as well. I knew in that moment of diagnosis I would have to decide what I wanted to do with my fears. I was staring down at that piece of plastic indicating ‘reactivo’ and it was 1982. I was 12, sitting on the floor in front of our little black and white TV, and my parents behind me reading the newspaper or a book. Dan Rather was telling the world about a new gay cancer AIDS. I knew I was gay but did they know I was gay? If I am gay then it will happen to me. And that is where the fear exploded inside me. Outside was too dangerous. My diagnosis punctuating 34 years of fear.
The next parts of the timeline I’ve written about in other posts. It bares well to go back and read them. In those moments my words were pure emotion. I captured photos and videos of myself processing with teary eyes and pain in my chest. I was swallowed up in fear I didn’t even know still lived inside me. It took over every aspect of my physical and mental life. I was aware I would need to get past this, but I wasn’t quite sure how. The only thing I could imagine was working it out through my studio practice.
What happened over the proceeding 9 months are scattered through my Instagram. Dotted on my youtube channel. Punctuated on the walls of my studio and home. If it looks a little like a war zone that because it is. Fighting became the new mantra. Some moments the medicines told me to give in and let go of life. Some moments the medicines gave me a little hope I would get to the golden cup of “undetectable”. “Indetectable.” That word was the most solid piece of Spanish I never struggled with. It rolled off my tongue unlike 90% of the Spanish language. I got super sick. If it was a side effect listed it seemed I was going to experience it.
It’s important to note that art becomes the lifeline here. It started as it had unfolded the year before. I went into the streets to photograph the decaying textures and colors of paper advertisements. I saw the beauty in the transparency of the cheap papers revealing elements of what was below. I began to connect the stories of random figures used for commercial purposes together with my own story. I saw my pain in their eyes. I saw my happiness in their smiles. I heard the voices of the people in my life calling out to me into the darkness. This is where it changed for me. I wanted to hear what they were saying because I was desperate for sanity. Instead of merely documenting the conversation, I pulled the paper away. Pieces fell and faces revealed. A symphony of opinions, declarations, jumbled epitaphs, and proclamations. The Materiales series was born.
There was too much clutter and I was fighting the medicines who had their own voices. I could feel the relief tearing the paper down. I knew I was going in the right direction. I didn’t quite hear the message. I decided to let the materials show me the way. It was a struggle to get through all the symptoms of my medicine and illness. I had no energy. I couldn’t be more than 1 minute from a restroom. I needed constant water. All those things were true of me physically and also had an emotional component. I pushed through working for an hour, taking a taxi home, and returning 2 days later with a new burst of energy to work for an hour more.
Ángeles en México was born around the time of my Mother’s visit from the USA. We had planned her visit to celebrate her birthday (year deleted out of respect). It was really us sitting at the dinner table talking and me then going to sleep for 12 hours. At this point, I had already lost 30 pounds in less than 60 days. I was unable to hold food. My Mom would reach across the table and touch my hand. Or she would come in while I was sleeping and touch my forehead. These are the things I remember. I don’t really know what we talked about or did over the week she was here. It was enough that she had come and stayed. Something about her touch was the spark I needed to hear what the faces in the paper were saying to me. The angels were speaking clearly.
I am immensely grateful to Dabart for reaching out to me about doing an exhibition with this work. It helped give me a context to organize what was happening with my work. I had to sit down and write out what the angels were saying to me. You’d think, “Oh angels, of course, it’s all love and light,” but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of the angels validated my darkness. I’d log into Grndr and see a series of messages. Rejections. Statements about my diagnosis. Apologies for prejudices. Proclamations validating my sense I was worthless in a world were abs and cock pictures were the currency. Others were the voices of people who picked up the phone when I called crying senselessly. Listened to me repeat over and over again the historical evidence of my wrongdoings that lead to my diagnosis.
The thing is, I needed to hear all the voices unedited. Working the paper became my lifeline. After Ángleles en México: Roma opened my energy started to come back in measured ways. I could see the other side and I wanted to be there badly. My body was not cooperating but my mind was starting to feel hopeful. I called my friends up and decided to hash out this idea of angels who spoke to me focused on positives. I’d been working with a therapist discussing the transformations I’d been going through and come around to the word “transmutación” in our sessions. It was an apt metaphor for the toxins I was ingesting and the changes I was experiencing. Transmutación was born.
I called over some of my angels and began to explore this idea I’d been working on the year before. A series of nudes in bed from above done as double/triple exposures. Before it had been about loneliness and desire expressed in the twisting of the bodies overlapped. Now it was about how outside influences positive and negative evolve the mind. The models lay on my dining table surrounded by white sheets. I would talk them through the experience of the camera clicks. Each click is a dot on the map to turn a new direction. Influencing their movements with my clicks and my words. Transmutating live on camera.
By this point, the entire practice of working in the streets had evolved well beyond where it had started as documentation. I was removing entire city long blocks of paper from walls. Having interesting conversations with police officers which always ended in a handshake. One time the police called in the department of sanitation. I thought I was in deep trouble, but they had come to help me. I removed a huge amount of paper that day. I knew what I was doing would feed my soul and I was hungry. I picked all that paper up and brought it back to my studio.
By May my energy was getting better. I was close to my 49th birthday, which had been instilled with significance by the fact I’d dreamt the year before I would never make it to the day. The experiments in the street had been unearthed in the studio. I had begun to use the paper deconstructions in the studio and literally build onto them. What had been an expression of loneliness the year before had become a celebration of connectedness in my transmutación. I reached out and found an opportunity to exhibit the next phase of my work. We opened the show in June.
It was an amazing thing to get to see that work cumulated and edited to tell my story. To see people examining the details and asking questions. It gave me an opportunity to use my art for activism. I want to break down the stigma of HIV by being open about my diagnosis and the effects of those magical pills that are seen as a panacea to all problems of HIV and safe sex. Sure I was ridiculed and rejected, but that was only evidence of the importance of the work I was doing. It gave me a place to focus my energies and express my feelings. I shed a lot during this time. Some friends. Some stories I used to survive that no longer served.
What was next? I received notice from Mexicraneos that I had been accepted into their collective to prepare a large scale skull for the Dia de los Muertos celebration on Reforma Avenue. The largest festival in all of Mexico and one of the more dynamic in CDMX. This cultural festival imbued with the meaning of life and death in circular could not be more tied to my own transmutación experiences. My next goal had been to create pieces to install back into the streets from which they came. This would allow me to do this and apply the designs to a 3D object. It also would offer an opportunity for millions of people to see my work in a short period of time.
This is an important moment in my studio work. I used the context of what I was to create as an opportunity to tie these experiences in the streets and the studio into a new methodology. I worked the paper on the walls of my studio within conditions that allowed me to go deeper. I had water and chemicals to pull from. Cutting tools and stencils. Lighting and air. Controlled environmental elements that prevented me from going deeper in the streets. I was able to deconstruct and construct my compositions as I had in my dreams for the past 10 years.
Transmutación was not just about the physical effects on my body or changing my approaches to my artwork. It is about my mental health and how I worked through the fears, to reveal layers of anxiety, to reveal a depth of sadness, and to resolve to change the synaptic gaps that control my responses in my everyday life. As I ripped away the paper to tell my stories I realized how my reactions to the world were protecting my pain and fear. The work had become a form of meditation for me. It stopped all the voices, slowed my breathing, and placed me in a state of full openness. I felt and heard in these moments what I needed to bolster me against the thrills of living. Laughing and crying.
This is not the final phase of the transmutación. In a few weeks, the cráneo for Mexicraneos will be on the streets. Proyecto Residencia will officially launch as I transform my Airbnb to an artist residency. I will open my studio and home on the 19th of October for people to see the work and experience the potential of the space. More importantly, the work returns to the street. A full cycle. I will begin to create pieces to install around CDMX. Some small. Some large.
Transmutación Tierra. These are the deconstructed images I am creating in the studio right now. I call them tierra (earth or soil) because this is where we all come from and return to. The circle pieces that I pull out and use in the compositions to represent the cellular level of change are Transmutación Semilla (seeds). Lifeforce. Potential. Encapsulated. The final pieces that I am developing right now in the studio are the Transmutación Floración. These are smaller than the seeds and abstractions of flowers blooming.
I have changed in so many ways in this process. It’s not about the 81 pounds I have lost. The changing landscape of friends new and or reversed. The physical space in which I create. The practice in how I create. All of that has changed in the past 10 months. I’ve come around to a space of mindfulness. I am more aware of my emotions and their effects on myself physically and mentally. I am also more aware of how they project into the world and bring positive and negative back to me. I haven’t come to some state of ultimate enlightenment. I’ve only revealed the level of dysfunction I can easily create in any given moment, the symptoms, and at times a new path to take. It’s complicated and simplified things. The feeling of discomfort comes and goes. I am more at peace with the temporary nature of my emotions and I realize they don’t require actions to modify them if I can just wait for them to pass. Today I can do this. Tomorrow I may fail. The day after I will pick back up and try again. These are the cycles. You remove the old and fill the space left behind with something new. A new creation. A new soil. A new seed. A new flower. The flower blooms. The flower flourishes. The flower drops its seeds. The flower dies and returns the soil to come back new. Transmutación.
“Transformation is the process of death in which the warrior actively engages once he or she embarks upon the warrior’s path. It starts with transmutation and ends in transfiguration.”