America, the Beautiful

Nao Bustamante

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, November 20 and 21

By Carol Burbank

I remember a sign–“XXX, all nude girls, all the time!”–that flashed continuously near one of my cheaper apartments; figuratively, that same glowing sign remains the lurid subtext for avant-garde experiments with the nude female body. Naked performance is an awkward footnote in American culture. It doesn’t seem to matter which political or visual tricks artists use to reframe their nudity–a hypersexualized energy always surrounds such events. The best artists are able to subvert voyeuristic audience expectations, but nudity is still a risky performance strategy.

Featured in the Mexican Fine Arts Center’s Sor Juana Festival, Nao Bustamante subverted naked revelations in an unusual way. Creating a pitiful, powerful clown persona whose patriotism mocks American racism, she offered a snide circus-act parody of white culture’s pinup-girl standards of beauty. Compared to the once shocking Karen Finley and the irreverent exhibitionist Annie Sprinkle, the San Francisco-based Bustamante seems tame at first, her performance straightforwardly clownish. But she merely challenges the audience in a different, less straightforward way, with the gradual realization that her disdain for traditional standards of beauty is matched by disdain for our pleasure in her performance. Her casual contempt effectively dismantles our voyeurism even as we experience it.

Bustamante’s approach to performance is refreshingly low-key. The piece begins with repetitive music, a slowed-down, almost surreal version of “America, the Beautiful” played on an old record player. The scratchy sound and muffled words, amplified by the gallery’s sound system, fill the room with a perverse nostalgia. Occasionally the stagehands change the sound track–to an old Spanish-language tape, then back to the song’s itchy moan. When the lights go down, one of the stagehands sets up a stepladder, glances at the audience, then moves to the back of the space and takes off her clothes–becoming instantly the performer, piquing our voyeuristic interest. Tossing her clothes behind the screen that establishes a stage in the center of the gallery, Bustamante crosses the space to change the record.

From this plain beginning Bustamante creates an increasingly disturbing dumb show. She crimps her eyelashes, paints on a messy lipstick mouth that streaks up to rouge her cheeks, and sprays a curly blond fright wig until it pokes Medusa-like in snaky clumps around her face. She powders her face until it’s pale and glittery, an eerie contrast to her honey brown shoulders and body. Then she wraps her waist and thighs in packing tape, stands on the stepladder, and balances precariously to put on four-inch platform shoes, surveying the audience.

Is she looking for approval? It’s hard to tell. Suddenly she seems dressed, however, as if the see-through corset of tape, her wig, and the whiteface makeup have covered her nakedness. Her long breasts hang over the tape strips, and her crotch is framed by garter belts of tape; her ass is squeezed by the constriction and elevated by her high-heeled shoes. Looking nightmarish, she still somehow resembles a pinup girl, ready to fulfill the patriarchal dream. Climbing the large ladder, arching her back, stretching her legs (as far as the tape will allow), and balancing in positions that seem more and more dangerous given her hobbling costume, she shimmers–sometimes Marilyn Monroe, sometimes the sad shadow of a glittery circus acrobat, sometimes a monstrous freak.

As our perceptions shift, she moves mechanically through her poses, occasionally stopping to adjust the record player. We hear “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Maybellene,” and “The Blue Danube” as she squeezes and twists herself into increasingly uncomfortable positions. She also grows more disgusted by our responses: whatever we do–clap, laugh, sit back and watch–it doesn’t seem to be right. Finally, just when we think we’re playing the game correctly by applauding her sweet little bows, she throws a tantrum, destroying her gift of roses and stomping offstage.

This is the moment that defines the piece: by rejecting the audience Bustamante gives us a way to reject our voyeurism, and ultimately to reject the reality she’s critiquing. Unsure of what we’re supposed to do, we give up on entertainment. Then, brilliantly, she takes the freak show to another level–her clown tries again. We perk up–and get slapped in the face. Bustamante arranges a dozen Old Milwaukee bottles filled with water on an ironing board and leans forward to play an off-tune “America, the Beautiful” by blowing gently but carnally into each bottle. Reminiscent of Annie Sprinkle’s 1,000 Blowjobs, Bustamante’s provocative musical number completes the performance by transforming this patriotic song into a coy, empty, distressing carnival ritual.

Then, without a transition, she steps to the center of the stage and cuts her constraining costume off, strip by strip, dumping wig and plastic sheaths in a pile in the middle of the stage. With the same matter-of-factness that characterized her initial strip, she stands for a moment, then crosses to pick up her clothes and exits. There’s no time to applaud or react. The audience waits, and nothing happens. The clown is dead; long live the clown.

America, the Beautiful is a tame performance for Bustamante: in another piece she invites men to take a bite out of a burrito strapped on at her waist in order to absolve themselves of the guilt of centuries of oppression. But despite–or because of–its simplicity, America, the Beautiful challenges our assumptions about beauty, race, and nationalism. Like her colleagues Keith Hennessy and Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a, Bustamante maps out an ambiguous territory with clownish bravado.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Monica Naranjo.