A now-dead white European male once wrote that it’s only a small step from fanaticism to barbarism. “The Year of the White Bear,” an exhibition about the accidental discovery of America, explores that terrifying transformation from zealotry to atrocity. With biting wit, it rips away the myth that noble commitment drove Europeans westward and exposes the savagery of a people hell-bent on conquering the world.
That’s the good news. “White Bear,” on view at the Otis College of Art and Design, and “The New World (B)order,” the performance piece that accompanies it at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, have been organized with great flair and chutzpah by artist-provocateur Guillermo Gomez-Pena and writer-media artist Coco Fusco. In the exhibition, they give us history as cultural genocide, five centuries of robbery, rape and enslavement. It’s a conceptually appealing show with a sharp, satiric edge.
This show’s most interesting contribution to an already extensive body of ethnic “pay-back” art is its elaborate layering of historical fact and fiction. The exhibition flows from authentic artifact to cheap border-town souvenir in quick succession. Every one is billed as a rare, one-of-kind remnant of the Conquest.
For example, the exhibition includes “The Collector’s Room,” complete with an armoire full of Pre-Columbian antique dolls, some genuine, some not. Photographs on the wall include one of interracial pornography and the “Collector’s cousin Bob and ‘his’ Indian Dance Show.” There’s a desk where books such as Horatio Alger’s “Risen From the Ranks” and Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” are on display. Clearly, this “collector” also displays an ideology whether he knows it or not.
It is this very juxtaposition of the genuine truth with fake that allows the organizers to question the right of mainstream culture to display the sacred and sublime of other societies. More important, it allows them to put a well-placed slap on the face of museums and gallery spaces in general. As Fusco asks in one of her essays: “Whose museums and whose aesthetics? Whose icons?”
The bad news is that, while often humorous in a wickedly sarcastic way, “White Bear"--organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and presented here as part of the L.A. Festival--has the stale whiff of deja vu . What may have resonated with some frisson in the heat of early ‘90s anti-quincentennial fever, now appears all too familiar.
Take, for instance, the Christopher Columbus “Green Card.” A display plaque says it’s on special loan from the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s special archives. Or, Alfred J. Quiroz’s “Christopher Columbus Introduces Eurocentric Philosophy to America.” In this panoramic painting of culture contact, we see a Spaniard, who looks as though he’s just stepped out of Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” sodomizing an Indian woman. Too much of the show has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In fact, a lot of it bludgeons the viewer with a one-dimensional vision of repetitive, derivative art.
An almost singular exception is the video “The Couple in the Cage.” It is a chronicle of Gomez-Pena’s and Fusco’s 1992 mock circus-like, traveling performance, “Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit . . .” in which they pretend to be members of an indigenous tribe from the Gulf of Mexico locked in a cage like exotic curiosities. This video, made by Fusco and Paula Heredia and shot in the United States, Europe and Australia, is one of the smartest commentaries yet on still-rampant cultural and historical myopia. Shown also as an introduction to “The New World (B)order” at Highways, it’s a brilliant link between the exhibition and the performance.
Unfortunately, it’s the best the two-person program ever gets. Unlike the gallery work, which looks back at historical roots, the performance attempts to limn that which is to come if North America becomes one massive free trade zone. The entire script--about prophecies and a vision of the near-future where the dark “other” has finally achieved supremacy over his pale race competitors--is an exercise in the art of the put-down.
What was interesting was that the predominantly white audience seemed utterly enthralled by the two-hour litany of insults, mockery and cruelty directed against it. It was as if everyone thought that by being well-read and media-savvy, they were somehow excluded from the ranks of oppressors and fools. But are they? The show’s Joycean, multilingual puns actually poke special fun at the art-hip, those who insidiously (perhaps even unconsciously) use art as a vehicle for cultural offense.
“The New World (B)order” is bleak, to say the least. The tables are turning, and in their own mean-spirited way, Gomez-Pena and Fusco opt to give back what the lunatic “White Bear” gave the natives after landing unexpectedly in this hemisphere. It’s a brutal, barbaric and self-righteous vision executed by masters with incisive impact.
Of course, everybody should see shows like these once. So, if you haven’t seen something in this genre, by all means, go. But if you’ve done it already, you’ve done your share--although no one does neo-multiculturalism better than Gomez-Pena.
* “The New World (B)order,” 8:30 p.m. at Highways in Santa Monica, through Sunday; “The Year of the White Bear” at Otis College of Art and Design, through Nov. 6.