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Thursday, June 10, 2010

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Monday, May 3, 2010

AoTW: Hang on to Your Pelotas, Amigos, it’s Guillermo Gómez-Peña

I'm fortunate to live in a city that has a pretty healthy art community. Could it be better? Well, of course! But it's nothing like the dumpster-fire art scenes that I've experienced in some of the places I've lived. With this in mind, I had a grand idea---I'd highlight artistic going-ons happening around my community and feature a local artist for AoTW. And like the best laid plans of mice and men, it went all to crap because there just aren't many going-ons, well, going on. Or if there are, a scouring of the regional interwebz didn't reveal anything of note. For now, that idea is on the backburner. So, I cast my net a little farther west and south and re-discovered, Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

How does one describe him? Well, urmm, I'm not sure but here is a picture to set the stage.

Keep in mind that this is a relatively tame picture of him

Here is a video to further the mood:

Born in Mexico, Gomez-Pena later moved to the United States in 1978 and has since developed a fecundity in a wide array of media producing what is often a cacophony of visual imagery, sound, and outright bizzarro tactics which promote a gestalt of "performance activism and oppositional art."

Some examples of works in this vein:

The Couple in the Cage:

In a series of 1992 performances, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña decked themselves out in primitive costumes and appeared before the public as "undiscovered AmerIndians" locked in a golden cage—an exercise in faux anthropology based on racist images of natives. Presented eight times in four different countries, these simple performances evoked various responses, the most startling being the huge numbers of people who didn't find the idea of "natives" locked in a cage objectionable. This provocative tape suggests that the "primitive" is nothing more than a construction of the West and uses comic fiction to address historical truths and tragedies. from:$tapedetail?COUPLEINTH
Border Brujo:

Sitting at an altar decorated with a kitsch collection of cultural fetish items, and wearing a border patrolman's jacket decorated with buttons, bananas, beads, and shells, Gómez-Peña delivers a sly and bitter indictment of U.S. colonial attitudes toward Mexican culture and history. Whirling through various Mexican American stereotypes, pulling on costumes as easily as accents, Gómez-Peña emphasizes the collision of Mexican and American cultures, their mixture and misunderstanding of each other, each appearing as a dream/nightmare reflection of the "Other." In turns powerful and playful, Border Brujo poignantly illustrates the double edge of forced cultural occupation. from:$tapedetail?BORDERBRUJ
Temple of Confessions:

A documentation of a performance/installation. Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes created a fictional religion based on inter-cultural confessions. Exhibiting themselves in Plexiglas boxes as "end-of-the-century saints", the two performers hear the confessions of audience members willing to reveal their intercultural fears and desires to the saints.

"Considered one of the finest performance artists working in the U.S. today, Mexico-born Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his collaborator Roberto Sifuentes have created a surreal, chapel-like environment. In this space, viewers become participants, revealing their innermost fears and feelings about Mexicans, Chicanos, and Mexican cultureÉ People are disturbed, confused, ashamed, hopeful."

--Kathleen Vanesian, Phoenix New Times, February 9th, 1994. from:$tapedetail?TEMPLEOFCO

Gomez-Pena's work is certainly confrontational but it is oppositional by design in order to force the average viewer to consider issues that have a tendency to remain in the murky understrata of society. The interface between the viewer, who is often an average museum goer, and the shocking display of overloaded ethnic and cultural symbolism promotes a dialogue that:

...challenges the traditional art world mythologies of the "Artiste" as a suffering bohemian and misunderstood genius. La Pocha artists perform necessary roles in multiple contexts including those of social critics and chroniclers, inter-cultural diplomats and translators/mis-translators, informal ombudsmen, media pirates, information architects, reverse anthropologists, experimental linguists and radical pedagogues. To us the artist is above all, an active, responsible citizen immersed in the great debates of our times. Our place is the world and not the Art World.
For several years now, Gomez-Pena has worked on developing a cross-disciplinary collaboration of like-minded artists who engage in artistic efforts that compel discussion of race, cultural identity, stereotypes, etc. via:

""living museums" that parody various colonial practices of representation including the ethnographic diorama (as found in museums of natural history), the Freak Show, the Indian Trading Post, [etc...] and their contemporary equivalents in global media and corporate entertainment

...the composite identities of our "ethno-cyborg" personae are manufactured with the following formula in mind: one quarter stereotype; one quarter audience projection; one quarter aesthetic artifact and one quarter unpredictable personal/social monster
The living museums and other performances promote an idea that works towards: ever-evolving cartography, which inter-connects nomadic, immigrant, hybrid and 'subaltern' rebel artists from various countries bypassing the hegemonic centers of cultural power...

...We seek to articulate another kind of global culture, emerging from within grassroots communities and on the streets, a hybrid culture that often resists, consciously or unconsciously, the 'legitimate' forces of globalization. In this sense, we are part of the 'Other Global Project.' We are particularly interested in the cultures generated by the millions of uprooted peoples, the exiles and migrants from so-called Third World countries, the orphans of crumbling nations and states who are moving North and West in search of the source of their despair. In the process, these 'orphans of the developing world' are creating a new fusion of high/low culture, which, by nature, is anti-colonial, oppositional and experimental. In the process these cultural migrants and political exiles inevitably meet with other migrants, the sexual misfits and aesthetic renegades of the dominant culture. We are interested in the meeting place.

There you have it. When I first found out about Gomez-Pena's work a few years ago, I certainly found it interesting. I couldn't help but be mesmerized in a "how you can't help but look at a car wreck" kind of way. However, considering the administration's ramping up of the immigration debate and the controversial bill just signed into law in Arizona, I think that Gomez-Pena's work rings a different timbre, so to speak. This debate is sure to become more heated in the coming weeks and months and the issues that Gomez-Pena raise, even if you don't agree with the manner in which he does so, are necessary of consideration.
So, if you are fortunate enough to be in an area where he and/or his group is performing, be sure to check them out.

For more info:

Guillermo Gómez-Peña's website:

An archive with some video of several performance pieces:$artistdetail?GMEZPEAG

Friday, April 30, 2010

"That's crap," "I don't get it," and Other Things People Say When Looking at Art

Begin rant--

Having perused many art galleries in my day, I have had the opportunity to not only view some great works of art, but also inadvertently witness the reactions to art that many individuals have.  In fact, there have been occasions when I've spent far more time observing unwary museum-goers instead of focusing on the art that I came to see. 

Many people seem to have found their way into the museum out of an obligatory sense to participate in a cultural experience but, unfortunately, do not necessarily have the tools to help them fully participate in that experience.  I've often wondered why this is.  Every adult there, presumably, has obtained an education, probably public, and were compulsorily exposed to some form of an art program.  It would be reasonable to assume that they were given the tools to understand not only mimetic forms of art but the more abstract and even non-objective forms as well.  However, the truth of the matter is that most art programs don't cover how to observe and interpret the visual arts in as much of an in-depth a manner as, say, the schools cover mathematics or reading.  Viewing art, particularly modern and post-modern art, is as much an exegetical experience as reading works of literature; however, the average 27.2 seconds most people spend on viewing a piece of art doesn't lend itself to establishing a meaningful relationship with what the artist has created.

I think that many people don't spend much time viewing modern and post-modern art for numerous reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that they simply may not know how to.  People identify with what they can recognize--in art, this often means that naturalistic and representational works often win favor because the content is readily identifiable.  Ask people what their favorite artists are and they'll comeback with Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir etc.  Colors that excite and objects or people that are well rendered are never out of favor *cough*Kincaide*cough* There is certainly nothing wrong with such work but it closes off a means of experiencing the world that can only be communicated via the means, methods, and materials that many post-modern artists utilize.  It is akin to not reading any novel produced after, say, 1890.  Yes, there was some fantastic literature produced prior to 1890, but a tremendous amount of significant work has been crafted afterwards as well.

"Pssst. Maybe if we stand here long enough people will think we understand this."

Art speaks about our community, our society, and our world in a way that words cannot.  I think that somehow along the way this has been forgotten or deliberately dismissed--although I can't say why, well I guess I could try but it would take more space than I have here.  It is certainly not uncommon for art to be viewed as expendable within the confines of budgetary considerations.  Art is simply not viewed to be as practical as infrastructure or defense and when viewed in an either/or manner then, yes, it does make sense that art is lower on the hierarchy of needs. 

What I advocate is an integral and symbiotic view of art.  Many indigenous cultures do not have a separate word for "art" as what they create is a necessary extension of their social identity not something that is "separate" from them.  I highly doubt that we in American culture will ever view art as an integral expression of our identity since our tendency to compartmentalize is well established, but certainly steps can be taken to integrate art into our cultural milieu.

So, how can this be accomplished?  Through education.  It will be a slow process but many art education programs are currently promoting the arts more aggressively than before and, more importantly, stressing the critical analysis skills necessary to transcend the traditional barriers that existed between academic subjects.  I think this facilitates--or will come to facilitate--a perspective of the arts that is more flattering than we have had in the past.  Many art rooms have been viewed as a place where students can come to play--which, don't get me wrong, play certainly has its place because learning should be fun, but not frivolous--or, sadly, a dumping ground for students who haven't successfully integrated in the other "core" classes.

The arts can promote skill sets that will help students succeed in whatever field they find themselves and as much as I hate to justify the value of art in terms of its ability to help children get a job sometime in the future, it's important to "sell" art education to those who will be making the budgets.  Further, the arts allow students (aka future leaders of society) to exercise cognitive skills that they seldom use in other academic settings.  Students who have been exposed to the arts have been shown to demonstrate greater achievement in other areas.

Again, I iterate that I think the arts have intrinsic value outside of how creative thinking can facilitate making mo money.  Everything within a community is crafted in a manner that reflects what those people value.  Every artifice reflects who we are as a people--our dreams, hopes, fears, greatness, darkness, and what we may become.  No more effective barometer of a culture can be found outside of its creative expressions.

End rant.

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