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A Native American in Venice

Photo by Katherine FogdenAt first glance, it is tempting to view performance artist James Luna’s inclusion in this year’s Venice Biennale as simply the latest amusing example of Europe’s fascination with cowboys and Indians. From the spaghetti Western to Puccini’s 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West, a proto–Annie Get Your Gun, the new Old World’s fixation on the old New World has always seemed curiously anachronistic, a form of stolen nostalgia. True, Luna, a Luiseño Indian who wryly calls himself “the country’s oldest emerging artist,” is one of the least-known of the artists representing the U.S. at this year’s Biennale, among them Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger (who received the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement). Luna’s presence in Venice does not likely owe to romantic idealization or political correctness, however. For one thing, his work has always attacked nostalgia, even in its highbrow forms. In Luna’s best-known performance, 1987’s The Artifact Piece, the artist lay dressed in a loincloth beneath a Plexiglas case at the San Diego Museum of Man, an ironic reproach of a museum culture that has consistently treated his people as extinct. Luna, the first Native American to formally participate in the Biennale, has sought a connection to Europe that bypasses Le Far West entirely. Part performance and part installation, Emendatio (a Latin word meaning “correction”) is dedicated to Pablo Tac, a Luiseño who in 1834 was brought from Mission San Luis Rey to Rome to study to become a missionary. The Chapel for Pablo Tac, an installation simulating an indigenous Catholic altar, contains both real excerpts from Tac’s account of a California mission (the only one from a Native perspective) and mock-historical implements in the spirit of The Artifact Piece. “He looked around and saw the enormity and power of this culture and thought, ‘How the hell are we going to survive?’ ” Luna tells me over a beer one Saturday afternoon at a café outside his exhibition space, the venerable Querini Stampalia Fondazione museum. The museum, where I have witnessed Luna performing several times in the days leading up to the Biennale’s June 12 opening, seems to me an oppressive space to work in. Artists who exhibit there are asked not to hang any work from the walls, which are themselves historical artifacts. In effect, Luna’s installation is a chapel within a chapel, a commentary on the way parallel histories coexist. Simultaneously an homage to Luna’s fellow tribesman and a commentary on the West’s quasi-religious worship of its own historical artifacts, Emendatio invites the viewer to reconsider the connection between past and present, local and global. In an accompanying performance, a ritualistic dance combining both sacred implements and profane objects common to reservation life (cans of Spam, sugar packets and syringes), Luna spent four hours for four days in a row blessing a spirit circle while assuming various indigenous guises: a gondolier in leather underwear, a Plains Indian costume, a modern rifle-toting reservation Indian. Despite the absurd juxtaposition of ­caricatures, Luna insists that the performance is not meant to mock the uninformed viewer but rather “to honor native people everywhere, and to show that every place is a native place.” Still, despite his stated aim of offering a blessing, Luna is quick to ­distinguish his performance from ceremony. “I use elements of ritual,” he says. “But these are more about the protocol of oral history than spirituality. They’re just a way of remembering.” It isn’t surprising that Luna distances himself from the role of shaman. Like many artists, Luna is suspended between cultures, but his position is particularly awkward. The art world has a tough time imagining any connection between indigenous and conceptual art, and fighting stereotypes is to invite one’s marginalization as a political artist. “I’m not trying to disassociate myself or my people from tradition,” Luna says. “I’m trying to clear a space for it in the modern world.” Even the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which sponsored Luna’s participation in the Biennale, contains only a small percentage of contemporary Indian art. In the art world, Luna is one of the last representatives of his tribe. Still, Luna hopes that he can accomplish as much as Tac did to help the world realize that his people still exist. At the same time, he understands the rules of the art world. “I recognized the significance of this show and I wasn’t going to come in with something heavy-handed,” he says, finishing his beer. The U.S. ambassador here in Italy has come to check out his show, and wants to meet him. “I think the show’s very effective as a subtle, low-key strategy for people to rethink history.” Like Tac, who laced his account of mission life with subtle innuendoes about the colonizers’ brutality, Luna says he recognizes the necessity for quiet resistance, of marshaling myth to the cause of truth. It is this strategy of survival that Luna quotes on an embroidered tapestry in The Chapel for Pablo Tac. “I could have taught more,” Tac writes, “but who could teach others what they don’t know? What I knew, I taught. What I didn’t know, I’ve left. Better to be quiet than saying lies.” EMENDATIO | Querini Stampalia Fondazione at the 51st Venice Biennale | Through November 6 | www.labiennale.org/en/art