Gómez-Peña conveys sentiments through mixed-media

by Nathaniel Ward | 11/7/01 6:00am

"How many of you consider yourselves pure-blooded whites? How many of you consider yourselves people of color? How many of you are illegal immigrants?"

In what many in the audience described as an overwhelming display of his work, Mexican performance artist and Chicano activist Gulliermo Gmez-Pea answered these questions and more last night in a presentation at Dartmouth Hall.

A cacophony of bizarre and often erotic images, including naked green men wearing alien masks, a professional wrestler interacting with Zapatista soldiers and a woman with "f--k off" and "white" written across her body, flowed across large two screens as he discussed his work.

"Photography and film have become an extension of my work," Gmez-Pea said, adding that "a good image can be a work in itself."

In many ways, the presentation of his artwork was itself a show; Gmez-Pea was dressed in a black matador jacket with silver trim, and the visuals were timed to correspond with his eloquent words.

Much of the work Gmez-Pea displayed dealt with cross-border identity. For example, one video clip entitled "El International Boxer" showed him wearing boxing gloves, one bearing the Mexican flag and the other the American, punching himself in the face in a bizarre scene marked by dizzying colors and camera movements.

Other more bizarre videos and photographs used strange costumes and juxtapositions to communicate the strictness of the border crossings.

Presenting "re-conceptualized objects" in order to manipulate his audiences perceptions, he used stereotypes of Mexicans and Chicanos as inspiration for his political artwork.

Gmez-Pea launched an ambitious project in 1995 which sought to combine "confessions" of such stereotypes and fears about Chicanos in performance artwork.

Enclosing himself in Plexiglass cages in various prominent locations around Mexico, the United States and Canada, Gmez-Pea dressed himself in a variety of costumes and invited viewers to share their opinions of him as a human specimen. The recorded testimonials were later compiled and often used as inspiration for his work.

Using himself as a work of art created "ceremonial space for people to reflect on their own cultures," Gmez-Pea said.

In a later version of the project, using the Internet to collect the confessions, Gmez-Pea managed to accumulate thousands of ideas and transform them into art.

The first project using the web was called "Mexterminator," which he hoped would "utilize the Internet as a tool of reverse anthropology," he said.

This reverse anthropology took cultural ideas and made them into images, while normally cultural themes stem from the artwork.

Much of the material collected online from the United States dealt with an increasing fear of Chicanos facing violence. This was reflected in a series of slides showing photographs of Gmez-Pea very heavily armed with powerful guns.

Other testaments collected dealt with the sexuality of Mexicans and Chicanos. Accordingly, much of the work displayed was highly sexual, including several images of scantily-clad or nude women and men, often in S&M garb.

A further stereotype present in much of his work is "Spanglish," a mix of English and Spanish often spoken by Chicanos who have spent time in the United States. While sometimes interjecting a Spanish word or phrase into his own speech, most of Gmez-Pea's "Spanglish" was seen in his visuals, which often preceded English words with the Spanish article "el."

"The results of our experiment in reverse anthropology were stronger than we could have imagined," Gmez-Pea said.

The highly political and cultural artwork was designed, as is all such art, "to replace a negative stereotype with a positive stereotype," he added. "Performance offered me the opportunity to be many things at one time," and fulfill several childhood aspirations.

Born in 1955 in Mexico City, Gmez-Pea immigrated to the U.S. in 1978. Spending much of his time since then along the U.S.-Mexico border, he has won several awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship, and his written work has been published several times.

In addition, his performance works have been made into films and broadcast on National Public Radio.

Yesterday's event was part of the "My/Our Voice: Insiders and Outsiders" series presented by the Hopkins Center. Designed to examine personal identity through performance art, the presentations are sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gmez-Pea will return to Hanover in May to perform in a "living diorama" alongside student participants in front of the Orosco murals in the Reserve Corridor of Baker Library as part of a two-week residency.