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October 13 - January 5, 2007 at UC Riverside, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside

by Bill Lasarow

“Sunday Walk to the Zocalo of Oaxaca” is an immersive multi-media installation that is, yes, centered on a Sunday afternoon stroll in one of the world’s great public spaces, a plaza surrounded by the rich architecture of public buildings and churches dating from the 16th century. But the delights of a tourist choked  boardwalk, sidewalk vendors hawking trinkets and snacks, and charming restaurants have no place in this essentially documentary work describing a mid-November day last year. The artist, Gabriela León, is local to the area, but in her decade-long career she has already done considerable globetrotting in the service of her art, which is driven primarily by passions for fashion and poetry.

The couture on this day, a León original, included an element of lace, but mainly a barbed wire necklace, a bare shouldered bodice of tire tread, and a flowing gown of mattress springs. The resulting “Barricade Dress” was all collected from around the site of her walk, the Zocalo. Accompanied by an entourage of more than a dozen friends and associates who documented the proceedings, she negotiated a no man’s land between protesters who had been encamped for the better part of five months, and Mexican Federal Police, who had been dispatched weeks earlier by then President Vicente Fox following the shooting death of an American journalist.

Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico, is a picturesque region but poverty is the norm.  The state’s school teachers engage in an annual ritual of a strike that features a protest before the Governor’s offices, which happen to be located at the Zocalo, in order to secure a modest pay raise.  Last year the Governor, Ulises Ruiz, refused to provide the usual concession, which led to a summer-long occupation of the plaza, complete with a small tent city, and escalated moments of direct and violent confrontation.

This was the situation that galvanized the artist to respond, with her natural instinct being to collect detritus at the site and turn it into art.  A portion of what is on view here is what you might expect, for example monoprints executed with much the same materials that ended up in the Barricade Dress in place of conventional brushes or etching tools.  Impressions left by these materials play embossed linear patterns against earthen sprays and gestures from rust and ashes.  She collected audio as well, which finds its way into the installation as an ambient soundtrack that helps you to imagine that you are there with the artist.  Imagine working up the courage to put on what would look to most onlookers like an outlandish costume, and posing for photos and video in front of hundreds of police, all armed and at the ready with riot shields in place.  And blood had already been spilled on these stones.

So we go off on our armchair adventure.  The Barricade Dress is encased in its glass cabinet.  There is the video and a selection of photographs; the monoprints; and an installation done at the site featuring the sort of tarps that strikers used as shelters, complete with stenciled imagery courtesy of a real Oaxacan graffiti crew.  It all half-documents, half-recreates a very real, very political situation into which León inserted herself (happily without consequence).  If the performance may have added to its atmosphere, let us not flatter ourselves into thinking art altered its dynamic any more than we are assisting those teachers by virtue of our attendance here.

“Our Lady of the Barricades,”
2006, photograph.
Image credit:
Alberto Ibañez, a.k.a. ‘el negro’”.

“Barricade Dress,” 2006, tires,
mattress springs, barbed wire.

“Our Lady of the Barricades”
walking to the Zocalo of Oaxaca,
2006, video projection.

Untitled, 2007 monoprint using found
materials from sites of unrest to make
impressions, using the carbon and rust
from the burning as the “ink.” 36 x 26".

Untitled example of tarp shelter
on the Zocalo of Oaxaca,
2006, photograph.

But, setting aside formal questions of whether this is a slight or a powerful aesthetic statement on its own terms, what does it mean for an artist to bring such a project around the world, so to speak?  There is a discomfiting partition between an alarm being sounded and an amusement being served up.  The beauty of the young artist and her ability to make the stuff of repression look good stands in contrast to the pathetic occupants of the temporary city of plastic.  It is tempting to simply marvel at her courage to act, and to carry out her larger program of aesthetic recreation.  But while we may admire León’s energy and moxie, and respond emotionally to the narrative off of which it feeds, it is difficult not to freeze up wondering where to go with it.