By Gonzalo Ortega
(Chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey, Mexico)
The human body - in the most physical sense possible - bears the marks of the socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions in which it happened to be born, to grow and to die. Each of the 7.5 billion people that inhabit the planet Earth today gives testimony - implicitly via their body of what it means to live in this time. And if we also compare the conditions of development, health, food, etc., among groups of people located in different latitudes of the planet, aspects stand out and make it possible to understand with extreme precision the consequences of living in diverse geopolitical and climatological environments, as well as inequality in access to health, sanitation and food services.
For the artist Joselo Ortiz (Coahuila, Mexico - 1991) this information is essential in the production of his work. It is important to mention that this information is compiled not only from academic studies, cold statistics or international indexes of measurement, but compensates it from the direct contact with his patients. In addition to being an artist, he is a doctor by profession, a situation that gives his work a special singularity, since it adds a critical analysis and human sensitivity to the information he receives during his consultations. Additionally, the artist's fascination with microbiology has allowed him to detect an unusual similarity between the behavior of cells, viruses and bacteria, and human social behaviors associated with certain contexts. This comparison, in principle outlandish, soon acquires a deeper meaning in corroborating that certain patterns actually repeat with great precision. Certain virus strains behave differently in developing and more developed countries.
In Ortiz's words: the body speaks of what happens in society; Is the objective evidence of something subjective. For the history of art the body has usually been represented from naturalistic, symbolic, stylistic perspectives, etc .; But scarcely as an organism that "registers" to its surroundings, and that memorizes its biography through its general conditions of health, its physique and its metabolism. For Joselo Ortiz, the body is a very efficient receptacle of social, political and cultural stimuli, which, as a kind of frame, narrates all that has happened; Shows his tracks. In his research, this artist has not found any historical record or any study on the evolution of society from the body of those who make it up. With his work, therefore, he points to the pertinence of having a study of the "social" body as a witness - or reactive - of the living conditions of people today. Although there are certain cultural aspects that allow us to identify how the life of people changes from socio-political contexts, it is practically null and void the reflection of this influence directly in or from the bodies. The intuition of Joselo Ortiz as a sensitive member of society - rather than as a doctor or artist - sifts everything that is linked to the lifestyles of patients to make a kind of anthropological study that helps him to determine the conditions in which People live, greatly anticipating the way in which they will continue to live.
An example of his artistic research is a product of the difficult experience of caring for pregnant adolescents. Young mothers put their lives and their babies at risk. Behind this social problem there are many dimensions, ranging from gender injustice to disinformation, as opposed to the undeniable transcendentally moment for these young mothers to generate life. For Joselo Ortiz all this is evidence of the fragility of the living conditions of new beings who come to the world under socioeconomic and cultural conditions that condemn them to repeat a pattern. Today's adolescent mothers are the daughters of teenage mothers of yesterday, and imitate patterns of behavior that have been replicated over generations. There is little chance that this cycle will be broken into the future. This social problem produces births that hurt and at the same time are celebrated.
At first Ortiz wondered why his fellow physicians, when facing the same situation as he in the clinical practice, they didn’t wonder what was behind the sad social phenomenon that borders thousands of women to get pregnant at a very early age. For him, as a doctor, it was essential to try to understand the phenomenon that faced him. He realized that many colleagues actually have a critical view on this, but they seem to settle and decide to do nothing. For Ortiz, on the other hand, the concern of saying and communicating it had to find a channel. He realized that by telling the anonymous story of all these young people, he would probably be able to sensitize the others. The trigger of his artistic projects has since been to raise awareness regarding serious social problems in people who come across his work.
To relocate the complexity of the medical-artistic experience has proven to be an incredibly effective vein as a critical tool. Ortiz comments that he does not really choose the issues he will be working on since he largely reacts to the cases he faces in a public hospital in the city of Monterrey, Mexico. He is exposed to reflections of what happens in the community, as well as to social problems that translate into certain types of diseases and illnesses. As an artist, he also faces a great challenge, for he must cross the border between two disciplines - only apparently different - to deal with extremely moving and sensitive experiences.
Getting to the plastic language that characterizes him today has not been easy. The work of Joselo Ortiz has undergone a dramatic and surprising transformation, since he moved from the language of painting to that of art-object, installation and conceptual art. At one point he underwent an intense introspective process that gave him the possibility of appropriating strategies and methodologies very different from those he had previously used. But it is likely that the most radical transition has been the decision to use his experience as a doctor as raw material for the development of artistic projects. Since then he has focused his attention on a restlessness that had always been latent in him: that of scrutinizing the mechanisms of power hidden behind what we see and that affect the lives of millions of people; Reveal harmful social behaviors that translate into precarious living conditions; Questioning health systems and their corruptibility according to economic or political interests, etc. He learned to read all these situations and to construct artistic statements that, from the simplicity of their forms, point to the need to be empathic with each other as a plausible model of social evolution.
In the exercise of expressing his opinions he has faced resistance, even before referring these problems from the art. An example of this is the awareness during his studies in the Faculty of Medicine in relation to that this profession is exercised based on subjective opinions. Despite the academically established notion of the evolution of evidence-based medicine (that is, one must have evidence before acting), these have always been made by individuals who design studies and tests, or pursue goals not necessarily suitable or beneficial to patients. This type of critical posture on the part of Ortiz, who from his university studies used to openly express his opinion in the classrooms as opposed to the vision of other doctors or teachers, triggered discontent. For this physician-artist, rather than an interest in swaying the power structures of medicine, the questions he asked were aimed at exploring the motives behind widespread practices that inevitably affect - for better or for worse - living conditions of millions of people.
In the case of the management of patients with tuberculosis in hospitals, to mention another example, young doctors must come into direct contact with patients in precarious working conditions that put them at risk. From this situation, the need to question and rethink these practices arose in Joselo Ortiz with further contacting the chiefs of infectology or internal medicine departments of hospitals. This questioning ended up revealing dire internal policies of these institutions in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry. Under the assumption that what governs decision-making must be the search for effective treatments, with the lowest doses possible and causing less damage - so long as these are safer and more accessible - Ortiz's questions ended up by exposing economic interests and benefits over the well-being of people. With his work Joselo Ortiz is positioned in an uncomfortable space from which points to access to information and the dismantling of market interests to the detriment of public health.
In Joselo Ortiz's work, two fundamental dimensions stand out. The first is, as we have seen, criticize medical procedures, working conditions and economic commitments with the pharmaceutical industry. The second revolves around the revelation of social problems. Addressing the latter can only be achieved through direct contact with people. With his work Ortiz reveals fears, taboos and conventions. Several of his series reflect this type of inquiries, and one of them is based on research around the human papillomavirus. Despite being a project with scientific foundations in microbiology, Joselo Ortiz approaches it from a political and social point of view. Because this virus is sexually transmitted, it shows certain social behaviors. International indexes show that HPV has a high presence in the Hispanic culture, while it tends to decline in first world countries like Australia. According to the above, it can be deduced that virus transmission is linked to political decisions and social behavior. As in other works of Ortiz, the issue of papilloma is directly linked to issues such as love, inequality, ignorance, death, emptiness, segregation, etc.
Again the comparison between the microcellular dimension and the human scale is evident. The series of pieces about this disease serves as a bridge between art, medicine and social consciousness. Because HPV is related to cervical-uterine cancer, the artist views this potentially life-threatening critical element for millions of women. Background criticism is deposited in the fact that in most cases it is transmitted by man, but suffered by the woman. But the artist's vision is not only a kind of campaign to raise awareness about HPV, but also to expose gender inequality, which in this case extends to an immunological plane: only girls between 9 and 12 years of age are vaccinated, but not boys. This neglected medical practice favors an immunological inequality that will be reflected ten years after the application of the vaccine. Joselo Ortiz denounces the legal vacuum in this respect, because in Mexico alone, about 36,000 women die each year as a result of this lack of legislative attention.
Ortiz analyzes under the lens of the microscope scientific evidence of these relationships and the key aspects that position this cancer as one of the deadliest worldwide. Just as HPV is in most cases completely harmless to man at the cellular level, on a legal scale there are no consequences for him at all. In contrast, for women, there is no effective immunological protection, since those who infected them were not forced to be vaccinated. When the virus finds the necessary conditions to reproduce it is too late for the woman who has contracted it; And although this disease can be taken care of, the medical procedures are very destructive. The cure for papilloma, according to Ortiz, is not a medicine but a change of social behavior.
The pieces of the artistic project simply titled HPV are solved by the strategy of showing the virus. Having people an image of what can happen in your body, collapses the myth that "nothing happens". First, he performs 3D digital renders of viruses based on microscope photographs, as well as their structure. Subsequently prints them in three dimensions to have a digital matrix and work from it. Finally, in this series, the forms are made in ceramic in a very consistent way, because both this technique and the virus itself, involve dramatic changes in temperature in its realization / destruction. Treatments to kill the virus are destructive, and consist of burning or freezing the affected area. Ceramics follow very similar processes. In the case of the ceramics of Joselo Ortiz the colors are in function to the different degrees of malignity of the viruses of this family. High-risk HPV is black, and low-risk HPV is white.
Another piece of the series consists of a pendulum that leaves at random the hard scenario that some "will be touched", or not, to contract the HPV. The pendulum has magnets that attract the sculptural model of the virus, paraphrasing the behavior of the real virus that is "attracted" by people as if they were also magnets. Joselo Ortiz recreates the virus in polyester resin mixed with Chinese ink, a very black and at the same time very soft material that sneaks through any corner, which flows through many places and ends up resembling much the behavior of the virus.
Ortiz comments that his artistic research aims at making medicine work at an abstract level and practiced mostly from the plane of ideas. He hopes that eventually the use of vaccines will be dispensed with, and that this will be the result of a profound social transformation in which diseases and illnesses are solved through anticipation and not reaction. In this sense it could be said that Ortiz's utopian objective would be access to universal immunological equality. This utopian plan would imply a kind of hybridization with strategies taken from art for the purpose of prevention. A model of artistic production that from the specialized management of information and knowledge manages to break down barriers. A series of interdisciplinary works in which the border between art and medicine at times seems to be completely dissolved; and is that both medicine and art seek to decipher the human phenomenon. Both fight the battle between life and death.