Catherine Matos Olivo: The Exploration of Self

When I saw Catherine Matos Olivo’s work for the first time at the 2nd San Juan Poligraphic Triennial, it did not immediately grab my attention. I was strolling through the room looking at the different works displayed, when I caught a quick glimpse of several postcards of photographs neatly placed on a shelf. Not only did I not know it was her work, since the tag with her name was not placed on the wall, but what I saw did not instantly provoke a reaction within myself. At first glance, the images seem trite and commonplace. In these photographs, the artist is caught in the act of some everyday scenario in the work life of an average person. These acts consist of different roles such as feeding a number of cats, working as a cashier at a store and piercing a client at a tattoo shop. I began to wonder if in fact it was an artwork. However, a closer look revealed the ideas behind the work and more importantly gave rise to many questions regarding art and its relationship with everyday life. At what point do we draw the line between art and everyday experience? What makes these photographs worthy of such reflection?

A security guard, a store clerk, a waitress… the photographs made me think of my own work experiences during the last ten years. When I spoke to the artist about her work, she candidly asked me what did I think the work meant, what kind of interpretation could I give. At this moment, I realized that it is the personal experiences of the viewer that makes her work relevant. For Catherine Matos Olivo, art and her personal experiences reflect each other, as the title of her most recent work Trabajo=Trabajo suggests, where the artist is the protagonist of a series of photographs that document odd jobs held during her formation as an artist. Although she appears as the main subject in ordinary scenarios, they are not self-portraits in a traditional sense. They encourage the viewer to reflect upon the fluctuation of the concept of self and pose questions regarding our political and socio-economic environments.

But then again, I ask myself, what makes these photographs an artwork to be displayed at a triennial? Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of her diverse personal work experiences that encourages self-contemplation and analysis. In my opinion, it is not the individual act that defines the work, but the collectivity of the actions depicted that imparts meaning. The artist appropriates ordinary everyday actions and through its documentation invites the viewer to see further, to take the time to create a dialogue between her artwork and their own personal experience. When looking at the images as a collective artwork, the artist seems to become invisible among the familiar scenarios and uniforms, as her identity is never truly revealed. By remaining anonymous and confusing the viewer as to her true identity, she places herself in a position of power, obscuring herself but at the same time revealing all the different facets of her own life. The viewer not only identifies themselves with these portrayals, but also begins their own process of self-examination.

And what exactly is revealed to us? Could it be the simultaneous plurality of our own selves? For both the artist and the viewer, it is a self-defining voyage that explores the concept of oscillating identities. We are all in a constant process of mutation and transformation. Our identities are in constant flux. Each day we wear different masks and adopt different identities depending on the situations we face. People are constantly trying to pinpoint who we are by defining us through our profession. Through the portrayal of different selves, the artist adopts different personas; the ones required to perform a certain task. In every job, her identity is at stake. In the process of adapting to different situations, the individual is effaced to lead the way to a more plural definition of ourselves.

The diverse polarization of her personal experience also brings attention to the political aspect of her work. When I asked the artist about this, which entails the socio-political status of Puerto Rico as a US territory and the vague notion of Puerto Rican identity, Matos Olivo expressed that it is not one of her main concerns as an artist, but that she is conscious that these ideas are consequentially discussed in her work. Issues such as immigration, racism, neo-colonialism and feminism are deserving of attention and further reflection. In contemporary society, who are the people that perform these unskillful jobs? Does the issue of identity in her work transcend the personal sphere and enter a more political one? Trabajo=Trabajo can unquestionably be understood as a study in Puerto Rican pluralism. Puerto Rico’s political status has never been clearly defined. The island’s ambiguous political position has weighed heavily not only on politics, but also the visual arts, literature, and social behaviors. Everything in the island seems to revolve around the unsettling and unanswerable question: Who are we? Are we American or Latin American? It seems an almost tiresome discourse for any Puerto Rican. We have become accustomed and acclimatized to the notion of dual identity.

Pushing the political tone even further is a project entitled Geographical Restrictions. In it, the artist documents the limitations and controls that exist on the Internet for the exchange of information and goods. In Puerto Rico, it is not uncommon to find a situation where a person cannot buy a product on the Internet due to what is called “geographical restrictions.” This upsetting reality speaks further of the island’s political and social conundrum, but also reflects the cultural and social isolation of the island in its relationship with the mainland. Nonetheless, the project also examines the global exchange of information, as search engines fueled by strategically placed servers pick and choose the information we see and do not see. In this sense, we are all geographically and socially restricted. Can we really see further than our own immediate realities? Similar to Trabajo=Trabajo, this project makes us think about how a seemingly isolated experience can transform itself into a global concern. In what way are we truly globally connected if not by our own agglomeration of shared experiences?

In fact, what seems to be an increasingly banal discourse, the documentation of an average life, turns out to pose thought-provoking questions regarding the self and our surrounding socio-political and economic realities. Given the global economic crisis we currently live in, the work is all the more relevant as people from all walks of life recur to odd jobs to make ends meet. Is a new social economic structure currently being constructed? How are these experiences going to affect the way we see ourselves in contemporary society? Trabajo=Trabajo speaks to all of us. It is not an isolated experience, but one that crosses geographical and cultural boundaries.

Originally published on Small Axe: A Caribbean Platform for Criticism