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It Sure Beats Living in a Shoe : Hallucinatory Relic? Civic Sculpture? "La Mona," Armando Munoz Garcia's House in Tijuana, is All Those Things--as Well as a Monument to Ingenuity, Courage and Visionary Zeal.

April 14, 1996|Ralph Rugoff | Ralph Rugoff is the author of the recently published "Circus Americanus" (Verso). His last piece in the magazine was on the Los Altos apartments

It's an assessment born of personal experience. In 1987, Garcia was a penniless part-time art student at a city cultural center when he was first inspired to build a monument in honor of Tijuana's approaching centenary. He broached the idea with his teacher and was duly given a lecture on the complexity and immense cost of such an undertaking. After mulling it over for several months, he devised a plan that borrowed techniques from construction rather than traditional sculpture. When his teacher remained skeptical and fellow students laughed off his request for help, Garcia began work on the statue by himself, raising money for materials by working at a succession of odd jobs.

"When I look back on that time now, I remember many hard nights when I was unsure I would ever finish it," he says. "I was alone with no money and no help--and sometimes not even soap to wash my clothes. I sold off my furniture and my car. But I felt it was something very new I had thought of," he adds, "and I felt I had to prove it could work."

While building the statue's midsection, Garcia decided to forego using conventional supports and, on a whim, installed an elliptical beam that engirdled the figure's waist and left the interior hollow. "At that moment I decided, 'Well, if I have this room, I have to live inside it.' "

Novelist George Sand once commented that there are two types of people: those who wish to live in palaces and others who long for life in a cottage. Garcia, who has opted to live inside a work of art, clearly belongs to a select third group. That this particular art work is a huge, voluptuous woman has led some to speculate on Garcia's Oedipal history. "He can imagine he's inside the womb of a woman, like something parallel to his mother," says psychology professor Paul Paredes, a longtime friend.

But La Mona also evokes a long history of corporeal metaphors. If the body is the house of the soul, our homes are a second skin, a heroic outer shell. And psychologists such as Carl Jung have used the house as a metaphor in describing the structure of the psyche; occupying the ground floor, Jung observed, we are frightened by noises we hear in the attic or cellar. Garcia's peculiarly literal poetics, in which everyday events--even a trip to the toilet--are charged with resonance, belongs to this same tradition.

When he was first struck with his obsession, Garcia had wanted to build his monument in downtown Tijuana, but in the end, downtown came to La Mona. On March 22, 1990, Baja California Governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel, assisted by a crowd of dignitaries, officially unveiled the statue.

Three years later, Maria del Refugio Saldivar, a young woman Garcia had met and wooed in Zacatecas, officially made it her home. "I told my wife, 'Well, you have a house in Tijuana,' but I didn't say more than that," Garcia recalls.

"I never thought I was going to live in a naked woman," Maria says. "But as soon as I started living here and cleaning the house, I felt closer to it."

"She started to feel like La Mona," Garcia quips.

Apparently, she is not the only one. "People in the area have taken this sculpture into their hearts, as something of their own, something they identify with," says Paredes. Even those who initially disapproved of its nudity have been impressed by the steady stream of visitors, including television crews from as far away as Japan and Holland. "Armando is from this area," Paredes adds, "and the people now accept his success as their own."

Although local architects have been lukewarm in their response, Garcia counts among his admirers Luis Alonza Valenzuela, an award-winning architect from Mexico City who first sought Garcia out at a 1990 conference in Mexicali. "What Armando is doing has a profound humanistic aspect," he says. "Many times artists don't want to do adventurous things because they are not willing to sacrifice. Armando sacrificed everything to make his statue, and his courage to experiment is very valuable to me."

Garcia's story, however, is not the simple tale of an inspired outsider artist. Despite the personal and civic significance of his iconic home, he is presently trying to sell [it] and is negotiating with one buyer who would turn La Mona into a logo for a cement company.

An old saw holds that the artist sees the world like a newborn. For that reason alone, it's sad to think of Garcia leaving La Mona. Because now, each morning, walking out into daylight from the dark womb of a gigantic woman, he can feel he is born anew. But Garcia has other passions to attend to: a book on his construction techniques, a "literary love story" and a play. Then he intends to take up painting again and, ultimately, to study psychology--a field, he says, where new theories are needed.

"The next 2,000 years'-worth of ideas are already in the air. If we find the right frequency, we can tune into them, like a radio, but most people don't pay attention. Newton didn't invent gravity or the roundness of the world," he says. "He paid attention to what was there." When Garcia was building his statue, he confides, he found himself listening to an insistent inner voice: "You are just an ordinary man who found has his frequency," it said. "Now you you have to work on it."

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