Los Angeles

James Luna

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

James Luna once lay in a vitrine of the kind found in natural-history museums, a live exhibit, his scars from drunken accidents marked with little labels. And in a videotape of a Christmas Eve spent at home on the Luiseño reservation in California (made in 1993 with filmmaker Isaac Artenstein), Luna was the picture of abjection, going through a six-pack and innumerable cigarettes while making abortive telephone calls to loved ones. The bleakness in I.una’s work has functioned as a protective camouflage, as a way of saying, “There’s no transcendence here, no Indian spirituality to salve your souls. We’re in trouble, too. Go away.”

In contrast to these previous works, Luna’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art was positively cheery. Where his earlier work has deflected outsiders’ romantic projections onto Native American culture, “The Dream Hat Ritual” invited viewers to partake in a ceremonial space. Like Luna’s anthropological displays of his body and his mundane possessions, this installation challenged the viewer to find the sacredness in ordinary and cast-off materials; but unlike them, it does so in a quasi-ritual setting. Inside a darkened room filled with the warm woody aroma of racks of drying willow branches, ten figures were gathered in the cool light of a virtual bonfire, built Nam June Paik–style from a stack of old TVs playing images of flames. The artificial flames were placed at the cardinal point of carpet strips—in the sacred colors yellow, black, red, and white—arranged as the four points of a compass.

Constructed from crutches, walkers, and other prosthetic devices, the figures stood, knelt, or sat on milk crates; two flew overhead, their golf-club arms stiffly outstretched, and two, suspended with their feet a few inches off the ground, spun gently in a breeze provided by electric fans. Four figures seated in a row, all but one decked in cowboy boots or beaded moccasins, suggested the camaraderie of old-timers as they stretched their rubber-glove hands to the fire. The ornamentation on the figures’ cowboy hats—beads and red and black paint, evocative of the tribal basket-making techniques found throughout the California region—imparted a dignity in contrast to the ungainliness of their prosthetic postures. One isolated figure (a refugee from city life?) attended the gathering in shiny black shoes and a sailor hat. Colored lights illuminated some of the figures; scaffolding, wires, and tangles of cables were left exposed.

Luna has created a space for ritual from ordinary materials, many of which represent suffering and poverty. The crutches refer to the crippling diabetes common on reservations; one can imagine golf clubs scavenged from a course bordering Indian land, and TVs salvaged for the tube that still transmits a shadow of an image, even if the picture is purple. Onto a screen behind the group were projected archival photos of Native men, contemporary images featuring traditional dress, and pictures of stars and planets. These last, well-worn references to “cosmic connectedness” are yet more material for Luna’s polemical recycling. Slides that showed Luna, in boots and shorts under traditional dress, holding aloft a boom box and various tools, made literal the artist’s suggestion that Indian survival is a matter for the bricoleur’s cunning.

Laura U. Marks