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Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress

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Installation view, Foreground: Nao Bustamante, "Kevlar Fighting Costumes" (set of 5), 2015; background: Nao Bustamante, Rebozo, 2015 and Soldadera, 2015. | Photo: Dale Griner.

Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera ­­-- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution­­ -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 ­- August 1, 2015.

 

Hanging on one wall of Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum is a swath of bright yellow woven fabric, fringed at the bottom. Visitors are invited to touch the fabric, to knot or braid the silky fringe that hangs down, fraying like back-combed baby doll hair. The fabric at this "touch station" is Kevlar, a material woven from fibers invented by a female chemist in 1965, out of which Bustamante has made several Edwardian dresses-cum-fighting costumes, which form the centerpiece of the show. Kevlar has myriad uses: it's found in the bottoms of sailboats, in speaker cones, and in tires. But it might be best known for its ammunition-arresting capabilities; it's what bulletproof vests are made of. The extremely tight weave of Kevlar resists the impact of a bullet. The bullet hits the fabric and wounds the Kevlar rather than the wearer's heart or lung. But Kevlar has an Achilles' heel: once it has been hit, it begins to unravel and cannot be used again.

Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945, 2011. Production still, "Test Shoot." The Kevlar fighting costume has stopped a 9mm slug from a gun of the type used in the Mexican Revolution.
Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945, 2011. Production still, "Test Shoot." The Kevlar fighting costume has stopped a 9mm slug from a gun of the type used in the Mexican Revolution.

I've been thinking lately about styles of vulnerability -- about ways of being in moments of danger, ways of being in the face of crisis. How do we respond when it becomes impossible to hold it all together? In her new memoir, "The Argonauts," poet and critic Maggie Nelson quotes psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott on "what a baby will experience should the holding environment not be good enough." If the baby is not held well enough by its mother in infancy, the baby may "go to pieces." The passage continues:

"One could argue that Winnicott is speaking metaphorically here... But while a baby may not die when its holding environment fails, it may indeed die and die and die and die. The question of what a psyche or a soul can experience depends, in large part, on what you believe it's made of. Spirit is matter reduced to an extreme thinness: O so thin!" [Ralph Waldo Emerson].

If Emerson's soul is made of a matter worn thin, what kind of matter makes up a soul that can go to pieces? What do these two different styles of unraveling -- wearing thin and going to pieces (or shattering) mean? How do they track different kinds of vulnerabilities, different kinds of relations to and anticipations of violence?

I want to think about three works of art that put themselves in the line of violence and vulnerability in order to look at kinds of disorganizings and "unsuturings" of the self. In all of them, material is important -- what kind of stuff you are made of, or covered in -- does determine how you unravel how you become exposed. Each piece moves back and forth between toughness and fragility.

First: Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" from 1965 -- Ono sits on the floor wearing a long-sleeved black dress, a pair of scissors beside her. Audience members are invited to come up and cut her clothing. The first two people to approach are women -- they cut gently, artfully -- small sections from the neckline and the sleeves of the dress. More like a tailor or a designer's alteration than anything resembling an act of violence. Men begin to come on stage, the cuts become less graceful, less tender. Ono's face remains impassive. Bits of the garment fall around her in pieces. A white slip is revealed, then a bra, when increasingly aggressive audience members cut off of her in turn.

"Cut" the one-word instruction for the piece, could have been phrased as "take me to pieces." Ono here invites the audience to conduct her own shattering. She gives herself over to them, to their potential for violence (but also, I want to note, their potential for tenderness -- how can scissors be tender?).

Her face never seems to change throughout the duration of the piece. Is she tough or vulnerable? Is she whole or shattered? At the end, her clothes have been cut off her, but she remains, still a body. Subjected to violence but still, at least literally, whole. What about those kinds of going to pieces others might not be able to see? The kinds we may not show on our faces? Impassivity is its own kind of mask, the suturing or glue of self-protection.

 

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Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945, 2011. Production still, "Test Shoot." Nao Bustamante uses a gun typical of the Mexican Revolution to test the protective strength of her fighting costume.
Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945, 2011. Production still, "Test Shoot." Nao Bustamante uses a gun typical of the Mexican Revolution to test the protective strength of her fighting costume.

Designed as imagined fighting costumes for women on the frontlines in the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, Nao Bustamante's Kevlar dresses are, in a way, garments protected by unraveling. Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, the dresses perform a kind of vulnerability about thinness and thickness -- a kind of vulnerability that cannot go to pieces. When hit by a bullet -- or, when cut by an artist's scissors -- the fabric wears thin; unravels to protect the body inside. Unraveling happens at the edges of things, evokes images of madness. One unravels when one is no longer able to hold it together.

In the video "Test Shoot," Bustamante fires bullets at one dress and finds that a few layers of Kevlar may not be enough to stop a bullet. It was too thin. In the video, the dress hangs from a tree at the edge of a snow-covered wood. A warning sign or an omen, it is strangely body-less, suspended from bony trees. Eerily vulnerable, a yellow, frilled anachronism spins slowly in the air above the white ground.

If, as Emerson wrote, spirit is matter reduced to an extreme thinness, what is Kevlar and its tightly woven thickness? What can we make of this material that is meant to protect, but is itself so vulnerable? A fabric meant to stop metal. To absorb the impact, rather than deflect like a shield. It makes sense this material was designed by a woman. What is the soul of this tough material in its softness?
 

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Bustamante's dresses' apparent softness is deceptive: they are armor in the guise of femininity, they are self-sacrificing shields. But Los Angeles-area artist Beatriz Cortez's "Armor for Rufina Amaya" is a dress that wears its "armored-ness" explicitly. Or, it is armor that does not hide that it is a dress: "Armor for Rufina Amaya" is a dress made of steel. Like Bustamante's Kevlar dresses, "Armor" imagines a tough but feminine protective garment for women in the face of political violence. Rufina Amaya was the lone survivor of the El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador in 1981.

Beatriz Cortez, "Armor for Rufina Amaya," steel, 2014.
Beatriz Cortez, "Armor for Rufina Amaya," steel, 2014.

The steel dress is based on an actual dress Amaya wears in a photograph taken a few weeks after the massacre. In contrast to Bustamante's elaborately pleated, pouffed, and buttoned dresses, Cortez's armored dress is simple and plain. Short sleeved, floor length, with a modest collar and a practical apron, two large pockets "stitched" to its outside. The dress gives off the appearance of softness, but there is no mistaking it is made of metal. This armor can neither unravel nor go to pieces. Its hardness might make it the best of the three works for protecting the female body against violence, but this same hardness also makes the dress unwearable. It is a fantasy of femininity exempt from vulnerability. Must femininity without vulnerability be relegated to the realm of fantasy? Is total hardness as impossible as donning a dress made of steel? "Armor" protects the body while pointing to the limits of protection. A soul, or psyche made of steel may never unravel, may never go to pieces. But is that really possible, or even desirable?

It might be relevant to note that Amaya did not survive the massacre by wearing an armored dress; she survived by hiding in a tree. But Cortez's "Armor," like Bustamante's dresses, invites us to ask what might have happened. These re-imagined garments of the past let us speculate about if things could have been, or, if they could, in the future, be otherwise. In these first weeks of the exhibition, the Kevlar dresses are a pale bright yellow. It's a utilitarian, industrial color that makes the dresses look almost science-fictional. But as the dresses get exposed to the gallery lighting, to the sun that sneaks into the darkened gallery through the glass front window of the museum, they will brown and appear to age. Just a few months on display will make the dresses look less like futuristic dreams of protection than like actually worn, weathered, early 20th century garments. Over time, they will shed their anachronism -- paradoxically seeming more appropriate to the past the further into the future they endure. The otherwise-ness of the future begins to look more and more like the past. Time, like Kevlar, protects as it unravels. Perhaps there will be a future in which women need not protect themselves against violence. Perhaps past and future violences weave around each other, knotting themselves into the protected, if vulnerable present.

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Nao Bustamante, "Kevlar Touching Station," 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco.
Nao Bustamante, "Kevlar Touching Station," 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco.
Nao Bustamante, "Kevlar Touching Station," 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco.
Nao Bustamante, "Kevlar Touching Station," 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco.
Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera," 2015. Cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16'x9' screen, on loop. | Photo: Nathalie Sánchez.
Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera," 2015. Cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16'x9' screen, on loop. | Photo: Nathalie Sánchez.

 

Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:

Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution. ­­

Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.

 

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