(Host) Art and performance come together at Dartmouth College tonight at the Epic of American Civilization mural. As VPR’s Betty Smith reports, the colonization of America is the subject of an unusual performance installation called “Mexotica.”
(Smith) Deep in the reserve section of Baker Library, quiet is the rule, but there’s a riot of color going on the walls. They’re covered, from floor to ceiling, with tall murals that depict the colonization of the Americas from the perspective of indigenous people. These are the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco, commissioned by Dartmouth in the 1930s.
The murals have always been controversial. They’re images of heroic sized figures, powerfully painted, often shocking. This weekend, they’re part of the performance.
To the beat of recorded music, performance artists on black platforms set at intervals along the room create personas that reflect and expand the images behind them. It’s as if the murals have gained a third dimension, and are no longer confined to a flat plane. You move through the room as if at a museum or gallery. Welcome to Mexotica.
Along with colleagues Juan Ybarro and Michelle Ceballos, performance artist and NPR commentator Guillermo Gomez Pena came to Dartmouth for a two-week residency in preparation for this event.
(Gomez Pena) “You enter into the space and human beings are on exhibit as human artifacts so to speak, as ethnographic specimens. So in the moment that the door opens you enter into a total universe where these human specimens are on display on platforms and they are morphing throughout the evening. And the audience gets in the first part of the evening to be purely voyeuristic, to examine them from a close distance, and in some cases they even get to touch them, you know, they get to alter their identity at times by applying makeup or changing their costumes. And then in the second part of the evening we step down from the platforms and we begin to create tableaux vivants and human murals with the actual audience members. We reverse the gaze, so to speak.”
(Smith) This is not your usual theater experience.
(Gomez Pena) “Sometimes you get the feeling that you are in an intelligent rave. Other times you get the feeling that you are entering into an interactive and futuristic museum of anthropology. Other times you get the feeling that you are in a kind of cyber punk chicano novel, you know? The aesthetic is very cinematographic. The sets are lit as if they were movie sets. It’s a little bit sci-fi, the feeling, and the energy is very much like club energy. We are demanding that our audiences break the fourth wall and get really close to us. We are demanding that they make ethical and political decisions and at times we are demanding that they co-create art with us, that they are not just passive observers.”
(Smith) Guillermo Gomez Pena calls himself a “border artist” in reference to his own Chicano origins. It also reflects the manner in which performance art bridges the conceptual space between artwork and the audience or diverse cultural elements. It’s a function he believes has considerable value in today’s world:
(Gomez Pena) “It is not surprising that many of the world conflicts happening right now are precisely taking place in situations of extreme border tension. And I feel that border artists can perform a very useful role nowadays as brokers, as bi-national translators you know, as bicultural coyotes, or as smugglers of ideas.”
(Smith) Much like the Orozco murals that inspired this project in the first place, Mexotica is a challenge to the mind. It raises questions about cultural mythologies and the artists say it reflects the fears and desires of post September 11 America.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Betty Smith in Hanover.