EVENT: Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco's "The Year of the White Bear: Take One"|
STAGE: Fine Arts Gallery, University of California, Irvine
DATES: March 2-4, 1992
NOTES: Originally published in Buscando California newsletter, by Kat Avila, (c) March-April 1992, vol. 1, no. 3.
Event brochure tip: THINGS TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN ABORIGINE, 1. Do not panic.
Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco's The Year of the White Bear: Take One opened to the public March 2-4 at the Fine Arts Gallery, University of California (UCI). Performance artist Gomez-Pena in his Aztec high-tech get-up and writer-curator Fusco in a bikini top, grass skirt, and "Ms. Discovery 1492" sash posed as aborigines from the newly discovered Caribbean island Guatinau and allowed themselves to be locked up in a cage for display and propaganda purposes.
On the nights of March 3 and 4, the aborigines were temporarily freed from their cage for performances on a concrete slab outside the gallery. The ritualistic performances were conducted around a steel drum-contained fire and constituted part of an ongoing project called A Performance Chronicle of the Rediscovery of America by the Warrior for Gringostroika and included a historical overview of the censorship of the "other" in the Americas by religious, government, and art institutions. The performance art event was the culmination of a UCI residency for Gomez-Pena and Fusco which had started Feb. 24. The Gringostroika project is expected to continue in the U.S. and abroad in opposition to the quincentennial celebration of Christopher Columbus's arrival in America.
As visitors strolled into the gallery, they were greeted by a uniformed zookeeper who distributed advice and brochures with tips on what to do if one should bump into an aborigine. On the wall behind the guard was a bright orange road sign with the word "CAUTION" in black under a silhouette of a running male and female aborigine, reminiscent of the signs California drivers see as they approach the I.N.S. checkpoint at San Onofre, over 50 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, a zone where a number of Mexican nationals have been run over and killed trying to avoid the border patrol. On the right side of the gallery entrance was an aborigine souvenir stand stocked with plastic-bagged, tongue-in-cheek items such as aborigine breath freshener (a clove of garlic) and fossilized bones (dog milkbones). Ironically, on the opposite of the lobby, as if looking at the origin of a funhouse mirror image, was the gallery gift shop selling the usual art postcards, books, and jewelry. The result was the creation of a provocative space between the gallery gift shop and the aborigine souvenir stand, the authentic and the inauthentic, the parodied and the parody, the real and the imaginary, and the elitist and the plebeian.
To peruse the aborigine souvenirs was to become aware that one was plugging into a set of cultural, as well as tourist, practices that has encouraged the exploitation, commodification, and consequently, debasement of indigenous cultures for commercial profit. For some, the experience of the "other" becomes something as easily acquired as a new jacket or pair of shoes. One could buy and consume difference in this way and feel satisfied one had sufficiently interacted with a particular community.
After passing the zookeeper, visitors then proceeded to a room whose white walls were covered with enlarged reproductions of correspondence related to the event concerning fire safety and human waste disposal. (In the end, it was decided the performance artists would be escorted to the restroom.) There was a video monitor sitting at eye-level on a white square pedestal. The label beneath the monitor read "The Aboriginal Homeland." Images on the screen looked like old Hollywood with pale native women in bikini tops and grass skirts happily whiling away their time on some faraway romantic tropical island.
In the next gallery room was a giant cage. Inside the cage were Gomez-Pena and Fusco. Visitors could walk around the cage and observe them from all four sides. The cage was furnished with a TV, a laptop computer, a hammock, knickknacks, and baby dolls, among other things. A neon CERVEZA/BUDWEISTER sign hung from the bars. Outside, another zookeeper vigilantly stood guard to protect the visitors from the aborigines. In front of the cage was information about the aborigines and their homeland, as well as a listing of "Special Aborigine Spectacles for Visitors."
An authentic song or dance could be had for 50 cents. For a dollar, a visitor could hear storytelling in the aboriginal tongue or get a polaroid picture taken with the aborigines. At one time, a UCI video class was in the room taping. A character named Ralph Bland from Neo-Geographic was busy interviewing the aborigines through the zookeeper (UCI student Eric Senkbeil). The zookeeper would translate the questions into Spanish, and Gomez-Pena would reply back in Spanish to the zookeeper, who would translate the answers into English. Watching the interaction, one could see multiple cages produce themselves--the cage of language separating people from one another, the cage constructed by media such as National Geographic marking the indigenous as exotic, the cage created by tourist industries surrounding the indigenous so a people become a source of spectacle and entertainment, and so on.
One gallery visitor expressed her discomfort to the artists at seeing them locked up. She concluded it was the whole purpose of the event, and it had succeeded in this respect. Other visitors, Anglo and minority, walked out as quickly as they came in, missing the board opposite the cage. The board was titled "A Message from the Embassy of Guatinau in the U.S.A." It listed indigenous peoples, starting from 1493, who had been put on display in Europe and in circuses. There were contradictions to be resolved between reading the message from Guatinau criticizing the West for its display practices of indigenous peoples and the aborigines who had consented to be locked up for three days to be ogled at. The aborigines had demanded to be discovered by the West. Since civilization had not come to them, they had come to civilization, reminding one of the many indigenous peoples who had never asked to be "discovered."
Viewing the aborigines, it was difficult not to get caught up in the energy of the crowd as everyone pressed forward maneuvering for a better look. What other strange things would the aborigines do next? Gomez-Pena and Fusco watched the crowd from behind sunglasses, no doubt as much amused by the antics of the crowd as people were by them.