The bombing of Baghdad–deadly fireworks bursting across an eerie night sky on his television screen–reminded Mark Nelson of the video game Nintendo, a fitting comparison coming from an artist who believes that in America anything can be reduced to an amusement. While he watched the news, ideas started coming for his new installation piece, GringoLandia II.

Nelson’s first GringoLandia, mounted in a Chicago gallery a year ago, was a 3-D walk-through arcade constructed of objects found on barrio streets, American artifacts, toy machine guns, and pictures of General Noriega. The idea was to portray the Panamanian invasion (during which the artist, who spent much of his childhood in that country, and his Panamanian wife watched for news of their family and friends) as a perverse Disney park appealing to America’s appetite for entertainment. The sequel echoes this theme. “It’s about the whole idea of trivializing somebody else’s world,” Nelson says. “Everything can be made into some kind of bizarre cartoon and be accepted by so many people in this country because it doesn’t affect their lives.”

Nelson spent five months creating the new piece. He started by poring over slides of Middle Eastern architecture and art at the Art Institute, his alma mater. Next came his drawings, a floor plan, and an inches-high “mockette” enabling him to visualize the movement of viewers through the rooms. Finally, he constructed the full-size piece, a snaking series of eight-by-four-foot wood panels strung together with piano hinges, in the art studio that is actually the living room of his small apartment.

Pseudo-Arabic script beckons over the GringoLandia II’s entryway. Inside, brass lanterns flicker in a labyrinth of ersatz sandstone walls. Exotic music and sound effects clamor in the background–haunting flutes, the bustle of a bazaar, men chortling and screaming. Anonymous faces snatched from an old high school yearbook and pasted on the walls stare straight ahead like missing persons in a human rights report. Arabic script beneath them quotes Middle Eastern proverbs: “A burned child dreads the fire.” “Death is the grand leveller.” Pottery shards, a giant trophy, wall hangings of dark figures in battle, and a miniature musical oil rig transform history and politics into theatrical displays. And then there’s the McDonald’s Mosque, with the familiar arches, Ronald McDonald’s clownish countenance flashing ominously above a row of onion rings, the main altar laid out with cheeseburger and fries.

Nelson’s front door was blocked by GringoLandia II’s walls for five months while he was building it. “I really have to live with a piece before I can put it out in public,” he says. Just as he tried to alter his own environment with the piece, his artistic aim is to pull viewers into the unfamiliar, challenge them to see things differently.

As devastating as the war in the Persian Gulf was, Nelson says, many Americans viewed it superficially. He expects they’ll view his new piece the same way. “‘I don’t really have to understand this,’ they’ll say. ‘All I have to do is enjoy it. And take pictures.'”

GringoLandia II is on exhibit Monday through Friday 9 to 5 through July 5 at the North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan. Call 743-4477. A $2 donation to the center is requested.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.