Alexander Apóstol and the Brutal Absurdity of Autocracy

In his survey at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, the artist explores the nationalistic archetypes of authoritarian regimes and the individuals expected to conform to their schemas

BY Euridice Arratia in Exhibition Reviews | 09 MAY 24

In the spring of 2017, while Venezuela was engulfed in a wave of civil unrest against President Nicolás Maduros dictatorial regime – protests which were brutally repressed by the state security apparatus – the artist Alexander Apóstol was surreptitiously producing ‘Regime: Dramatis Personae’ (2017–18) in a studio in Caracas. This wondrous photographic series, created in collaboration with members of the trans community, is one of the highlights of ‘Posture and Geometry in the Era of Tropical Autocracy’, Apóstols mid-career survey, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. The portraits are a mordant encyclopaedia of archetypal characters – the disappeared opponent, the ideological tourist, the beauty queen, the threatened journalist, the caudillo – that cannily captures the metamorphosis of Venezuelan society over two decades of autocratic rule under former president Hugo Chávez. Donning sordid paramilitary gear or a faux crown, each performer serves failed-revolution realness.

The series ‘Rehearsing the National Posture’ (2010) similarly mocks the absurdity of nationalistic mythologies. In videos and photographs, Apóstol restages works by Pedro Centeno Vallenilla, the official painter during the 1950–58 dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the key artist in consolidating the state’s bombastic historical iconography of national heroes and mestizaje. Capturing his subjects in contorted poses in a derelict government building, Apóstol magnifies the racial fantasies and homoerotic undertones of Centeno Vallenilla’s paintings, while a video in which actors struggle to maintain their balance underscores the precarious nature of life under the regime.

Alexander Apostol, El Escudo [The Shield], 2011, digital photograph, 1 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist 

This series is shown alongside Vanished Political Parties (2018/23), a large installation of wall paintings and wood panels in vibrant colours, each representing a voting card of the multiple political parties that emerged after the fall of the dictatorship. Apóstol removes the texts and photos that identify each party, reducing them to a chromatic field devoid of political significance. Throughout the exhibition, the artist relentlessly mines Venezuela’s contrasting visual traditions: nationalist allegoric paintings on the one hand; geometric abstraction and kinetic art movements associated with the aspirational modernity of the 1960s and ’70s oil boom on the other.

Nowhere is the long shadow that kinetic art has cast over the country’s urban space more evident than in Chromosaturated Collective Bargaining Agreement (2018). The three-channel video installation is divided into six chapters, each featuring characters alluding to different social groups (factory workers, company managers, office employees). These groups engage in repetitive actions against the backdrop of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s iconic public projects (among them a hydroelectric plant, silos, a concert hall and zebra crossings) while the spectator basks in the utopian chromatic glow of a work that is both ambiguous homage and critical commentary.

Alexander Apostol, Partidos Políticos Desaparecidos [Defunct Political Parties], 2023, paint and wood, 6.1 × 15.8 m. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Oliver Santana

This sense of ambiguity permeates other works in the exhibition, such as Le Corbusier and Diego Rivera Visit Each Other 30 Times (2008), a double-channel video installation depicting an imaginary encounter between the noted artist and architect, or the video The Four Horsemen (2009), a take on Gio Ponti’s attempt to reconcile the tropics with Western modernity in Villa Planchart (1957), his residential masterpiece in Caracas. In the grainy black and white video Avenida Libertador (2006), one of Apóstol’s early and most radical works, trans sex workers strike poses on the titular avenue and flirtatiously introduce themselves to the camera by usurping the pantheon of Venezuela modernism: ‘I am Jesús Rafael Soto’, ‘I am Gego’, and so on. The video ends in a vertiginous car ride, the camera pointing towards the constructivist mural that decorates the throughfare. The mural progressively blurs as it moves toward the distance, presaging the nation’s uncertain future.

Alexander Apostol, ‘Posture and Geometry in the Era of Tropical Autocracy’, is on view at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, until 12 May. 

Main Image: Alexander Apostol, ‘Regimen: Dramatis Personae’ (extract), 2017, digital photography. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Oliver Santana