Los Angeles

“Distant Relations”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

In the excellent anthology published to accompany “Distant Relations: A Dialogue Among Chicano, Irish, and Mexican Artists,” Mexican art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina writes that audiences expect international exhibitions “to reveal some truth about, say, . . . ‘Mexico and Ireland.’ This is an illusion; the experience of a society cannot be summarized in an object or image. . . . We visit Babel as tourists and come back with a snapshot.”

The little corner of Babel snapshotted here combines two regions that obviously share the experience of tremendous political and cultural upheaval. While other connections between the two are revealed only after prolonged exposure, so much is immediately evoked by the pairing that an exhibition this freighted could easily have resulted in another dreary carnival of cant. The small miracle is that, with so many artists involved, there was a compelling dialogue among the disparate works that made the whole much more than the sum of its intentions.

The best pieces resulted from the precise and uncanny juxtaposition of elements “to capture the infinite, sudden, or subterranean connections of dissimilars,” as Walter Benjamin defined montage. Belfast artist Philip Napier’s Ballad No. 1, 1992–94, combined an image of the smiling face of IRA martyr Bobby Sands, rendered in accordion buttons, with a prosthetic accordion jutting out to the side of the frame and wheezing in and out in a baleful drone. This wry, haunting, articulate piece oscillates painfully between paean and threnody.

Daniel J. Martinez produced different works for each stop on the exhibition’s tour (the show first went up in Birmingham, London, and Dublin, and travels next to the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Carrillo Gil in Mexico City). In Santa Monica, Martinez installed How to Start Your Own Country or You’ve Got to Pay to Play, 1996, in a small room painted white from floor to ceiling and suffused with blue light. On the wall appeared a passage from an unnamed source (actually Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love) describing an eighty-year-old woman’s kamikaze-style preparation to kill a group of enemy soldiers. Specific names and places in the text were replaced with blanks, as if to make its terms universal. On a stand below the text, a small video monitor behind a glass fishbowl played endless Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. This combination of elements had the uncanny effect of isolating that moment when “harmless fun” turns into sudden violence, as when the quiescent endurance of cultural stereotyping erupts in rage.

Frances Hegarty’s installation Turas (Journey, 1991–95), combined a group of video stills on the floor picturing the River Foyle with video projections of an old woman (the artist’s mother) being queried as to whether she can relearn Gaelic (to which she replies affirmatively). The rhythmic concatenation of sound and image contained metaphors on several levels—language and loss, river and derivation, source and displacement—that transcended the paraphrasable content.

A recurring link in the show was a dark and mordant wit. In Rubén Ortiz Torres’ 1992 baseball caps, the originally intended signifiers were altered, as when a Notre Dame cap carrying the symbol of the “Fighting Irish” was flanked by the words “Ejercito Mexicano” (Mexican army), transforming it into a memorial to the San Patricio Brigade. Dublin artist John Kindness delivered Swiftian kicks with brilliant works using such outmoded or infrequently encountered techniques as metalsmithing and fresco. His ceramic Ninja Turtle Harp, 1991, had the rapacious Kelly-green reptiles swarming all over a harp, that already-kitschy symbol of all things Irish. Also including works by Willie Doherty, David Fox, Javier de la Garza, Silvia Gruner, Alice Maher, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and John Valdez, this show was good enough to make one imagine that small international exhibitions like this can work, especially if the curator’s approach is less programmatic than simply passionate. Sometimes it’s the distant relations who end up having the most to talk about.

David Lee Strauss