Human Rites 

Artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña challenges local audiences with a controversial political aesthetic.

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What power does art really have anymore in the high-tech, high-finance, political-hardball world we live in? Internationally renowned performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña is bringing a show to our city that'at least until last year'couldn’t even get a booking in the United States because presenters feared the controversy it would generate. His Rites of Democracy, presented at The Pickle Company along with his performance art troupe La Pocha Nostra, isn’t just an evening but a five-day residency including workshops, film screenings and discussions. The first Chicano artist to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (“genius grant”), Gómez-Peña has honed his mode of artistic expression to the point where the top rung of both the art world and the political sphere take notice.

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The week might not be happening at all without the efforts of Lindsey Drury. The grad student in dance/performance art at the University of Utah had worked with Gómez-Peña in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the summer of 2006, during the teacher protests there and came to know the power of his work. “Gómez-Peña’s work is most valuable to me because he helps us invite our skeletons out of our closets,” Drury explains. “He is an extremely kind and empathetic man who values vulnerability as a source of empowerment and change.nn

Drury initially wrote a grant through the University’s College of Fine Arts but only received about two-thirds of the amount needed to bring Gómez-Peña here. She sought the rest through the Associated Students of the University of Utah but was frustrated to find the organization no longer funds student art projects. So she started a student activist group called The Body Politic that addresses the politics of the human body and raised $1,000. The rest of the support came through the Salt Lake City Film Center, TRASA Urban Arts Collective, the Student Association for Collaboration in the Arts and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan. Ironically, Drury says a faculty member recommended that Gómez-Peña’s work not be shown on campus to avoid controversy. She found The Pickle Company, operated by TRASA and home to many local art installations, ready to take up the challenge.

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Gómez-Peña was unable to schedule an interview due to prior commitments but Roberto Sifuentes'a founding member of La Pocha Nostra who has worked with him for more than a decade'described their art. “Our work is multilayered, coming from a Latino/Chicano aesthetic,” Sifuentes explains, “then branches out in all directions. Our recent work deals with contemporary issues like globalization and U.S. imperialism, in response to the post-911 era. It’s very interactive, as audience members can not only walk through but add their community voices, writing a message or creating an altar. The most important thing to Gómez-Peña is that we engage in a dialogue.nn

The week begins March 17 with “Mapa/Corpo: Oppositional Rites for a Borderless Society,” an interactive performance at The Pickle Company. The metaphor of the occupation of Iraq through a symbolic mapping of the human figure is a striking example of the brilliance of Gómez-Peña’s work. “An Afternoon of Video Graffiti and Spoken Word Roulette” will take place Sunday, March 18, at the downtown Main Library. He will round out his time here March 19-21 with a “Conceptual Lab of Hybrid Art and Critical Culture” workshop at The Pickle Company. It’s an amazing number of opportunities to engage with a celebrated artistic mind.

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The Pickle Company is a unique venue in which to house the installation, with its own history and a floor plan that’s open yet comfortable and amenable to discussion. “We saw the value and importance of what he is doing and were willing to fight to make it happen,” said Pickle Company program director Brandon Garcia. “He’s shown at the top art institutions in the world, but he’s coming here for pennies just to reach a new audience and effect change in a community he’s never worked in.nn

“If there is anything I have learned from this project, it’s that the title ‘controversial art’ isn’t just lip service; it means something,” Drury said. “Controversial art still scares the s't out of funding organizations. Such organizations lose their purpose when they fail to take risks.nn

And it’s a unique type of artistic highwire act in a place like Utah. Performing a show “developed as a response to the era of terror instituted by the Bush administration” isn’t exactly preaching to the choir, even in relatively liberal Salt Lake City. But the opportunity for us to engage in the discussion is invaluable.

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It’s hard to determine what kind of political changes art can ultimately effect in the “real world,” but one gauge is just the fact that these voices are given an ear. “Now, there’s a new openness,” Sifuentes says. “New voices are able to emerge to deal with sensitive political issues.” Though politics is itself a kind of performance art, Sifuentes notes, “We just try to play our role as part of a larger process.nn

RITES OF DEMOCRACY: LA POCHA NOSTRA
nWITH GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA
nThe Pickle Company
n741 S. 400 West
n450-8977
nMarch 17-21

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