Sitting in the middle of Wedge Space gallery at the Houston Community College — Eastside Campus was artist and Houston native Angel Lartigue, right in the middle of installing their new exhibition, Por los siglos de los siglos. The Spanish phrase borrowed for the title of the exhibition translates to “for the centuries, of the centuries” in English, and is often repeated at the end of Catholic prayers to further the concept of time being eternal and without end. In English Catholicism, the phrase used to mean this is “forever and ever.”
Lartigue pays homage to this idea by displaying art in this exhibition created from the organic matter of Texas forensic burial sites, and in so doing guiding viewers “into the liminal spaces between art and death.”
As Lartigue watched me brushed off the raindrops of another Houston storm, we immediately fell into conversation about their intriguing new new work.
Angel Lartigue: I was born and raised in the Northside of Houston, a very Mexican neighborhood. Growing up, I wouldn’t say that I knew a lot about art. I think that once I left high school and started studying on my own, that’s when I got to figure things out in life. Art was one of those things, but I was really interested in language. At one point, I wanted to study linguistics. I was interested in translating. When I was a teenager, I would pick up languages that only a small amount of people were speaking in the world. When I finally got into HCC, I wanted to pursue that.
Byline Houston: I assume the showing at Wedge Space now feels a little full circle then.
Lartigue: It really does. The first HCC that I attended was Northline. From there, I went to HCC Central. That’s where I started taking art classes.
Byline Houston: How did you get to the point of combining your art with science?
Lartigue: This was really on my own. One of my favorite science courses was bio-anthropology. It covered things that do with DNA and ancestry, human evolution… things like that. That really interested me, especially when it comes to race, gender, and, specifically, how bodies are identified. As a queer trans person, that was always in the back of my head. I think that’s where the curiosity came from.
Byline Houston: What was the most interesting thing that you learned in bio-anthropology?
Lartigue: I really liked learning about different practices of dealing with the body after death, like Chinchorro mummies. Chinchorro mummies are mummies that are from, what is now known as, Chile. The way the Chinchorro mummified human bodies was very different from Egyptian mummies — they mummified everyone in their family. They used raw materials like clay, mud, wood, and I thought that was such a… raw way of handling human remains. I will always be fascinated by what is defined as a body and what’s in the earth, not in a natural essentialist way, but as prime technological mediums.
Byline Houston: Is that how you got to using clay in your work?
Lartigue: Maybe it was there subconsciously. Clay can be seen as a body in itself, it is moist and smelly, it is a suitable environment for small animals like insects and fungi growth. It’s a material of decomposition.
Byline Houston: Could you tell me about your exhibition that is on view at Wedge right now?
Lartigue: So, the show is called Por los siglos de los siglos, which is a repeated phrase at the ending of a Catholic prayer. This show is the most personal show I’ve had. Recently, my grandfather passed away, and that was a big thing in, not only my life, but my whole family. He was kind of the nucleus of the family. This prayer was one of the prayers that we said after he passed away. That phrase stuck in my head. The literal translation is “for the centuries, of the centuries”. It’s basically describing something that has eternal life, but what you are describing has obviously ended.
The show began with a lot things things that I’ve been experimenting with — the body, land, and the relationship between both. I don’t necessarily see my work as science and art. The term itself is very interesting, and I like the movements that have come out of that. A lot of my work is inspired by movements like Bioart. But I’m not really trying to bridge those together. I’m more interested in how bodies get identified. It’s usually scientifically and binary, but I want to get there another way, by constructing a more sensual language through art. The challenge is the work can easily be medicalized into that category because of my use of scientific mediums. It is a conversation I am constantly figuring out.
Over the past three years, I went to burial sites in South Texas. I was interested in how the land itself is a fabric, not just the dirt and the roots, but also the environmental agents like insects, vultures, and other scavengers, even the odors themselves. The body becomes other bodies.
Byline Houston: The garment that we are sitting in front of, I believe that maggots and sheep’s blood are involved? Tell me about it.
Lartigue: Yeah! The type of medium in this piece is agar that is used to cultivate microorganisms. There is specific agar medium that has 5 percent sheep’s blood. There are so many types of agar, and they are all designed to grow specific types of microorganisms. I choose sheep blood because it’s used a lot throughout art history and religion.
Byline Houston: Could you talk about creating what’s in the petri dish?
Lartigue: The way that I grew the microorganisms is connected to my studies in forensic anthropology and human remains recovery… they were kind of field training courses that I took. These organisms are from the dirt and surface of decomposed bodies that I touched in these training courses. The gloves that I used while exhuming the body from the ground were made contact onto the Petri dish medium. This reaction caused the agar to cultivate the bacteria and fungi brought from these sites by the gloves. I also impregnated maggots in the Petri dishes I collected from outdoor, fresh corpses. Part of the fieldwork is estimating the post mortem interval (PMI) or time since death by comparing different growth stages of human cadaver maggots. What remains in the Petri dish is a degraded residue of what grew on the agar and the exoskeletons of the larvae, leaving a type of “fossil.”
Byline Houston: I remember this garment being a part of a performance piece in a nightclub. Right?
Lartigue: I wanted it to have life. I didn’t want it to be treated as an artifact. I was always interested in the story behind an object and how it came to be. I wanted to attach a story to this garment. It was really a guerilla performance piece at Exhibition VII. One of my best friends, Farrah Fang, wore the garment, and the rest of my team mimicked a forensic team. We went inside a club with buckets of burial site material that I collected from South Texas. It was a very queer space. I liked the idea of doing this specific piece there.
Death and danger is something that queer and trans people of color deal with all the time, especially when out in a public space. I thought it would be interesting to wear something that is composed by death against a living body. A lot of queer and trans navigation in the world is about the body — I will wear death before I get killed.
Byline Houston: So it’s really about reclaiming life.
Lartigue: Yeah, reclaiming life itself. When you get close to this work, you realize that so much of it is actually living. The boundaries between life and death are already so blurry. When I start constructing the piece, it’s living. We continue to find ways to cope and live.
Byline Houston: What happened at the performance?
Lartigue: It was very in and out. We went in and showed people what we had in the buckets and dumped it on the dancefloor. I wanted to bring this material that’s associated with death into this setting that is very much alive. I had the team recover the material on the dance floor back into the buckets. By doing that, the burial site material was smeared on the floor and almost mimicked what a human remains recovery operation would be. The piece was titled Operation Psychopomp.
Byline Houston: Psychopomp?
Lartigue: So much of this work uses animal parts like sheep blood, vulture feathers, fungi, maggots… These animals guide spirits into the other world, and that’s what a psychopomp is.
Byline Houston: How did you feel when you left the space?
Lartigue: Well, I went home and took a shower. I didn’t stay. I felt pretty good about it, it was almost like a ritual.
Byline Houston: Was it intended to be a ritual?
Lartigue: People came up to my friend and just started dancing, brushing up against the garment, touching the burial site material. It wasn’t really intentional. These days, the different levels of uncertainty for a queer trans person of color are pretty extreme — anything can happen in a bar setting. Someone could come in and kill you. A ritual is just another mode of survival.
Byline Houston: How do you, personally feel about death?
Lartigue: That’s a very hard question. I feel that everyone has their own proximity to death. It’s just something that I live with. There isn’t a day that I don’t think about it.
Lartigue’s work in this exhibition reveals the beautiful mystery behind life, death, and everything in between. As I started to head back into the rain after our interview, I thought hard about my own relationship to death. Witnessing their piece come to life from death, watching their maggots dance with death, and thinking of the very tangible facts about the cycle of life helped ground me in my idea of death.
My body will create other bodies… Somehow, I found peace in that.
Angel Lartigue’s “Por los siglos de los siglos” will be on display at Wedge Space (6815 Rustic St) at Houston Community College – Eastside Campus through April 8.