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: http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$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: http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$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: http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$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     

from: http://www.pochanostra.com/what/     

The living museums and other performances promote an idea that works towards:
…an 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: http://www.pochanostra.com/
 
An archive with some video of several performance pieces: http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$artistdetail?GMEZPEAG
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