Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco

at the Field Museum of Natural History

January 16 and 17

I just discovered you, therefore you exist–Guillermo Gomez-Pena in “1992,” a performance poem

“Is the male of the species dominant?” a young man asked the Field Museum “docent” (performance artist Paula Killen) as he and his friend looked at the pair of Amerindians on display in a golden cage. The question revealed much more about this young man’s attitudes than he knew. Did he truly see people of an ethnicity other than his own as a separate “species”? “Why is he touching the television set?” he continued. “Do they like presents? Why are they eating fruit? Why do they like to be fed? Why is he dressed like that?”

“The Year of the White Bear”–conceived by New York performance artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco–included an exhibit by various artists at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, this performance at the Field Museum, performances at Randolph Street Gallery, and various artist-in-residence activities and radio art projects with the Experimental Sound Studio. And it was among the more amazing, wondrous experiences I’ve had. The project, intended to heal the wounds of colonialism and racism through irony, humor, and heart, engages the viewer in a process of self-examination. Posing as residents of the mythical island of Guatinaui (“What now?”), Fusco and Gomez-Pena performed such “authentic” tasks as writing on a laptop computer, watching television, making voodoo dolls, doing exercises and “traditional dances,” and pacing, all inside the cage, where they remained from 9 until 5, over two days at the Field Museum.

Another visitor, a professor at a nearby college, looked on the “exhibit” with sheer disbelief, then acute pain. “This isn’t right!” she said. “How can the Field Museum put these people in a cage?!” She planned to call the curator the following Monday for an explanation. Children were often fascinated and seemed to get the point better than adults; a young boy told one bystander, “Oh, these are artists, they’re playing Indian.”

Many people were first drawn to the installation performance by the mariachi music, Latin rap, and overlapping melodies of rock and salsa–incongruous enough in the Field Museum. At the sight of the people in the cage, visitors often stood mesmerized, then slack-jawed. Reactions ranged from shocked disbelief to sadness, from indifference to anger. Some viewers embarked on a sort of ritual, circling the cage, standing back, coming up close, reading the plaques, then asking questions. The passing, shifting crowd showed the melding of many cultures: the museum cleaning crew, a gaggle of teenage girls with big hair and distressed jeans, parents with small children, artists, writers, television crews, foreign tourists. They were as much a part of the performance as the two artists. The “docents”–student and performance artist Pablo Helguera, actress Claire DeCoster, and Killen–continually spoke to the audience and seemed to encourage questions and analysis, though they followed a script Gomez-Pena and Fusco had prepared. The audience spoke to each other as well as to the docents, and watched other visitors for their reactions and questions. Some people from the museum’s education department surveyed visitors on the outskirts of the group; they’ll compile and send their results to Fusco and Gomez-Pena.

I remember seeing women in Thailand in the early 70s wearing Maidenform midriff bras with their batik sarongs. The weather was hot, the bras were lacy and pretty, and they seemed appropriate accessories. At the same time I was wearing with my jeans a sleeveless cotton blouse with tiny buttons I’d bought at a Bangkok market. I was told by a concerned Thai that I was wearing an undershirt–not appropriate street wear. When cultures collide, as they have been with increasing frequency, we tend to appropriate what appeals to us. Fusco and Gomez-Pena take the concept of appropriateness and bend it. In the cage they used computers, a television, a boom box. Fusco’s face was painted green and yellow; she wore a grass skirt, a leopard bikini top, black sneakers, shell necklaces, and sunglasses. Her hair was arranged in corn rows to her shoulders. Gomez-Pena wore periwinkle shorts, an Aztec-style ornamental breastplate, a little papier-mache head on a leather thong, and biker gloves. A wrestling mask helped emphasize his catlike presence, while Fusco’s mien was more pedestrian.

Inside the cage were cans of Classic Coke, a bottle of Evian water, a table covered by a souvenir tablecloth printed with the word “Europa” and illustrated with “places of interest.” A television set and VCR in one corner played a continuous tape of a silly yet insidious Three Stooges movie with an “Amazonian” slant: people wearing painted faces, masks, and grass skirts danced and bopped each other on the head with clubs. Throughout, American-influenced Mexican music, Latin rap, and various other mixes seemed to meld with the sound of the Field Museum’s Tibetan bell in the distance. The bell was not part of the performance, yet its knell eerily entwined with the music in the cage. The bell sounded at once earnest, dependable, and poetic. Something about its sound made it seem as though a “mix” of cultures was in the process of beginning. The time of the White Bear–the white European–was over. The museum space is so huge and all-encompassing that other exhibits seemed part of this one, too. The huge stuffed elephants, relics themselves, seemed to look on from the left, as did the masks on mannequins on the other side.

Many of the visitors did not look at the plaques on either side of the cage (written by Fusco and Gomez-Pena); had they bothered, this performance’s confrontation with our perception of “the other” would have been crystal clear. By putting themselves in a cage Fusco and Gomez-Pena are making a statement about the way Western society has dealt with aboriginal peoples from all cultures throughout history. What really knocked me out were the great pains the artists had taken to create a framework for their thesis. In a glossy program for “The Year of the White Bear,” Gomez-Pena and Fusco wrote: “Performance art in the West did not begin with Dadaist “events.’ Since the early days of the Spanish conquest, “aboriginal samples’ of people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas were brought to Europe for aesthetic contemplation, scientific analysis, and entertainment.” A chronology of various people placed on exhibit over the last 500 years appeared on the plaque in front of the cage and in the program, framing the spectacle of Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Chicago.

Forcing viewers to literally witness racism themselves, and forcing them to hear the reactions of fellow viewers, these artists created a sense of pain, shame, and heartbreak. The docents confessed that this was a “devastating” experience for them, confronting the manifest, almost insistent ignorance of viewers who would not read the plaques but persisted in their belief that the Amerindians were “real.” The issues raised in regard to manifest destiny, racism, and our regard for the “other” were examined in a way that transcended preaching. As Gomez-Pena said in an interview with me, “You cross a border and the parcel of your being gets shattered and you have to piece it together again with new pieces. There are many risks when you cross a border.”


Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco

at Randolph Street Gallery

January 22, 23, and 24

There was no relief for the psychic exhaustion Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Chicago created until the pair’s performances at Randolph Street Gallery the following weekend. The place was packed, and while we were waiting to get into the performance space Fusco appeared, wearing her now-familiar grass skirt and face paint, and announced that the audience would be separated into those who were (a) people of color, (b) immigrants from the third world, (c) fluent speakers of a language other than English, (d) residents of more than six months in another country, and (e) none of the above. “No cheating!” Fusco admonished as we passed her into the space.

A breathtaking beauty with or without face paint, Fusco does not demonstrate the passion and soul of Gomez-Pena in performance, but she manages to complement his passion with a cool, wry, almost flip delivery in her somewhat husky voice. At the Field Museum she would smile very faintly, sitting in her cage sewing voodoo dolls. That cool little smile placed her at a distance in her live performance at Randolph Street but brought her into a hyperreality when she was in the cage. She functioned like a Greek chorus during the gallery performance, while Gomez-Pena was a more immediate presence, breaking down the fourth wall. The dichotomy was fascinating as they alternated speaking but both remained onstage throughout.

At Randolph Street a freshly killed chicken (obvious only at the end of the performance) hung stage center, boxing gloves were on the floor beneath it, votive candles were arranged throughout the space in geometric patterns, two platforms and two stands were on either side of the space, and a dramatically lit skeleton dangled throughout the performance behind the chicken. Once we’d entered the room and gone to our respective locations, the performance began–at breakneck speed. Gomez-Pena portrays “El Aztec High-Tech” and Fusco, “La Miss Discovery ’92” in a performance parody in which the government dictates cultural mores in a mythical America of the near future.

Gomez-Pena began his performance by intoning “January 22, 23–three days, President Clinton, miento this is not, miento this is a techno-town meeting . . .” And so begin the prophecies of New World (B)order. We have entered a place that does not exist but that might exist soon, if sociologists and demographic experts are correct in forecasting the future. Gomez-Pena asks, “Is this Utopia? Is this Catholic? Is this reality or performance? Can anyone answer?”

He wove words into a mix of Spanish and English. Sometimes he seemed to be spoofing himself, but at other times was dead serious. We watched subtle shifts in character pass like shadows of leaves across his face and bearing. We heard a mix of mariachi music, rap, and salsa. The words are strange yet familiar. “This is art. This is not reality. We are in a post-Columbian melting pot . . .” In this world the disenfranchised WASPbacks have fled to the south, where they work in fast-food establishments. Anglo-feminists who worship the tragic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo wear body casts in order to undergo the same suffering she did. The piece was funny, strange, fast, intense, and seamlessly choreographed, full of crazy little twists and turns of language, semantics, and culture. Gomez-Pena’s writing is wonderful, hypnotic. At the end of the piece Fusco showed the audience the “artifacts” that audience members had given her earlier in the evening when they were waiting to get into the space, and Gomez-Pena showed us something pitiable, dead, and foul.

New World (B)order was the denouement of the performance installation at the Field Museum; using irony and humor Gomez-Pena and Fusco allowed us to contemplate the next step–being part of a world border culture, reclaiming our humanity and our hearts. Roberto Sifuentes’s lighting and Adalberto Arcos’s sound track gave Randolph Street a strange, beautiful, hallucinatory atmosphere. The related art exhibit at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum will be up until February 10.

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