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The case with the work of Colombian-born artist Carlos Motta

There are some works of art that I’m convinced stalk me. They are patient, waiting years for me to finally notice their quiet, often wordless advances. This was the case with the work of Colombian-born artist Carlos Motta. I was scrolling through the webpage for Queer|Art’s mentorship program the other day when I stumbled across Motta’s photo and brief bio. His name sounded so familiar. I stopped and googled him immediately, realizing that I’ve encountered his work twice during the past few years, both times in work settings.

The first was while I was working at the Art Institute of Chicago in the museum’s donor stewardship department. A pair of wealthy donors gifted a print of Untitled” (1998/2016) to the museum, and I had to write an acknowledgement letter to them on behalf of the museum’s president, explaining why the photograph was an important addition to the museum’s collection. I can’t remember a single word that I wrote. Although, that’s hardly surprising considering I wrote dozens of letters at a time, culling through the dense, academic texts written by the curators to pluck and reshape a sentence or two into flowery, gratuitous prose. 

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Carlos Motta, "Inverted World", 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the time, I didn’t make the connection that I had seen another one of Motta’s works a year prior. I was working as a visitor services associate at Wrightwood659. The gallery was presenting “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art,” a survey of queer art making the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The visitor services staff were essentially glorified security guards branded as docents. We rotated between the gallery’s three floors, pretending to take notes and tally different conversations with guests on a form that one of our old managers appropriated from the Guggenheim’s education department.

The exhibition was claustrophobic. I distinctly remember trying to have a conversation with my coworker Amanda in the fourth-floor gallery and feeling like a fly caught between a window screen and the glass pane, buzzing endlessly back and forth to avoid being in the way of visitors. The space was bisected by a temporary wall filled with a dizzying amount of artwork. We had to keep squeezing our bodies against the wall, trying to avoid brushing against the art; although, it happened occasionally, and I pretended to forget that we were supposed to fill out the tedious incident report forms required by the museums and galleries the work was on loan from. The only gallery that didn’t feel like my hoarder uncle’s home was on the second floor, which is where Motta’s “Inverted World(2016) was being shown.

I’m not certain that “Inverted World” was included in the exhibition or if I am simply manufacturing this memory. I tried combing through the gallery’s website to figure it out, but there was no information on which works were included. I could email the staff and ask, but I decide it doesn’t matter in the end. The image lives indelibly in my mind regardless of whether I experienced it. Here’s what I remember: the back gallery was segmented like two brackets facing one another. One of Jacolby Satterwhite’s 3D animation videos featuring gyrating, grotesque, big-dicked avatars dancing and engaging in sadomasochism was playing on the north gallery wall, opposite Motta’s “Inverted World.” There was a small alcove between the two walls leading to the emergency stairwell where I liked to stand so that I could hold my clipboard at a slight angle from my chest to make it look like I was writing something, but I was usually texting on my phone. I must’ve watched both videos dozens of times over the course of the exhibition until they became indistinct blurs of colors, shapes and sound.

One of the greatest things about living in the age of the internet is that you can find almost everything after the fact. I was able to rewatch “Inverted World” on Motta’s Vimeo account, immediately recognizing the video as the one that I had seen in early 2019. The opening shot shows a pair of hands deftly tying a knot around Motta’s wrist and attaching it to a tie around his hairy thigh. His leg twitches, the soft flesh jiggling, but he doesn’t resist. We can hear the rope being tied, the fibers scratching against one another like small rodents scurrying through the grass and the guttural, gastric sound of the wood floors creaking. Birds chirp loudly in the background, suggesting there’s an open window or, more likely, a cadre of birds taking residence in the chapel’s vaulted ceilings.

The two bondage artists—Stefano Laforgia and Andrea Ropes—breathe loudly as they quickly finish tying a complex braid around Motta’s ankle and foot. They fasten Motta’s feet to a pair of carabiners in unison. Motta moans. His mouth is open in a devious smile that suggests pleasure. A black fabric blindfold is tied around his eyes. There’s a mechanical sound as Laforgia and Ropes hoist Motta into the air. He continues to moan in short, lilting bursts that accompany each tug pulling him higher into the air. They remove his blindfold. We finally see Motta’s entire nude body as it hangs in front of what appears to be an altarpiece.

The bondage artists move in and undo the knots attaching his thighs and wrists, which come undone so easily it’s hard to believe that they were even knotted, pulling the ropes out until Motta’s arms stretch outwards and create the “inverted crucifix” image. Motta’s flaccid cock dangles between his legs, pressed against his abdomen by the weight of his sagging scrotum and testicles, which kind of remind me of an upside-down heart. He moans pleasurably, although slightly withholding, as if he doesn’t want to completely abandon control. The camera cuts to a slow, panning view of the 16th century chapel’s altarpiece. He grimaces, two blood-swollen veins forming a prominent V on his forehead.

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