On Saturday June 16th, 2018, Iván Sikic carried out his most recent performance, Safe Conduct, at Cathouse Proper in Brooklyn, which was held in dialogue with the gallery's then current exhibition that explored the physical and mnemonic qualities of the home. Using these thematics and the surrounding environment as the foundation for this work, Sikic reflected on his homeland of Peru, which he left fifteen years ago, and the emotional and material difficulties he has undergone to obtain legal residency abroad and establish himself anew, seeking the opportunities that might otherwise have been unavailable to him. While Safe Conduct is based in Sikic’s personal experience, it is representative in form and action of the thousands of people affected by global insecurity and their ultimate pursuit of safety and peace.
It is this effort that brings to mind the words of Ana Mendieta from her 1982 lecture ‘Art and Politics’,“I make the art I make because it’s the only kind I can make. I have no choice. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said: ‘To be a hero, to be heroic, is to be oneself.’ I think the statement is particularly significant to the attitude an artist must have in society. Being endowed with thought, how can a person go through life without questioning himself? And being endowed with feeling, how can he or she remain indifferent?”
On the surface, the premise of the performance was relatively simple. Sikic's intention was to spend fifteen hours, each hour representing a year lived abroad, manipulating intervened photocopies of the four residency cards he currently holds (Peru, Croatia, Australia and the United States) into houses of cards in front of a motion sensor fan. Each card was spray-painted neon pink, orange and green, a color scheme that directly refers to Chichaculture in Peru, which was born out of the modernization of local traditions and the acceptance and blending of the indigenous, Colonial Spanish and African cultures, and which Sikic has adopted as the colors of his personal, transnational flag. Constructing a house of cards is challenging enough: the placement, balance and tension of the cards must be just right to sustain the entire structure, while the slightest wrong move can level it in an instant. Furthermore, the inclusion of the fan added another impediment to overcome as well as a sense of unpredictability in an already precarious situation. This performance then, would not only be a meditative, reflective experience about his life as an immigrant, but would also, on a formal level, be about amassing materials and making sculpture, about creating volume out of void.
Devised with these intentions, Safe Conduct in practice, however, assumed a slightly different form. As Sikic commented, “During long, durational pieces, life becomes part of the work,” and as the piece progressed, it changed and evolved in ways that Sikic had not anticipated. Beginning at 6 am, Sikic spent the early morning hours working in isolation. This repetitive exercise demanded such determined concentration that at times he felt he had no choice but to sit still, close his eyes and recuperate some of the energy and patience he was exerting to build the card structures. But when visitors began arriving, the spell of the artist alone with his work dissipated as Sikic, improvising, invited the visitors to enter the designated performance space, which he had marked off within the gallery, and join him in building their own card houses. It was this spontaneous invitation that changed the character of the performance from being a solitary and challenging endeavor to a communal, welcoming and playful experience. As the focus shifted from the action of one person to the actions of various people, the themes of inclusivity, flexibility and community became salient not only within the realm of the piece but were also reinforced as essential features for an immigrant starting a new life in a foreign place.
The ebb and flow of visitors-cum-participants throughout the day left its mark on the performance space: abandoned assemblages and piles of cards from fallen structures were left undisturbed, ready for the next person to take up and use; the friendly chatter amongst fellow builders filled the room and the hum of the fan turning on and off marked each visitor’s arrival and exit. The spontaneous grouping and regrouping of participants also added to Sikic’s invocation of Chicha: diverse, ephemeral communities formed around the common goal of engaging with the cards, building constructions together and relating to one another. The overlapping visits of the participants also allowed for the insertion of their own timelines into the larger temporal boundaries of the piece, calling into question the performance’s borders within time and space and promoting multi-perspectival, contemporaneous experiences of the same event.
The coincidence of Safe Conduct with the revelation of the Trump administration’s policies of treating illegal immigrants as felons, by detaining them in camps and separating their families, and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the travel ban halting immigration from Muslim majority countries further emphasizes the symbolism of the house of cards. The instability of its environment, the fragility of its foundation and balance and the value of its building material made of residency cards are tragic metaphors for the strife and unknown fate of the people attempting to come to the United States in search of a better life. As Mendieta continues, “To know oneself is to know the world [….] I know that it is this presence of myself, this self-knowledge which causes me to dialogue with the world around me by making art.” The work’s challenging of arbitrary borders and its embrace of multiculturalism and community reflects the current tensions at play in societies throughout the West and the importance of continued discussion and civic engagement. Through the capacity to give body, language and a voice to topics that offer channels for self-reflection and connection as well as challenge the status quo and the reactionary, artworks like Safe Conductcontinue to enable us to put forward strategies for empathic understanding, resistance and, ultimately, for healing.