JAMES LUNA & GUILLERMO GOMEZ-PENA

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James Luna, Nighthawks Remix (2009), Photo: RJ Muna.

JAMES LUNA & GUILLERMO GOMEZ-PENA @ GALERIA DE LA RAZA

by Anthony Torres

James Luna & Guillermo Gómez-Peña
Galería de la Raza, 2857 24th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

On Saturday, July 17, 2010, at the Galería de la Raza, James Luna and Guillermo Gómez-Peña presented an informal lecture/performance entitled La Nostalgia Remix, an ongoing collaborative project by two of “America’s” leading conceptual artists. The artists took their audience on a journey through past projects, via storytelling and images constructed in collaboration with San Francisco photographer RJ Muna. These (re)presented performances took place last year at various local bars, and at Left Space Studio.

The conversational dialogue and photographic re-enactments represented a collaborative effort by several San Francisco-based artists and cultural co-conspirators who helped to re-stage and construct the events, invoking the melancholic aura of iconic paintings such as Nighthawks, and others by Edward Hopper. The interactive performance invoked “nostalgic” recollections of projects from the 1990’s, that Gómez-Peña and James Luna worked on as an ongoing project entitled The Shame-man meets El Mexican’t. In it, they problematized simplistic assumptions and about race and culture in our society by using “reverse anthropology,” a strategy developed for subverting dominant cultural projections and representations of Mexicans and Native peoples. Through nostalgic narrative, sardonic humor, and conceptual parody, they critically interrogated the way indigenous and ethnic identities are portrayed by mainstream cultural institutions, and are commercialized through popular culture and tourism.

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James Luna, La Nostalgia, 2008, Photo: RJ Muna.
Gómez-Peña and Luna resurrected an intervention in which they shared a diorama display space at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. They also presented a performance in which Gómez-Peña sat sat on a toilet costumed as a mariachi in a straightjacket, with a sign around his neck reading “There used to be a Mexican inside this body.” He attempted, unsuccessfully, to get rid of his straight jacket in order to “perform” for and “entertain” the audience. James Luna retold tales of his shifting presentations of changing personas: as an “Indian shoe-shiner”, offering to shine the shoes of audience members; a “diabetic Indian,” shooting insulin directly into his stomach; a “janitor of color” who swept the floor of the diorama as a comment on the division of labor within cultural institutions. Gómez-Peña stated, “the ‘real’ Indian dioramas speak of a mute world outside of history and social crises. Strangely, next to us, they appear much less ‘authentic.’ ”

Luna recounted how during rehearsal at the Smithsonian, after James lit up some sage, several security guards tired to bust them for “smoking dope.” He recalled, “Just another day in the life of a post-res Indian and a barrio Chicano.” In revisiting the incident at the institution, Gómez-Peña has stated that he wrote in the margins of the script, “The performance is never over for us. No matter how much we understand that ethnic identity is a cultural and ideological construction, and that as performance artists we have the power to alter it at will, nevertheless, we are always confronted in the most unexpected moments by the guardians of fetishized identity and the enforcers of stereotype.”

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Guillermo Gomez-Peña & Nicole Superstar, La Nostalgia, Photo: RJ Muna.

The recalled performances re-presented their tactically-based utilization of writing, photography, video, and performance, to address the complexities of the politically charged and shifting nature of culture(s), as it informs and impact their particulars subjectivities. The La Nostalgia Remix performance at La Galeria was a site-specific event that drew from the artists’ past work and their evolving repertoire of “greatest hits” performances to address an on going concerned with developing a vocabulary for cultural contestation to address their social concerns — past and present. The previous performances to which they alluded, included the artists staging their own ritual deaths inside a coffin and a poetic dialogue during which Luna cooked an Indian stew and Gómez-Peña played roulette. The collaborations were presented over the years at the Mission Cultural Center, Headlands Center for the Arts, and in San Francisco at Out North and the Bunnell Street Galllery, and also in Alaska.

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Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Nighthawks Remix, 2009, Photo: RJ Muna.

In (re)presenting their work in La Nostalgia Remix, the artists engaged in a politics of representation in which images, texts, and aesthetic strategies, drawn from an international reservoir of sources, enunciated their subjectivities through signifying practices that reference the diverse histories informing their social being and consciousness, and thereby the work. The recollection of specific instances from their past performance practices was used to comment on their cultural complexity and hybridity, which were presented as historically constituted by contact, conflict, experience, or sympathetic identification with issues that relate to their specific Native-American and Latino identity. Re-imagining history through formal vocabularies that are mobile and fluid, serves as a source of inspiration and fantasy construction for an alternate future. The “specificity” of their artistic practices functions as a means of undermining colonial ideological residues that have identified and differentiated Native people and Latino artists as somehow bound and subsumed in a false dichotomy between “mainstream” and “culturally specific” cultural practices and art institutions.

In other words, in telling their collaborative history(s) the artists demonstrated their ability to construct meaning for themselves and others in an arena that defines, however nebulous or transitory, what comprises Latino and Native-american art and culture. They showed that the artists themselves are the most powerful agents in articulating, through their works, who they are and what may or may not be considered Native-american and Latino culture.

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Luna & Peña as Lounge Singers, La Nostalgia, 2008, Photo: RJ Muna.

–Anthony Torres

This essay first appeared in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, August 2010.

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