The contingencies of passion

Robyn Maree Pickens on Amsterdam-based artist Mercedes Azpilicueta's first UK solo exhibition, Bondage of Passions, at Gasworks, London.

Date 14 June 2021 Words Robyn Maree Pickens imagery SUPPLIED

Mercedes Azpilicueta, On the Dignity of Codpieces, 2021, series of sculptures made from leftover fabrics: wool felt, Merino wool, cotton, viscose, metallic yarn, holographic vinyl, cord, various dimensions. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

After thinking about Mercedes Zapilicueta’s exhibition Bondage of Passions I am on the cusp of coveting a codpiece for my queer body, shocked by Catalina de Erauso’s (1592-1635) massacre of indigenous Mapuche people, and alarmed by the convergence of these two disparate affective trajectories.

It is difficult to avoid the codpiece in Bondage of Passions, as it constitutes a major sculptural series titled On the Dignity of Codpieces (2021). Exquisitely fashioned from leftover materials including merino wool, cotton, and metallic yarn, these wall-based sculptures slide between attenuated haute couture and low intensity bondage gear. The baroque bulges, openings, slits, ruffles, ruches, and leather-like ties are knowingly fetishistic and as such are metonymic of the life de Erauso who lived as a man. Language is tricky here, as none of the contemporary terms—AFAB, lesbian, queer, trans, gender identity—existed in the seventeenth century. According to copies of de Erauso’s autobiography, de Erauso wore male attire, lived as a man, fought as a conquistador against the indigenous people of South America, revealed her female status to avoid death, then, on the back of her fame requested a pension, permission to continue wearing male attire, and to be known as Antonio de Erauso.(1) According to these same sources de Erauso had sexual encounters with women(2)—encounters Azpilicueta incorporates into  the largest of two tapestry works; Bondage of Passions (2021), the largest of two tapestry works. 

The gender ambivalence and queer sexual energy attending the proliferation of codpieces and the erotic encounters between women on the eponymous tapestry are amplified by two sculptural works: The Delinquent Breeches and The Trans-forming Armour (both 2021). The breeches in question are red, and clothe a figurative-like sculpture with four spindly legs and an arched back. An elaborate cotton codpiece comprising the forms of multiple genitalia overlays the woven breeches. If this sculpture depicts the lower half of a person, The Trans-forming Armour could represent the top half. On a comparable wooden support indexing a human form, this second sculpture is an approximation in textile of the armour de Erauso would have worn in battle. In relation to The Delinquent Breeches, and the codpiece sculptures, the “trans” in the title of The Trans-forming Armour directs a clear reading of de Erauso as trans. Anachronisms aside, this is not an overtly problematic stance. What appears less clear and harder to reconcile however is a sustained critique of the violent colonial conditions by which de Erauso realised his trans identity.

Shortly after transforming nun’s attire into masculine clothing, de Erauso left Spain for South America where s/he participated in military campaigns and was recognised for valour and excessive violence, attaining the rank of lieutenant. I draw on the ambivalence of “s/he” here because de Erauso resorted to revealing their biological gender to avoid a death sentence. It was this revelation that earned de Erauso fame and financial reward. Any discussion over de Erauso’s sexual and gender identity (to use contemporary language) is however problematic if it overlooks or minimises the colonial violence that enabled de Erauso to prove themselves a man—according to militaristic “achievements.” So alongside the playful, erotic celebrations of gender fluidity/transition and queer sex, I searched for acknowledgment if not condemnation of the conditions that fostered de Erauso’s queer exuberance, especially in the tapestry works. 

These large, curvilinear tapestries installed in architectural structures reminiscent of the era comprise composite images reproduced from archival sources. Scenes of conquistadors in armour on horses, a cluster of indigenous women, a portrait of de Erauso, picturesque landscapes, hybrid fantastical figures are all reproduced in the style of their original medium, such as engraving, painting, or cartography. Reproduced on a jacquard loom (invented 100 years after de Erauso’s death), these works look and feel colonial. Such a bricolage of colonial imagery and technologies fails to disrupt or subvert the violence of colonisation including the long-running Arauco War (Chile) against the indigenous Mapuche that de Erauso participated in (“slaughtering more men than there are numbers for”).(3) Although Zapilicueta deploys an indigenous name for South America as the title for the smaller tapestry, Abya Yala (Tierra Madura), it cannot decolonise the vignettes of colonial oppression.

Are these violences the very bondages of passions? Does Zapilicueta intentionally omit an intersectional critique to underscore the dangers of its absence? Does the fetishisation of de Erauso’s gender presentation and sexuality in fact highlight the colonial violence that enabled its expression? Is it sufficient to interpret Bondage of Passions as a pure provocation? If not, how could it be decolonised, or suffused with reparation towards the Mapuche?

 

Footnotes
(1) Cathy Rex, “Ungendering Empire: Catalina de Erauso and the Performance of Masculinity,” in Mary McAleer Balkun and Susan Clair Imbarrato Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 33-34.
(2) 
Linda Rapp, “Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592-ca 1650),” GLBTQ Archive (accessed 11 June 2021).
(3) De Erauso quoted in Rex, 38.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, Bondage of Passions, 2021. Installation view, Gasworks, June 2021. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, On the Dignity of Codpieces (detail), 2021, series of sculptures made from leftover fabrics: wool felt, Merino wool, cotton, viscose, metallic yarn, holographic vinyl, cord, various dimensions. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, The Delinquent Breeches, 2021, textile sculpture: Merino wool, cotton, wool felt, wood, 1120 x 500 x 1550 mm. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, On the Dignity of Codpieces (detail), 2021, series of sculptures made from leftover fabrics: wool felt, Merino wool, cotton, viscose, metallic yarn, holographic vinyl, cord, various dimensions. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, On the Dignity of Codpieces (detail), 2021, series of sculptures made from leftover fabrics: wool felt, Merino wool, cotton, viscose, metallic yarn, holographic vinyl, cord, various dimensions. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

Mercedes Azpilicueta, Bondage of Passions, 2021. Installation view, Gasworks, June 2021. Commissioned and produced by Gasworks. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate.

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