Friday, July 31, 2009

MexiCali Biennial

I saw the second MexiCali Biennial at La Casa del Tunel in Tijuana. The Biennial includes artists from both sides of the US-Mexican border and aims to create a cross-border dialogue that replicates the fluidity of culture in the border region of southern California and northern Mexico.

This biennial set forth the theme of economics of exchange that underlie all border interactions for the artists to explore. The art works created approach the idea in a variety of ways, some, like, Ryan Lamb's Subsistance Plan for Starving Artists, take it quite literally.

Lamb tongue in cheek installation piece maps out literal transactions alongside the I5. The wall where his piece is, sports a series of small square pieces of wood, each with a painting of an orange on it. A mesh bag hangs from the ceiling, filled with the small paintings and a sign on the wall gives directions for artists to go from buying a bag of oranges on the freeway (sold by immigrants), painting of each orange, to selling each painting for the cost of the bag of oranges. In this piece, Lamb links immigrant labor and artists, noting that neither easily survive in this world.

Ernesto Rosas' documentary, Skateboarder, also looks at literal border exchanges in his interviews of Mexican skateboarders who have immigrated to the US or Canada in the hopes of making their sport their livelihood. Rosas films in Mexico and in California, documenting the dreams of these skateboarders and all the barriers they face. The film jumps back and forth between skaters, between interviews and shots of their skating skills.

The compassionately rendered documentary examines the relationship between the passion these skaters have for their sport and the reality of making a living from it. Though one skater describes skating as a movement art, these skaters have to struggle to make it in any way at all. Rosas also shows the uneven relationship between the U.S. and Mexico through skating: the money and support for the sport is in the U.S., but the skaters don't want to have to leave Mexico to follow their dreams. Some return, and others don't, but at the end of the film, I hoped that some of these skaters would be the forerunners of a successful skating scene in Mexcio.

Pablo H. Cobian drew out a manual, Manual de Como Quemar un Billeto, or, how to burn a bill. In simple pencil outlines, he depicts two hands taking out a bill, holding it, holding a flame to it, then burning it, and the final framed piece is a shriveled, burnt bill.

Michelle Chong made a website, Find Yourself Here, that slideshows through beautiful landscapes--the desert, a forest, mountain scene, waterfalls and beaches--and then stamped phrases across them, borrowed in the language of tourist pamphlets, like "Funville," "Spa Atmosphere," "Be a Local," making the landscapes a commodity. Find Yourself Here reflects the common attitude that Americans have of Mexico, associating it with vacation, beaches and beautiful resorts. For tourism, it is a land for sale.

All of these pieces play with the back and forth movement across the borders, making the border seem insignificant against the fluidity of movement of people, culture, economy.

Casa del Tunel, Tijuana

I haven't been so inspired as I was by Casa del Tunel and its founder, Luis Ituarte, in a long time. Casa del Tunel: Art Center sits just feet away from the border, in a neighborhood of Tijuana called Colonia Federal and is so named for the the tunnel that inhabitants of the building had dug from one corner of the building, under the border and up into the U.S. The tunnel is now filled with cement and the building has be renovated and turned into an art gallery.

Ituarte, a third generation Tijuanese, splits his time between Pasadena, CA and Tijuana. Ituarte took the time last Friday to show me around la Casa, and the neighborhood. He has the most positive understanding of Tijuana that I've yet encounted: "We're living in a really very exciting time. We're really moving from one era into another right now. Tijuana. We have no mother culture to protect; no mother tradition that says you can't do this, you can't do that. There are so many nationalities here, so many people from all over; we can do anything. We have all the potential to create anything."With a perception such as this, no wonder Ituarte aims to do so much with Casa del Tunel.

Casa del Tunel is part of Consejo Fronteriza de Arte y Cultura/the Border Council of Arts and Culture, which has its base in Pasadena. In terms of culture and artistic production, Ituarte sees the entire area of southern California and Baja California Norte as one great, raw region that defies the political border. For this, COFAC aims to support greater cultural and artisitc integration in the area. Casa del Tunel's committments are to support the community at large and the immediate community of Colonia Federal; to address border issues and to be environmentally responisble.

Ituarte would like to see Colonia Federal, an eight block area partitioned off by the Rio Tijuana, the border and by a plaza, become the artistic center of Tijuana and the Casa del Tunel to be its flagship. To this end, he has grafitti artists working with home owners in the area to paint the houses with murals and hosts parties on the soon to be green roof.

Already, Casa del Tunel has hosted cross-border fandangos. From the roof, you can see a parking lot on the U.S. side. Bands or performers set up on the roof of the Casa and play to people on both sides of the border, or play a call and response style to a band on the U.S. side.

Leaving Ituarte and the Casa del Tunel behind as I returned to San Diego, I wished that I lived closer to the border so that I could watch this artist community sprout up. With the raw enery of the city and Ituarte's focus and drive, I have no doubt that in a few years, Tijuana will be more broadly recognized as an artistic center.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A visit with Becky Guttin

Today I had the chance to meet with Becky Guttin at her studio in San Diego. Having just renovated it, she was in the midst of organizing her space in an industrial park, that, with open doors, is filled with natural light and an array of materials, sculptures, photographs, pieces at various stages of progress and a sitting area.

The warm and energetic artist is originally from DF, Mexico, and left with her family after a series of break ins and threatening incidents convinced her that it was time to join her parents in San Diego. She has participated in several international biennials, has her work included in several museum's permanent collections, and exhibited her art around the world.

I asked her about her art and how moving to the U.S. had affected it. I was interested in knowing whether she was always conscious of the nearby border.

In response, she pointed to a small sculpture, a series of metates on a piece of varnished wood, one filled with bits of red tortilla, another with green tortilla and the last one with little metal scraps.

"My pieces are all autobiographical, they are what I experience, what I know, what I feel. When I was living in Mexico, we always have tortillas and I never saw a tortilla in another color than a natural color. Then I was in the U.S. and I saw green tortillas near Saint Patrick's day and red on Valentine's Day, and I kept seeing colored tortillas; I even saw purple at one time.

"Before I start to work, I need to smell and touch and feel this place that I live in and I was looking at all these elements and I decided to make this piece with original metates but with green and red tortillas. I wanted to keep the original elements but with something never in all my life do I see in Mexico.

"In Mexico, a woman makes mesa by hand, but here, it is industrial, so I put in the metal to show the different process. So you see, this piece, it is about migration, about how here in the U.S. you take things and change them, make them something else. I included another element," and she pointed to several bronzed twigs and seed pods that lay on the tablets between the metates, "I wanted to take something natural and make it cold and unnatural."

For Guttin, the border is a nearby contrast of cultures, and with her immigration experience she often sees things that she knew of in Mexico, and then finds them in San Diego with the same fundamental function, but the material changed. She plays with the natural and industrial contrast often in her work, and as she shows me around her studio, her understanding of the two neighboring countries becomes clear. The interesting thing is that her interpretation lacks judgement, that as she weaves together metal and fiber, the natural and industrial elements, she seems to offer a both a clear insight into the character of both countries while allowing for the two to intermingle but never declares that one way is right and the other wrong.

She showed me her "Encyclopedias" next, a series of book shapes made out of crushed metal pipes that are mounted on the wall, orientated as they would be if they were books on a shelf. In the center of each "book," is a space filled by one, two or three sacates, a small bundle of roots folded in half and held around the center with a tie that are used to scrub dishes.

"I rescued from my culture the elements that I remember, but that don't exist here, because everything has become the same. What we use here to scrub with are metal bundles and I didn't want to forget the sacates, that have the same use, but are natural so I use the contrast of the natural with industrial.

"And these, here, I take cocotes, natural plant and then I fuse the inside of it with telephone cable so that again, there is the closeness and contrast of the natural with the industrial."

These gourds are among my favorite pieces of her that I've seen. She takes the dried gourds and slices them so that pieces peel away, almost as if they are flowering, and then fuses metal to the inside, with what looks like a thick layer of beading. Some she mounts on stands, others are large sculptures, taller than she. With the fusion of natural and unnatural, the gourds and metal become something quite different than they were before, even though they retain all their original qualities, much in the way that the contrast and contact of two cultures at the border create something else entirely.

As she talks about the contrast at the border, the theme of home/house or hogar/casa rises, as is natural for any immigrant. "I think about where is my house, what is my home? Is it where I was born, where I plant a tree, where I was educated or raised? Is it where I live today, where my children were born?

"Like me, I am in American today, and there is the same sky above, and you take where you are with you: you are what you are. You carry your culture with you, but what do you carry with you when you leave? you have a suitcase, but what do you take with you?"

She takes me upstairs, to pull a heavy metal box off of a shelf, which originally held her father's paints. "What do you take when you leave? Its horrible, heavy, but I thought, I'm taking this with me. I wouldn't leave this behind." She blows the dust off and then opens it up. Inside she has placed letters and photos; a blouse; telegrams; her Grandmother's address book; her mother's baby booties and any other sentimental object of her family that she wouldn't give up, that she packed and took with her to the U.S.

She pulls another box off of a shelf, this time a beautifully crafted wood box, stained a deep brown. Inside it contains a woven husk mat, punctured with pins that poke straight up. "It is Always Painful," (pictured above) is Guttin's meditation on the difficulties and pain of being a migrant. "Inside, this is a metate, it covers floors in poor areas in Mexico. People do everything they do on them. People sleep, eat on them, children make their homework on them; this is where they make love. But this piece, it is all pins and everything you do there, is painful. It is because it is not easy to move, it is always painful."

In this carefully wrought piece, the simplicity of it reveals the hardship of leaving behind everything you know to go towards an ever unceratain and unstable future. For me, I saw depth of what people risk when they leave their home to try their luck elsewhere.

I mention this, and Guttin replies, "I don't want to send a message--not consciously, I do what I feel, I make what I need to, and whatever people see in them, they do." Near us, in the upstairs loft where Guttin stores many of her older pieces hang several woven sacks, the ones used to package rice. These, though, havel shiny metal strips woven into them. Again, they are the juxtaposition of plant fibers and industrially wrought metal. Guttin leads me back downstairs, to where a photograph hangs on the wall. It is a picture of these same sacks, but on one side, a sack without any metal woven through, the folds of the casually drapped sack resembling hilly terrain. The folds transition across the photograph into sack heavily woven with metal, with terrain in the middle that has some metal woven through. On the photograph, Guttin had mounted small houses that she had made out of metal. On the side with no metal, they have corroded, and are haphazardly placed, while across the way, the houses are shiny and neatly lined up in rows. It is here depiction of the border, but "I am not saying what is nice or not, it is a free lecture [to be interpreted however one wants]. I just do what I need to express, and whatever people can read into it, they can."


becky guttin's website: