Alexander Apóstol: Phantasmagoric Landscapes and Aesthetics of the Unfinished in Global-Venezuelan Imaginaries / Maia Gil’Adí

Alexander Apostol, “Skeleton Coast,” 75 X 100cm, 2005.

Alexander Apóstol, “Skeleton Coast,” 75 X 100cm, 2005.

The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

Cement columns emerge from the ground. Skeletal structures stand starkly alone against blue sky and patches of grass and palm trees and mounds of rubble or simply alone. Sometimes, the cement skeleton stands in contrast to its completed kin in the distance, its white façade, finished balconies, and windowpanes calling attention to the barrenness of the building in our foreground. These are the unfinished buildings of the island of Margarita, appearing valiantly naked in Alexander Apóstol’s photography series “Skeleton Coast” (2005). Each print depicts a multistoried building in an uncertain state of incompletion; the could-have-been.

Apóstol’s photography questions the official governmental line and underscores the impotence of idealistic modernist projects erected to display national power. Each building acts as a symbol of Venezuela’s current state of decay. “Skeleton Coast” signals the economic boom of the 1980s both on the island of Margarita and the rest of the nation. During this time, the island was a prized tourist destination and saw a boom in the building of hotels and vacation homes; a boom partially rooted in the oil market, governmental corruption, and money laundering.1 The economic crisis during the 1990s, however, led to halted projects and collapse of many of these hotels and homes, leaving abandoned structures along the island’s coast. Eerie, monolith, porous, the buildings in the series allude to the fragility of the modernist project and act as symbols for the current decay of Venezuelan political and cultural projects.

Apóstol’s series depicts a sequence of individual unfinished building constructions across the island off the coast of Venezuela. Each is a simple concrete façade, standing, at times, alone against a blue sky, patches of grass and sand, and at times, complemented by the association with a finished white building peeking partially in the background. Their morose and unfinished state highlight the phantasmagoric vestiges of speculation in Venezuelan global imaginaries, revealing the estrangement and disrecognition inherent in SF aesthetics and the financial speculation in the buildings’ construction. In their rendition, “Skeleton Coast” sheds light on the modernist project by underscoring its failure: instead of the official government account of power and progress, Apóstol’s buildings showcase the stasis and catastrophe of Venezuelan governments past and present.

The boom in Venezuelan oil production during the 1970s, due in large part to the Middle East energy crisis, allowed the nation to position itself as a political and cultural leader in the region. The U.S. consumption of oil also enabled this boom, which transformed Venezuela into a leading modernist space, where architectural projects developed and emulated the boom under the dictatorship of Marco Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s. These architectural expansions promote governmental economic power and portray the regime as modern and advanced. While the reference points for “Skeleton Coast” are the administrations preceding Hugo Chávez’s, the buildings’ continued unfinished status well into the mid 2000s establishes the failure of the State past and present (regardless of political affiliation). Their unfinishedness establishes the buildings through the presence of death, marking the landscape as postapocalyptic and in a continual state of decay. This formulates any aesthetic representation with Venezuela as its referent as that which examines the pleasures of the unfinished and refusal. By pleasures, here I mean the beauty found in the art object that problematically transforms trauma, violence, and other forms of discomfort into aesthetically pleasing texts (writ large) for the enjoyment and consumption of the public.2

It is in the unfinished and the pleasures experienced in aesthetic representations of stasis and decay where we can see how Apóstol’s work represents the speculative and the sciencefictionality of hemispheric and global Venezuelan imaginaries.3  “Skeleton Coast” unearths the nation’s sciencefictionality by depicting the “strangeness of the stories that modernity has told (about) itself, estranging us from where we thought we lived by announcing our actual location in an unfamiliar world” (Evans 485). The unfinished buildings of “Skeleton Coast” exposes a cataclysmic Venezuelan landscape that estranges viewers from traditional portrayals of histories, which Catherine S. Ramírez has eloquently asserted is the definition of SF (396). Built in the 1980s and unfinished in 2005, when Apóstol took the photographs, the buildings of the “Skeleton Coast” interrupt common conceptions of national progress and modernity. “Skeleton Coast” demonstrates an investment in the depiction of objects that emulate the cyclical and interminable process of rebellion against governmental power—regardless of political party—that is always in process and yet never reaches a resolution, simply a momentary respite.4 The buildings of Apóstol’s series, are transformed from architecture to art object and symbolic representation of national stagnation.

Alexander Apóstol, “Skeleton Coast,” 75 X 100cm, 2005.

Apóstol’s work contends with the legacies and disjuncture with the historical past, the homoerotic and patriarchal mechanisms of nation building, and the decay of the urban landscape. Apóstol’s work also exposes the fissures in the modernist project in Venezuela and across the continent, focusing on symbolic representations of the urban landscape in estranged, decontextualized environments. The global Venezuelan speculative imaginary seen in “Skeleton Coast,” moreover, is deeply invested in aesthetics of violence, stasis, decay, and the unfinished as the ultimate sites of pleasure in the phantasmagoric. Apóstol’s portrayal of these architectural landscapes mobilize “otherworldly” and “cataclysmic” aesthetics that reveal radical political Venezuelan identities of refusal. The photography series also reframes Venezuela within Latinx literary and cultural studies, attending to Latinx and Latin American aesthetics, especially in their association with American imperialism and capitalism. Highlighting the partial that will never be accomplished, “Skeleton Coast” demonstrates the tradition of protest against governmental power into the post-Chávez present and expands common conceptions of Latinx aesthetics and latinidad through its attention to manifestations of disturbance, destruction, and the unfinished.

Indeed, the photographs of “Skeleton Coast” challenge conceptions of political progress in Venezuela by problematically presenting objects that foreground stagnation and the incomplete through the pleasure of observing beautiful art that is curated and displayed in spaces of “high culture” such as the museum and the art gallery. The aesthetics of the unfinished and cataclysmic in Venezuelan global imaginaries such as Apóstol’s center objects, events, and landscapes that challenge notions of the beautiful or the complete by foregrounding buildings in-the-making (or in decomposition) that, captured in their unfinished state after more than two decades, will never achieve their designed purpose but are transformed into art objects.

To the unknowing eye, the abandoned building in each photograph gives the impression of a booming economy, an architectural landscape that is growing, given the many sites “under construction” or in the making. Yet, upon closer inspection what is revealed is the rust, garbage, decay and, indeed, destruction that marks the landscape. “Skeleton Coast” signals a landscape marked by death. The buildings: abortions; still births. The city, its architecture: act as a reflection on the sociocultural imaginary, and in this way, demonstrates the pleasure in speculative un-finishedness.

Standing alone in each picture, the building is one in-the-making but simultaneously in-decomposition. In Apóstol’s lens each building is transformed into a lonely portrait subject without reference point. Their facades take-up the majority of the frame of composition and because of their unfinishedness are transformed into strange and alien-like objects. Their isolation and inaccessibility ascribe them the look and feel of the eternal. Each building is of its time yet timeless: who built them? How did they arrive in this space? How long have they been in their arrested development of composition and decay? Their substantial size within the photograph’s frame makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the viewer to imagine a landscape where anything is different, where architecture is complete. The naked architecture of “Skeleton Coast” reveals the desolate abandonment of the landscape that defines Venezuela and its diaspora through a cataclysmic state of the unfinished, destruction, and decay.

The aesthetic rendition of architecture complicates common understandings of past, present, and future. Are the buildings in each picture in the process of construction or deconstruction and decay? As Frederic Jameson’s often cited argument states, SF does not provide images of the future, but defamiliarizes our world in order to force our reexamination of the present. The “crazy truth,” the disjointed version of time the photograph puts forth can also be read as a speculative enterprise that instigates an alternate universe that forces viewers to reexamine their own.5 Apóstol’s particular universe challenges notions of progress and produces the estrangement SF scholars have considered particularly useful in inciting political consciousness. Because the future is unimaginable, SF’s “multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 152).6 Yet, the something yet-to-come is further destabilized by the buildings of the “Skeleton Coast,” which demonstrate the unchanging nature of Venezuelan political stagnation. Instead of inciting the type of “useful” political consciousness espoused by SF scholars (particularly those writing about SF by people of color), the global Venezuelan imaginary seen in Apóstol’s work is one of persistent decay and the aesthetic pleasures found in the unfinished.

While skeletons connote protective and supporting structures for an organism, without internal organs, soft tissue, and musculature, the buildings of “Skeleton Coast” stop serving their purpose and instead signify death and decomposition. Marking the island, these skeletal buildings reveal the brutal beauty of that which could-have-been but has never-become. Instead, the photographs demonstrate a process of stillbirth that through their aesthetic composition and artistic distribution—i.e.: the photograph as aesthetic object—is also paradoxically defined through notions of beauty and pleasure.

Archetypal notions of pleasure are further upended by Apóstol’s photography series through its reframing of the Caribbean. Typically associated with leisure and tourism, the Caribbean of “Skeleton Coast” makes no reference to the coast itself. The phantasmagoric constructions stand in stark contrast to the idyllic representation of indigenous architecture and the Venezuelan landscape seen in the work of artists such as Armando Reverón, the country’s first modern artist. “Skeleton Coast” instead forms a speculative space of enfeebled landscape that has always been and will always become enfeebled. Subjected by the concrete, the landscape in Apóstol’s hands stops being landscape and instead becomes ruin, postapocalyptic terrain, otherworldly planet. There are no Edenic scenes of the ocean or children playing on its shores as palm trees wave in the breeze, but a landscape marked by cataclysm and in a continual state of the unfinished.

While Apóstol is a Venezuelan multidisciplinary artist who currently resides and works in Madrid, Spain, the slipperiness of “Latinx” enables a multivalent understanding of his work as participating in the Latinx tradition outside of rigid conceptions of the nation states.7 To consider Apóstol’s work as Latinx outside the boundaries of the U.S. reveals possible aesthetic systems of exchange, movement, and influence across the Americas and beyond. The translational turn in American Studies and the advent of hemispheric studies, moreover, has already began exposing these networks, which call into question the overlapping geographies, movements, and cross-filiations between and among peoples, regions, diasporas, and nations. We can see, for example, how Apóstol’s work, as has been observed of Latinx literature and culture, is also concerned with the trauma of im/em/migration, challenges notions of the nation state, and pushes against oppressive forms of governmental power. Apóstol’s work, then, allows us to consider what is essentially Latinx about Latinx aesthetics: the disruptive, unfixed, unfinished.

Alexander Apóstol, “Skeleton Coast,” 75 X 100cm, 2005

As the unsolved variable, the X offers mystery and possibility, but is also imbued with confusion and anxiety. The more pervasive use of “Latinx” as a substitution for a/o, o/a, and @ in recent years has caused a great deal of debate both within and outside academia.8 The X, however, offers a possibility for redefining the self while it also highlights its own instability; it is “restive, hard to pin down and pushes against those things we thought we knew and understood” (Milian 124).9 The disruption the X offers, lies within its excess and speculative nature. For our investigation of speculative Latinx aesthetics, we should also consider how the addition of the letter “X” to “Latin” gives it the sound and look of the inhuman, post-human, the robotic, and otherworldly. Latinx, then, describes a condition of being more than, unknown, extreme, alien, dangerous. Antonio Viego, for example, ties the use of the “X” to violence and trauma, stating that the letter “cannot be made to make sense and it dissembles attempts at fixed meaning; it is the trauma that cannot be delivered in speech” (162).10 The use of the Latinx defies fixity “even in the attempt to do so,” and therefore, is always grappling with its own plurality.11

Similarly, the speculative also demonstrates the unfixed nature of common conceptions of past, present, and future. Speculative aesthetics function as a rhetoric, discursive practice, way of reading, and being in the world that is fully destabilizing. The speculative cannot hold formulaic and established formal qualities but is historically specific and mutable (Rieder 193-194).12 If as Veronica Hollinger suggest, SF “implies not a kind but a method, a way of getting something done” (140),13 then speculative aesthetics are a performative method of being in the world that can actively and continually question common conceptions of progress, regeneration, and revolution. Apóstol’s global Venezuelan imaginaries incites viewers to reconsider how speculative Venezuelan imaginaries in the Americas and globally position the pleasurable aesthetics of the unfinished as a radical site of political identity centered on refusal.

As Apóstol explains, the economic failure of Margarita is interlinked to the failure of Caracas, the nation’s capital, which also demonstrated spectacular economic and social growth from the 1930s to the 1980s.14 Therefore, his photography, while site-specific is also deeply involved in telling a national story of failure and decay that emanates globally. The buildings in the series provide a parallel view of the country’s institutional structures, also in a constant state of decay. Thus, “Skeleton Coast” creates a hemispheric American and, in fact, global Venezuelan network through notions of the unfinished and desolate that, rendered through cultural productions such as the “high art” photograph interlink negative aesthetics to sensorial pleasure.

Venezuela, as with many other countries in Latin America, is marked by moments of crisis. We can see this clearly in the various mass protests against the Chávez administration and now Nicolás Maduros’ government throughout the 2000s and into our present. Yet, these eruptions of recognizable political dissent eventually subside, most recently seen in the 2019 protest in favor of Juan Guaidó, opposition leader and declared acting President of Venezuela by the National Assembly—a move the Maduro government rejects. Featured internationally in news and print media for a period of time, the limelight has turned away from Venezuela even as the country continues to undergo an extreme crisis, giving news consumers the false idea that the situation has improved. While international news agencies have moved on to other newsworthy crises—concentration camps on the U.S.-Mexico border, the rise of fascism in Europe, ecological disaster, the Democratic party’s infinite presidential candidates, Trump’s possible impeachment—Venezuelan aesthetic imaginaries hold radical politics of refusal at their center. Apóstol’s work challenges the idea that modernization is a sign of futurity and advancement; a way of ridding us from the past by building on top of it; that crisis can be averted, cataclysm overcome.

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  1. Apóstol offers this as an artistic statement for the “Skeleton Coast” series on his website. See: http://s107238961.onlinehome.us/02_skeletonCoast.php
  2. This is also interlinked with the pleasures found in monetary gain for artist, museum, gallery, and art dealer.
  3. In “Nomenclature, Narrative, and Novum: “The Anthropocene” And/as Science Fiction” Rebecca Evans establishes the notion of “science fictionality” as a mode that exceeds genre conventions and which destabilizes the present so profoundly that it is seen as both “that we can appreciate our own inability to imagine the future even as we maintain only a slippery historical consciousness of the present” (488).
  4. The 1989 Caracazo (or sacudón) marks a turning point in Venezuelan forms of protest that are mirrored in aesthetic representations. The week-long mass protest was a response to the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms by Carlos Andrés Pérez and recommended by the International Monetary Fund, and contrary to Pérez’s populist presidential campaign and resulted in increased gasoline and transportation prices. Unlike other moments of protest against governmental power, the Caracazo, was a project organized around “destroying” rather than “seizing power” and presents a rift in contemporary modes of expressing political identities around ideas of revolt. The Caracazo was explicitly an anti-multinational capitalist resistance to state power as represented by organizations such as the ones mentioned above. See George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013) 15.
  5. Roland Barthes’ important inquiry into photography, Camera Lucida (1980), illustrates how the photograph mechanically replicates that which is empirically un-repeatable. However, the essence of the photography, its noeme, resides in its double position as reality and reproduction of the past. As such, the photograph captures an object/subject that was present in front of the camera but which is immediately deferred and, therefore, truth and reality are confused in a unique emotion where interpretation is impeded when faced with the “that-has-been”; evidence of the real in the past that approaches la verité folle (crazy truth).
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies 9 (1982): 152.
  7. Apóstol was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 1969, studied photography with Ricardo Armas from 1987 to 1988, and art history at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas from 1987 to 1990. A multidisciplinary artist, Apóstol has had solo exhibitions in various renown galleries including the Sala Mendoza in Caracas (2004), Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies at Harvard University (2007), and has participated in group exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London (2010) and the Venice Biennale (2011).
  8. There have been many articles about the use of “Latinx.” See, for example, Fausto Fernós, “How Do You Pronounce Latinx?” Feast of Fun, https://feastoffun.com/podcast/2016/10/26/fof-2409-how-do-you-pronounce-latinx/; Hugo Marín González, “Why I Chose to Not Be Latinx.” Latino Rebels, 20 July 2017, http://www.latinorebels.com/2017/07/20/why-i-chose-to-not-be-latinx/; Daniel Hernandez, “The Case against ‘Latinx.’” Los Angeles Times, 17 Dec. 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hernandez-the-case-against-latinx- 20171217-story.html.
  9. Claudia Milian, “Extremely Latin, XOXO: Notes on LatinX.” Cultural Dynamics 29, no. 3 (August 2017): 124.
  10. Antonio Viego, “LatinX and the Neurologization of the Self.” Cultural Dynamics 29, no. 3 (August 2017): 162.
  11. Ibid.
  12. John Rieder, “On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History” Science Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (2010): 193-194.
  13. Veronica Hollinger, “Genre vs. Mode” Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction 2014, 140.
  14. See artist notes on his website: http://s107238961.onlinehome.us/02_skeletonCoast.php