Upon entering the 2013 MexiCali Biennial, visitors will be asked by a security guard to position their heads in the oval opening of a steel panel, where a camera will document their faces. In order to be admitted to the exhibition, visitors must agree to do this.
The work, by Sergio Bromberg, reminds co-curator Ed Gomez of a real-life situation he experienced when he was given a retinal scan as he crossed the border into Tijuana.
It also reminds him of cannibalism.
"You have no control over how your likeness is used," he says. "In a surveillance state, your image can be used and be taken from you. It's about the consumption of the image."
"Cannibalism in the New World" — including the consumption of people but also of possessions and culture — is the theme of the third MexiCali Biennial. It features mostly new works by 33 artists from Mexico and California in a show organized by Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez and Amy Pederson at the Vincent Price Art Museum on the East Los Angeles Community College campus.
While the title might conjure visions of Donner Party performance art or installations of Hannibal Lecter's fridge, Gomez says the word "cannibal" has larger cultural implications, especially for Mexican society.
"In colonial times during the conquest of Mexico, they believed that these heathens were worshipping pagan idols and practicing human sacrifice and forms of cannibalism," he says of how the Spanish viewed the natives. "That became the justification and rationalization of the complete eradication and genocide of these indigenous people."
As you walk into the gallery, Roni Feldman's imposing canvas confronts that sentiment head-on, rendering famous faces of imperialism, from Christopher Columbus to Jean-Luc Picard, in inky black, airbrushed portraits.
"For us it was fun to see how the artists approached the theme," Gomez says. "Would they show up with knives and severed heads, or are they going to talk about larger social and political issues?"
An artist who brilliantly explores the latter is Dominic Paul Miller, who encases a backlit, large-format photo of an empty Tijuana maquiladora (the name for a factory in Mexico where laborers work for U.S. companies) within a sealed plastic box, creating a symbolic vacant lot. The photo, at once beautiful and devastating, is one of the more bracing examples of American consumption, greed and waste being imposed upon Mexico.
"Corporations are people, and corporations eat other people," Gomez says. "In a weird way, capitalism is very cannibalistic."
The show also portrays cannibalism in a more positive light, as an artistic method through which something new is created. Gomez points to Tropicália, the modernist movement in Brazil, where musicians like Os Mutantes were "unapologetic" about fusing traditional samba music with psychedelic rock. "If something was introduced as the 'other,' they would consume it and make it their own instead of being second to the source," Gomez explains.
The inspiration for the movement came from Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, who in 1928 published his Manifesto Antropófago, or Cannibal Manifesto, which argues that "cannibalizing" European culture was Brazil's best method to save its creative community from colonial obliteration.
This idea of consuming and reappropriating various parts of Mexican and American culture is illustrated to comic effect in Cindy Santos Bravo's piece on "pointy boots," a subculture merging electronica and Mexican folk music, where dance troupes sport skinny jeans and cowboy boots with tips so long the wearers can hold onto them like reins. (For reference, watch the Vice magazine video "Mexican Pointy Boots.") In a poof of feathers and outrageously long boot tips, Bravo manages to both glorify and lampoon the flamboyant trend, which is now being mixed and remixed on both sides of the border.
Not surprisingly, the border appears as a sobering presence in several pieces. Tony de los Reyes traces the California-Mexico border across a canvas in a stark white path, then washes both sides in bright colors, which blend and bleed haphazardly, as each culture devours and succumbs to the other.
Natalia Anciso embellishes a large dinner table with what appears to be decorative filigree — except that it's victims of the border war, like drug traffickers and military personnel, which are embedded in the floral motif. Our shameful contemporary version of human sacrifice.
Of course, there are some artists who cheekily, if gratuitously, reference the devouring of human flesh. Christopher Reynolds, an L.A.-based artist whose work explores food, has contributed Appetite Apparatus #1, a panel painted in a Pepto-Bismol shade known as Baker-Miller pink, which is said to relax the body and suppress the appetite. (Viewers can wear special chromatherapy goggles tinted in the same pink for the full effect.)
There's a piece I don't want to spoil for you by Guadalajara-based Juan Bastardo, titled Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? At the opening, Dino Dinco and Rafa Esparza will dole out bright red paletas, or Mexican popsicles, from a vending cart. The flavor, they claim, is blood.
In its wit and subversiveness, MexiCali Biennial has evolved into more of an anti-biennial biennial — almost a statement about the glut and pomp of biennials in the art world. The first was held in 2006, when Gomez and Hernandez invited 13 L.A. artists to show at La Casa de la Tia Tina, an alternative arts space in an abandoned home in Mexicali. The second was three years later, in 2009. Organizing this show, four years later, artists were selected from an open call on the merit of their work, not their CVs.
"A lot of artists aren't ones who are showing in galleries in L.A.," Hernandez says. "For many of them, this is their first museum exhibition."
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Indeed, the MexiCali Biennial shines by highlighting emerging voices from Mexico and California but also by exhibiting them in parallel shows. "It doesn't necessarily have to happen every two years, but it should happen on each side of the U.S./Mexican border," Gomez says.
The attractive new Vincent Price Art Museum, with its vast holdings of Mexican and Central American art collected by the actor, is the perfect home on this side of the border. After its L.A. run, the exhibition will travel to a gallery in Mexicali, and another performance and video-themed event is planned in Monterrey, Mexico.
In a way, it's less about the exhibition itself than about the cultural exchange that occurs, the action of each artist crossing the border into the other country to participate. According to Gomez, most of the artists will be at both openings — uniting a politically divided geographic area into one singular region of aesthetic production.
MEXICALI BIENNIAL 2013: "CANNIBALISM IN THE NEW WORLD" | Vincent Price Art Museum, 1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park | Jan. 19-April 13; opening reception Jan. 19, 6-9 p.m. | vincentpriceartmuseum.org