SAN DIEGO — For the show inSITE97, the binational display of new art commissioned for public spaces that opened last weekend in the enmeshed border cities of San Diego and Tijuana, Eduardo Abaroa has made little souvenirs for visitors. Dispensed in plastic bubbles from gum ball machines, the assorted prizes are meant to be collected and used--in a private satanic ritual you can perform at home.
Materially, Abaroa's works are trifles. Conceptually, they pack heat.
To get all his souvenirs, you must search out five gum ball machines in five locations around downtown San Diego. In a cheeky, miniature version of a tour of the various sites where the art for inSITE97 is installed, you're here forced to follow the wicked path of a pentagram.
With insolent wit, Abaroa's devilish little prizes handily demolish one dominant edifice of public discourse about art today. The political demand for a culture of virtue, which is self-righteously trumpeted from both the right and the left, is given a loud and resounding raspberry.
Abaroa is 29 and works in Mexico City. Deborah Small, 20 years his senior and an artist in San Diego, has produced an installation totally different in style and tone but oddly related in its rambunctious refusal of debilitating artistic claims of virtuousness.
Small has packed the baggage rooms at the Santa Fe depot, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of fragrant bunches of drying herbs and flowers and baskets of fresh-picked apples. It's the pungent setting for a fascinating digital-video projection that meditates on the historical persecution of women as witches.
The distinctly different works by Abaroa and Small suggest the diversity of approaches taken by the 43 artists and artist teams invited to participate in inSITE97. Equally important, though, these two artists' razor-sharp dismissals of a deeply entrenched art world shibboleth suggest the degree to which the triennial event, now in its third installment, has come of age.
Of the 36 works I saw, nearly half were compelling and well worth the trek. For the difficult genre of commissioned installation art, the ratio of success is high. (Pieces by Vito Acconci, David Avalos, Rebecca Belmore, Christina Fernandez and Marcos Ramirez weren't ready for the opening; Doug Ischar's enigmatic video installation, which transported visitors inside a pair of gym shorts, a shirt pocket, a shoe box and a locker, was on view only at a neighborhood gymnasium during the opening weekend.)
Indeed, there's more interesting new art in inSITE97 than in all of Documenta X, the sorry spectacle of academic flatulence boring visitors silly in Kassel, Germany. The binational also gives the Sculpture Project in Munster a good run for its money--not least because here several younger or lesser-known artists have risen wonderfully to the occasion.
The inSITE series grew out of border art activities generated by a variety of area artists in the 1980s, art that brought the region its first sustained notoriety on a larger-than-local scale.
The powerful, complex reality of the border is inevitably addressed by numerous artists, often in highly theatrical terms and sometimes to provocative effect.
In Fernando Arias' glamorous "The Line," a long section of rusty border fence is suspended from a dank basement ceiling, where it metamorphoses into a gleaming stainless steel guillotine that hangs, like a razor blade, above a 25-foot line of clean white powder, laid out on an icy strip of glass.
Nearby, Miguel Rio Branco has made an audio-visual poem of romantic loss, in which a slowly changing triptych of projected slides is intensely inward and personal while publicly evoking enforced separation.
Judith Barry's jazzy video projection, "Consigned to Border," is shown on a five-sided, T-shaped screen, its flashy public relations-style promotional imagery of the two cities made uncomfortable, even vaguely ominous, by a grating musical score.
In "International Waters," Louis Hock cut a small hole in the border fence to let visitors on each side see one another drink from opposite ends of a single bifurcated water fountain, fed by a deep underground well.
Across storefront windows in downtown San Diego, Rosa^ngela Renno is showing big portrait photographs, shot by Eduardo Zepeda, that depict Tijuana residents who moved there from every state in Mexico. A cab driver from Queretero, a gangbanger from Guanajuato, a market clerk from Morelos, a drag queen from Jalisco: Tijuana is the United States of Mexico.
Perhaps most cleverly, Francis Alys conjures the border by default: He recorded his trip around the Pacific Rim to get from Tijuana to San Diego without ever having to cross the border.