A remarkable, immersive installation at REDCAT is a collaboration between San Francisco artist Rigo 23 (born Ricardo Gouveia) and Zapatista artists and craftspeople from Chiapas, in southern Mexico. With the seemingly incongruous title “Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program,” it uses the language of interstellar travel to announce a fundamental departure from the world as we know it.
Whatever you think of the Zapatista communities, there’s no denying they are a radical experiment. The underground movement, which emerged on the international stage in 1994 in a series of bloody conflicts with the Mexican government, has evolved over the past 18 years into a network of self-governed, largely autonomous communities. Dedicated to the values of mutual aid and participatory democracy (with a libertarian streak), they see art and poetry as powerful weapons in a continuing revolution.
But their propaganda displays neither the avant-garde formal experimentation of the Constructivists nor the sleek, state-sanctioned Social Realism of the Cultural Revolution. As it turns out, it’s more like the Afrofuturist imaginings of musicians George Clinton and Sun Ra — a DIY blend of high tech and grassroots. The Zapatista ideology may be of this Earth but it is certainly not bound by it.
Fascinated by this aspiration, Rigo 23 journeyed to Chiapas and asked one of the group’s governing bodies to imagine what a Zapatista spaceship might look like, offering to build one with them. About three years later, the result is suspended from the ceiling at the center of the REDCAT show: It’s an intergalactic ear of corn.
This space vegetable — what can’t one do with corn? — is a marvelous structure, made of wood and studded with basket-weave “kernels” each bearing an embroidered portrait of a Zapatista. Of course, they’re all wearing their signature black ski masks, as are the two sculptural snails that sit on the nose of the craft. (Travel by corn, it seems, happens at a leisurely pace.) Inside can be found miniatures of, among other things, a tree, a basketball court and a spotted leopard — all things you wouldn’t want to leave the planet without, naturally.
The ship is displayed in a room encircled by a makeshift hallway lined with a patchwork of scrap wood. One section contains paintings and embroidered quilts by individual Zapatista artists; another is lined with a large embroidered banner representing the starry sky. A table on a raised platform in one corner cleverly integrates the watchful gallery attendant into the piece, and a couple of videos — one on the making of the ship, another documenting a Zapatista gathering — can be glimpsed only through cutouts in the hallway walls. These holes mimic the eye opening in a Zapatista mask, and ask us, if only for a few minutes, to see the world as they do.
The whole structure is fronted with a beautiful, intensely detailed mural, created by two young Zapatista artists. It depicts two large, masked figures with raised swords, standing on the Earth amid an interstellar landscape peopled with flowers, stars, birds, satellites and a dragon.
Collaborations like this always raise certain questions: Can an outsider present an accurate vision of Zapatista ideology? And is it exploitative to do so? Perhaps someone more experienced with Zapatista aesthetics could judge, but Rigo 23 seems to have maintained a very light touch, functioning more as an instigator and a curator than an auteur. And showing the work so far from home seems appropriate to the Zapatistas’ infinitely expansive vision.
At any rate, what comes across most forcefully is not revolutionary fervor but a playful, flexible sense of whimsy that acknowledges that ideology, like art, is abstract and imaginative. By using the language of space travel, Rigo 23 and his Zapatista collaborators lay claim to the future but also to an opening of horizons. Their visions may seem outlandish, but they speak to the Zapatista project — a total reworking of the social and political system. In art, such visions — even space travel in a giant ear of corn — become a little bit more concrete and, perhaps, just a little bit less impossible.
REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A., (213) 237-2800, through June 17. Closed Mondays. www.redcat.org