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LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL: "Home, Place and Memory" : An Artist Is Uncaged : Art: Coco Fusco's multimedia exhibition 'The Year of the White Bear'--made with Guillermo Gomez-Pena--is an inquiry into cultural, political and physical colonialism.

September 14, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the most talked-about pieces in this year's much-maligned Whitney Biennial exhibition of recent art was "Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit New York," a collaborative performance/ installation by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco. An exercise in faux anthropology based on racist images of natives, Gomez-Pena and Fusco decked themselves out in primitive drag and appeared for the public in a locked cage. Presented eight times in four different countries, this simple piece evoked various responses-- the most startling being the huge numbers of people who didn't find the idea of "natives" locked in a cage objectionable or all that unusual.

"It was never our intention to make ourselves into believable primitives," points out Fusco, whose video chronicle of the performance, made in collaboration with Paula Heredia, is included in "The Year of the White Bear" an exhibition by Gomez-Pena and Fusco that opened at the Otis School of Art and Design gallery on Saturday as part of the L.A. Festival. "There was no 'correct' response to the piece because our intention was simply to see what the situation would generate," adds the 33-year-old artist. "And what it generated was a lot of people acting out their own fantasies of 'the primitive'--fantasies that had absolutely nothing to do with us."

The ideas central to the piece continue to be of primary importance to the two artists and are at the heart of "The Year of the White Bear." An inquiry into cultural, political and physical colonialism, the exhibition juxtaposes authentic pre-Columbian, 19th-Century and Colonial artifacts, with racist trinkets, tourist art, toys, and several paintings commissioned by the artists specifically for this show; the L.A. incarnation of the exhibition, for instance, features a portrait of Mayor Richard Riordan depicted as a turn-of-the-century railroad tycoon.

The show also serves as a sort of L.A. debut for Fusco, who recently moved to Santa Monica with Gomez-Pena, having spent most of the '80s living in New York where she worked primarily in film, and as a curator and writer about cultural politics.

"People are always telling me if you're a writer you can't be a curator, and if you're a curator you can't be an artist and so on, but I've never imposed those kinds of limits on myself. I left academia to get away from that kind of thinking," laughs Fusco, who can also be seen Thursday-Sunday at Highways in Santa Monica, where the pair will perform a work titled "New World (B)order." Fusco describes it as "a multilingual prophesy piece about the end of the century, with us playing two flipped out deejays."

Born and raised in New York, the daughter of a Cuban immigrant mother, Fusco recalls "my parents weren't directly involved in politics, but anybody who grew up in the shadow of Cuban immigration had politics thrust on them whether they wanted it or not. My parents tried hard to create an atmosphere where I wasn't subjected to racism--I attended the same private school from the age of 6 until college--but once I got to college my world changed completely. I went to an Ivy League school (Brown University), met the ruling elite for the first time and encountered a lot of racism and stupidity. I wasn't used to the attitudes I encountered there and I got politicized real fast."

After earning a B.A. in semiotics from Brown in 1982, Fusco continued her schooling at Stanford, where she graduated with an M.A. in literature in 1985. In 1988 she was attending a conference and happened to meet Gomez-Pena, the critically acclaimed artist who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991 for the art he'd created exploring the crisis at the U.S./Mexican border.

"Guillermo and I have a lot of the same interests but there are marked differences in our sensibilities," says Fusco in explaining how the two work together. "I tend to be more analytical and deductive and have a need for structure, and Guillermo is more inductive and intuitive and has a strong sense of play. So we sort of balance each other out nicely."

Asked how balanced the press has been in its coverage of the couple's collaborations, she heaves a sigh of resignation and says, "All I can say is there's a certain amount of sexism in the world. From the beginning this was a collaborative project, but I don't want to go into how many times we've performed together and the picture in the paper is only of Guillermo. This isn't to say that Guillermo doesn't deserve any of the accolades he gets, because I think the work he does is really important, but I think the way Guillermo is treated by the press has some parallels with 'The Couple in the Cage.'

"The flip side of oppressing people is to fetishize them, and when colonialism was roaring along at full force, people from the very cultures that were being destroyed were put on display like exotic curiosities," she adds. "Similarly, I've noticed that some people get fascinated with aspects of Guillermo that have nothing to do with his work as an artist. By focusing on him and developing him as a sort of celebrity, the press distances itself from the content of our work."

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