Introduction: Distant Relations

Lucy R. Lippard

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There are some apparently simple reasons why Chicano, Mexican, and Irish artists should be shown together, and they are undoubtedly those that inspired curator Trisha Ziff to make this provocative juxtaposition: the combination of indigenous and Roman Catholic spirituality; a preoccupation with death and rebirth; a poor but vital rural culture that has changed and is changing; resistance politics fueled by occupation of traditional homelands; the memory of inconclusive revolutions; the endless "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and the escalating Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas; and anti-Irish/Mexican prejudice and economic violence in England/U.S., epitomized by the war against immigrants in California that is spreading across the Southwest. But the real common ground is the retention of a mixed, still-powerful, and often romanticized identity that is layered beneath the surfaces of modernity and internationalism--an identity manipulated as often in popular as in "high" culture. This set of factors cannot be oversimplified as a "postmodern" phenomenon, but it lends itself gracefully to the border-blurring analyses that fuel the postmodernist pastiche, even as it casts doubt on the social efficacy of such theory.

Class is the great underlying force of this common ground, but few artists deal imaginatively with the issue. The ongoing internal and generational reinventions of national identities in conflict with ongoing external cultural and political pressures are what makes the "hybrid state" personified by the two Irelands and the two Mexicos so compelling for both insiders and outsiders. The two Irelands are self-explanatory. The two Mexicos were also once one. The mythical Mother Ireland is paralleled by the mythical Aztlán, and a deep longing for these respective homelands is one of the connecting threads. The land itself continues to represent an indigenous past while industrialization represents the neocolonial present. In both cases the north has been separated from the south, and has become in the process the site of contested loyalties, language, and art.

Although place is not the overt theme of much of these artists' work, it surfaces within the exhibition's framework of national borders and border-crossing. Chicana/o artists in the U.S. are at home. For all its urbanity, Chicanismo--a culture in itself--is landbased, even as the land's name has changed from Aztlán to New Spain to Mexico to the U.S. One of the precepts of El Movimiento from the 1960s on has been blood connection with the native populations. The artists' ties to Mexico vary in depth and precision, and are sometimes ambivalent. Shaped by internal exile, a part of and apart from 20th-century Mexico, Chicano culture can be a mystery to Mexicans, even though many Mexicans have had the experience of being simultaneously Mexicans and Chicano. (Border Brujo Guillermo Gomez-Peña has been the most original spokesperson for this third-stream identity (Mexichicanidad, both or neither).) Progressive Central and Latin American immigrants also identify as Chicanos; the popular song "Salsa Chicana" welcomes Puerto Ricans, too. The permutations can be dizzying, recalling the absurdly elaborate lists of "castes" in colonial Mexico, when each possible mestizaje had a separate name.

Max Benavidez speaks for "a migrant consciousness that constantly crosses the intersections of opposed cultural fields." Mexican artist Rubén Ortiz Tórres says his work describes the confrontation and contradiction of a religious, magical world and a world driven by progress. It is at these shared crossroads that the increasingly sophisticated and "postmodern" Chicana/o artists, in increasing contact with their Mexican colleagues, have come into their own.

Irish artists in England, on the other hand, are either exiled or coming home, depending on their ancestry, their class, and their politics. Do Irish artists whose families have been in England for five or more generations (as many Mexican American families have been in the U.S.) perceive themselves as Irish? "The nationalist myth elevates to a birthright the fantasy of being rooted," writes Mary Hickman, remarking how much more complicated the situation becomes when emigrants move to "the former colonising power." Luke Gibbons notes that the "need to define themselves as white presented itself as an urgent imperative to the degraded Irish arriving in North America after the Famine," a need that sometimes resulted in "redneck" and "cracker" racism, despite intermarriage with both African and Native Americans. (The same might be said for those often upscale "Hispanics" who deny any Indian ancestry.)

The missing link here is the Irish American. As the economic magnet that attracted the Irish in the 19th century and Mexicans in the 20th century, the U.S. is the place where they come together (as was Mexico itself at one point in history). Although the two diasporas have dissimilar histories, the addition of artists of Irish ancestry who have active and/or activist relations with Ireland (Peter Courfain, for instance) or Irish artists who have long lived in the U.S. and have acted as bridges (Patrick Ireland and Anna O'Sullivan, for instance) would extend the spiral.

A border has no identity of its own, but is a hybrid in itself, defined by what it brings together (what is bound by the boundaries) and what it keeps apart. The U.S./Canadian border has a very different character from the U.S./Mexican border, racism and economics being major components along with culture. The Irish/Northern Irish border has long been a war zone of another caliber, and the underwater Irish/British border is both historical and subliminal.

In the North American art world, over the past decade of rising intercultural consciousness, the very word "border" has become a cliché, but Rubén Martínez's voice from the frontlines of border-crossing, back and forth between L.A. and D.F. and El Salvador, restores some of its significance: "Everything and everyone is crossing the line that stretches for 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. AT&T and the Indian teenager from Oaxaca, Mexican-produced automobile parts and MTV en español" (and, one might add, Frida and Lupita, Popo and Ixta, Pop art, Ninja Turtles, and that other Madonna). While Ireland is an island, and its history reflects that geographical fact, Mexico has always been a bridge between continents, culturally Southern/Indian American ("nuestra America" as José Martí put it) and geographically North American. Drawing a direct Irish parallel doesn't work. As Gerry Adams writes, "this term 'two traditions' or 'two cultures,' is incorrectly and often deliberately used to describe what are in fact two different and conflicting political allegiances . . . . Loyalist leaders who express hostility to the Irish language are denying their own past." If Irish art is fundamentally European (Celtic culture having been a formative factor in several of today's nations), Mexican art remains poised in a potentially central place that sometimes resembles a limbo. "Seen in the best light," writes Rubén Martínez, "Mexico is embracing the otherness that it had rejected for so long, both the other of the North (the United States, with its culture of individualism and tradition of democratic debate) and the other of the South (the Indian's mystical and communitarian millenary culture)."

The borderless world is a longstanding vision all the more yearned for in this millenial moment of lethal nationalism and archaic feuds. (Paradoxically, "Distant Relations" an exhibition of nationally defined art, suggests transculturation as a goal.) Ambivalence is the only sensible approach to nationalist identity in a century when nationalism has done immense harm but has also provided the glue for much-needed and eventually imperfect revolutions. These in turn illustrate one of postmodernism's most significant insights--the ways in which all communities and nations are at least in part invented or "imagined."

Many of the writers and artists included here insist on the role of memory as a component of resistance against a dominant culture bent on absorbing all difference. This is an interesting phenomenon in which both politics and religion have drawn attention to a past that people in general are ready to forget as they get on with their daily lives. Memory, of course, is as manipulable as history itself, but where history tends to be associated with imposition from the outside--by the state, teachers, religious institutions--memory is associated with the stories of a personal/communal past. Within the life of each person (especially those who are land-based), histories vie with stories, teachers vie with grandmothers, received information vies with lived experience. Artists from everywhere often bank on the hope that memory can subvert and sometimes change history.

If history is associated with text, memory is associated with image, with a full panoply of the senses. This is where art comes in. Art and politics are both acts, acts of faith, although conventional wisdom sets them against each other: "high" art is opposed to "low" art, much-schooled to self-taught, "private" to "public," "universal" to "local." Whereas some artists work blissfully unaware of all these conflicting forces, and many prefer to ignore them and go with the art market flow, the most vital work results from attempts to juggle them, and in so doing to develop a hybrid practice in which dissonance and harmony get equal time.

The conscious artist is both subject and object of her/his own work. Mexican Silvia Gruner says her title Don't Fuck With The Past, You Might Get Pregnant is like "something your mother would tell you! . . . I inhabit a space that is an archeological site--it informs my reality." At the same time, the information is only partial: "My work is always a fragmented place; it's a place that basically is filled with tepalcates, these little pieces of clay that can be found everywhere," but cannot be reconstructed.

On the Irish side, Willie Doherty also refuses any illusion of totality. He says his photographs "do not propose any evidence of truth. . . . Their job is to be there. They occupy space in an uncertain present, a past which is in the process of being denied and a future without history." In contrast, Chicana Amalia Mesa-Bains's installation, The Circle of the Ancestors, is affirmatively reconstructive. Chairs sitting in for eight historic women, eight historic moments, representing the collective strength to be gained from intimacy, face a spiral (also a major Celtic symbol) of candles on the floor, the configuration of "a spiritual and cultural geography as Mexicana/Chicana women."

Frances Hegarty's videowork, Turas, seems to fall somewhere between these two positions: ". . . linguistic and symbolic ciphers in landscape are used to trace an eroded Irish language and culture. The central signifier is the river," its "epic narrative function" countered by the internal landscape where "the Mothertongue reasserts itself." And in turn this river is paralleled by Alice Maher's Folt, a river of hair, different strands braided together by a marvelously visual and multivalent Irish word that means "abundance, tresses, weeds, forests of hair."

Guadalupe provides another syncretic river image: in the Moorish Arabic dialects used on the Iberian peninsula and carried to the new world, it means "banked river" or "river running through a ravine." For Mexicans and Chicanos, the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Lupita--star of altarpieces, almanaques, murals, candles, demonstration banners, tattoos, and jewelry --has served both as a conservative icon and a revolutionary inspiration. For Chicanas in particular she is the latter, the Indian virgin, daughter of Tonantzin. (The Irish Saint Bridget or Bride has a similar cross-religious genealogy.) Icons like Guadalupe and La Malinché, Mother Ireland and Queen Mab, Chaac Mool, Quetzalcóatl, and Cuchulainn--or Ché Guevara and Bobby Sands, Frida Kahlo, and Bernadette Devlin--are mnemonic shorthand, offering mixed signals despite their homogenization, apparently inexhaustible despite their aesthetic overuse and commercial abuse.

Any image, any myth is vulnerable to reinterpretation, the shifting meanings on the postmodern seesaw. The notion of substitution as a visual and political strategy is raised in David Fox's lovely story about a Republican in whose home hangs a Constable (is there a pun there?) by day, and an IRA image by night. Both would classify as kitsch, under the circumstances, and raise the specter of secret art shows or secret content in outwardly bland art, a revolutionary ploy often used in repressive situations. Native American artists have proved particularly adept at a related strategy, the subversion of stereotypes treasured by the dominant culture.

When the same mythologies are drawn upon by different factions (or by different aesthetic intelligences), a kaleidoscopic image appears. James Turpin points out (in Circa, Fall 1994) the ways the ancient warrior legend of Cuchulainn, resurrected as a product of the Irish cultural revival, has been drawn upon by diverse interests in Ireland, appearing, like Guadalupe, in airline ads and sporting trophies as well as a memorial to the 1916 Rising and in loyalist murals. The persistence and survival of such empowering popular images has been an object lesson for artists, who have appropriated their vitality in both condescending and respectful ways. It also suggests a very contemporary (and possibly evasive) way of seeing --through a television-like barrage of interchangeable meanings. Politics is all too often hidden behind ambiguity, which is in turn validated by theory that throws the baby out with the bath water by using the notion of "hybridity" as just another way of wiping out newly empowered identities.

Popular culture is a significant source for many of these artists, incorporating photography, artisanry, and so-called kitsch. In Ireland (and perhaps in Chiapas, where Subcomandante Marcos writes his communiqués from the mountains to the world on a laptop computer plugged into the cigarette lighter of a beat-up truck), the new myths created by the media are as important as the ancient myths. Joan Fowler observes that in Ireland, "the scenario after twenty-five years was that the ultimate sign of the conflict, violent death, had been reduced to theatrical funerals specifically stage-managed for the media and its distribution system."

Much current progressive art is also overtly theatrical in its need to communicate, such as Daniel J. Martinez's spectacular interventions into the world of spectacle (his Whitney Museum "tags") and "the urban drama" (his parade piece for the Chicago "Culture in Action" project, where he "orchestrated chaos" in collaboration with 500 local people and composer VinZula Kara). Philip Napier's multimedia installation Ballad no. 1, with its palimpsest of references to past and present, banshees and hunger strikes, characterizes the importance of photography and its avant-garde mutations to the Irish and Irish-in-Britain artists in this show. For Irish artists, the camera becomes witness and surveillant, a contradictory double symbol of internal liberation and external oppression.

Although Mexican photography is also a flourishing field, the Mexican Chicano/a artists in this exhibition tend to be drawn more to the popular arts. John Valadez's big and often brutal paintings of barrio street life and people, for instance, pack much more of a grass-roots wallop than the photographs or journalism they depart from. ("I'm doing urban Mexican art," he writes. "In L.A. it means/don't blink/underclass/clean dishes/cholo logic . . .") John Kindness is the satirical populist among the Irish contingent; religious wars and class wars and objects dissed and dismissed by high culture are grist to his allegorical mill. His Belfast Frescoes are an attempt to restore respect for ordinary life and labor in the North before the latest phase of the Troubles began.

David Lloyd sees kitsch and folklore/folk art as two different responses to the longing for authenticity, to the search for sameness that provides community: "Nowhere are the deracinating and alienating effects of capitalism felt more powerfully than in communities whose histories are determined by domination, displacement and immigration, for whom ruins are the entirely just and not merely figurative indices of living dislocation." The "neo-Mexicanists," however, recycle the popular signs of Mexicanidad in a tone radically different from the ways most Chicano/a artists use similar imagery. The deliberately vulgar and in-your-face class defiance of Chicano rasquache, about which Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has written so elegantly, is appropriated by the well-educated, well-traveled internationalist Mexican Julio Galan, for instance. Channeling an earnest communal tradition into a narcissistic expression, he uses the mannered formalism of vernacular art, and its class origins, to convey a rebellious and incongruous homoeroticism within an internationalist art historical framework.

Olivier Debroise points out that Javier de la Garza subverts identity assumptions by exposing the essentially "libidinous force behind the ideological constructions of propaganda art . . . (repositioning) patriotic and religious symbols"--those of the tourist industry, of folk traditions, and of the muralist tradition idolized by the Chicano movement. By doing so, writes Debroise (in the catalogue of a one-man show at Cavin-Morris, New York, 1992), de la Garza "shows how Mexican culture was invented, how it has symbolized itself, over and over, and now once again, with these new altars to our daily idolatry."

While the tug of ancient mythologies--Celtic, Mayan, Toltec, Aztec --no matter how distorted by distance and commercialism or intentionally demythologized and satirized by artists--is one profound connection between Mexican/Chicano and Irish art, neither the political nor the spiritual are overt elements of much of the art in this show. In 1984, when I spent some time in Ireland selecting an exhibition, I had to revise my expectations of Irish political art; I found that artists, like everyone else, were just plain tired of the Troubles. No visual strategy seemed to affect the tedious destruction. Similarly, I had to disconnect my own fascination with Irish prehistory, and take the word of Chris Coppock, who wrote (in Circa no. 14, Jan.-Feb. 1984), "the future of Irish art lies in the abandonment of myths--and that includes modernist ones." Both romanticism and formalism have at times inclined toward fascism.

I have a few Irish forebears, but more of them are English. Working in a Mexican village in the late 1950s was my first intercultural experience, my first glimpse of the Third World and syncretic culture. Now I live near the northern border of Aztlán. So what? Almost anyone could weave herself into this narrative. We're all implicated. As I complete this essay, various doors open and slam closed: the "framework" for a new constitution is proposed in Ireland, the president of Mexico has pulled back (at least temporarily) from a military confrontation with the EZLN (Zapatistas), and a federal "English Only" bill is introduced in the U.S. Congress to keep company with California's racist Proposition 187. How will artists respond? Will artists respond? What will be lost if they don't?

Different ghosts haunt European and American histories, and memories are oceans apart. In fact, despite the global art market, the culture-specific contemporary arts emerging from Ireland, Mexico, and the U.S. are so unlike each other that what may finally be most interesting about this exhibition is the dissolution of the original idea. Bringing groups of artists together because of similarities becomes most compelling when centrifugal dissimilarities break them apart again. Perhaps art about borders is a prelude to reconciliations, to the erasure of borders.

Perhaps in some as yet only dimly imaginable future, it won't matter if I'm in the North or the South. Perhaps one day "south" and "north" and "east" and "west" will be archaic references to a primitive, bordered world where nationalism and economic tension pitched the planet into chaos.

--Rubén Martínez

. . . the escape from cultural enclosure and openness towards the other might take the form of "lateral" journeys in which subaltern cultures short-circuit the western axis and speak directly across the colonial divide.

--Luke Gibbons



Lucy R. Lippard can be reached at: