Performance artist chugs salsa on film

A man speaks of love and death while spinning a roulette wheel. A man squishes his face into unfamiliar shapes. A man chugs a bottle of his favorite salsa.

This somewhat out-of-the-ordinary man is Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a performance artist that shared his work in An Afternoon of Video Graffiti and Spoken Word Roulette last Thursday. In 1991 Gómez-Peña, who was born in Mexico and moved to the United States in the late seventies, became the first Chicano/Mexicano artist to obtain the MacArthur Fellowship. In 2000, he received the Cineaste Lifetime Achievement award from the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival.

Onstage last week, Gómez-Peña showed clips from his most recent film, Los videograffitis, to be released in 2008. The film opens with the quote “When you don”t have access to politics, poetry replaces politics,” followed by a black and white shot of Gómez-Peña exploring and squishing his face to discover all of its possible forms. The film then moves to him chugging a bottle of salsa to a blaring rock ballad.

The second portion of the film shows Gómez-Peña paying homage to various family members, artists or creatures he admires. The first tribute is to musician Lenard Cohen, who Gómez-Peña commemorates by dressing in customary Mexican dress and singing Cohen”s “Kiss me.” A tribute to Rio Terra follows, showing Gómez-Peña cutting his ear, face, neck, nose and tongue with scissors to a sympathetic opera.

A fellow performance artist who Gómez-Peña admires, Marina Abramovich, once held dry ice in her hands for a long period of time during a performance to illustrate a point. Gómez-Peña honored her by drinking from a human heart and burning himself with an iron over his heart and cheek.

The last homage, titled “Dancing for your Sins,” was dedicated to the Pavo Cristatus, a species of peacock in which Gómez-Peña describes himself as a “lost shaman on the other side of the mirror” and dances in traditional American Indian costume.

I found Gómez-Peña”s film intriguing and engaging, specifically his willingness to take artistic risk in his creation. I see his film as a political and social statement, rather than a film meant for pure entertainment value. Though many of the film”s titles and text were in Spanish, and difficult for me to read, I believe this artistic decision, even to a non-Spanish speaking viewer, conveys Gómez-Peña”s interest in the dynamics of a diverse society.

Gómez-Peña said he performs to exercise his freedoms in the world. When asked to define his profession, he said he was a rocker without a band, a theorist without methodology, and a shaman without a tribe. He believes performance is a weird religion of aesthetic manipulation and losing it in front of the camera. He said he creates metaphors with a book and wrestles with the possibilities of light and darkness. He announced he would light his hair on fire to make a point.

According to Gómez-Peña, the tense atmosphere of the Bush Administration has created paranoia of performance artists because they are seen, justifiably, as potential trouble to art institutions. He further noted that only in the United States are artists asked if their work is audience-friendly, meaning “art without venom or sharp edges.”

Gómez-Peña acknowledged that these are well-founded fears, but said that if we comply with them we lose our voices, souls and dignity, and that we should choose to ignore people”s fears and do whatever we want. After discussing his work and identity he left the audience with one final question: “Is it possible to be oneself in front of an audience?”

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