What do you get when you mix an uncensored, sexually exploitative art show put on by Georgia College and State University’s Art Department with a cacophony of performance reactions and concerns?
You get “Mexotica.”
In 2004, an art show put on by performance artist and writer Guillermo Gomez-Pena and a number of volunteers, in conjunction with the school’s Art Department, was held in Russell Auditorium. The reactions erupted discussion that travels the entire spectrum.
Gomez-Pena works in a number of artistic mediums exploring cross-cultural issues, immigration, and the politics of language. His mixing and blending of genres and art forms, of truth and fiction, seeks to create a “total experience” for the viewer/reader. He is the creator of La Pocha Nostra–an online collaborative art laboratory for performance artists to link up and connect with other rebel artists. Its main function is to destroy borders separating people by race, gender, and other cultural differences. La Pocha Nostra’s mission statement is “to provide a base for a loose network of rebel artists from various disciplines, generations, and ethnic backgrounds.” The term is meant to represent Mexican empowerment, to praise abnormality and indecency. Click on this interview for Guillermo’s detailed explanation of where the name originates.
The school’s Colonnade featured several articles of audience reaction following the performance. President Dorothy P. Leland, who was newly appointed president at the time, is quoted in the articles. Mexotica was the first visual arts performance she attended at GCSU, and what a way to acclimate her to the fine arts within the university. Gomez-Pena allowed students the freedom to wear and perform what they wanted, and I think that’s one of the most important takeaways in all of this. Performance is about trusting other artists. One student told The Colonnade that she felt like she was in the red light district; others felt it was fuel to confront issues regarding sexual exploitation.
The spectacle was also cause for students and locals to voice their opinion through letters to the editor, featured in The Colonnade as well as other local newspapers. David Smith of Milledgeville took a sarcastic approach in his response. In his letter to The Baldwin Bulletin, Smith writes, “Mexotica was spectacular and weren’t we lucky to have someone so world-renowned as Gomez-Pena, who is leading in his field, to bring his performance to a hick town like Milledgeville to educate us redneck, Bible thumping, grits eating, pickup driving, Cat-cap wearing Southerners. Without y’all up thar atta that college weda wouldn’t learn nofing…GC&SU might want to learn from this mistake and consider others who are tops in the field of exhibitionism. I can visualize the perfect production titled Sex in the Russell. It could star Linda Lovelace and co-star Demi Moore as local girls attending college to learn the art of stripping. It would be directed by Larry Flint and produced by Hugh Heffner.” He goes on to personally ridicule and directly address President Leland for allowing this kind of performance on campus. “I am more appalled by the administration, particularly Dr. Leland, for sanctioning it.”
In my opinion, Dr. LeLand took away the most valuable lesson by saying, “In a liberal arts educational context, the most important thing to do in this situation is to discuss and critically examine these different reactions and views.” In this sense, I believe she was doing her duty as university president to mine for meaning in an event that’s purpose wasn’t necessarily in plain sight.
Mexotica toured at Dartmouth College earlier that year and garnered more praise from the northeastern community than it did at GCSU. Click here for a time lapsed glimpse of the performance to get a closer look at the aesthetic unique to Mexotica.
In an interview with Art Practical, Tess Thackara puts Gomez-Pena in the hot seat, asking him to shed light on his choices as an artist. His answers are unflinching. Though the interview comes seven years post Mexotica’s presentation at GCSU, it’s important to understand Gomez-Pena’s intentions as a performance artist. A lot of students at the college construed this performance as grotesque and blatantly unethical, unartistic in every sense of the word. Thackara asks Gomez-Pena if he ever changes his practice according to where he’s performing. For someone whose focus is on cross cultural examinations, I think it’d be wrong to assume that Gomez-Pena was unaware of the cultural and social norms of “the South” prior to his performance at GCSU, what it means to come from a small antebellum town in middle Georgia. I think he knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to perform here.
His answer to Thackara’s question is this: “Yes and no. I don’t try to make it more accessible or simpler, just because I assume they don’t have an international artistic education. I believe in the sophistication of the human condition. I believe that performance art is such a visceral art form that it allows for multiple points of entry—some are intellectual, but some are spiritual or emotional. I may make certain adjustments in the text—both in the program notes and in the text that is interspersed with the performance. I may be less theoretical and a bit more populist or humorous in the texts, but I think that the secret to entering the heart of these communities that exist in the zones of silence is not changing the nature of the piece but working with local artists. They will give us entry; they will open the door for us. We locate, in advance, a handful of really interesting artists who have a foot in both worlds—they will be our mediators.” The GCSU Art Department was that door.
One thing I’ve noticed in researching Guillermo Gomez-Pena is his confident and assured way of speaking. He’s secure in his artistic pursuits and that alone is a feat and a force to be reckoned with. Gomez-Pena also says, “Since we have made a practice out of crossing borders, most of the time we succeed. And of course, a few times we get misinterpreted. But I think that misinterpretation and mistranslation are essential contemporary experiences. If it’s just certain aspects of the piece that get misinterpreted, like certain symbols and metaphors, I welcome it. This is inevitable.”
What I found interesting in the uproar that Mexotica caused on campus is how that is precisely what Gomez-Pena aimed for. Controversy. In the interview mentioned previously, the artist says he focuses on the cross-cultural rather than strengthening marginalized communities. He explains their (his and the fifty to seventy artists involved with La Pocha Nostra) fear of being institutionalized and talks about the group’s constant concern for reinvention. He poses an interesting question by asking, “How do I deal with the fact that we have been fully accepted by academia, and theorized about, and taught, and therefore de-fanged? We have also been fully embraced by international festivals.” He goes on to tell Thackara they typically avoid performance art festivals because they have become too mainstream and, in a sense, their own genre. This is the opposite of what La Pocha Nostra wants. It’s interesting to read how Gomez-Pena’s visions of performance art have become more widely accepted and perhaps have pushed the envelope toward a higher tolerance. I wonder what Mexotica would stir on the GCSU campus in 2018? The same difference of opinion as before? Angry parents and students? Or have we become, as a student body, a more agreeable community? At least one who’s open to diverse opinion and discussion?
It’s been said that any reaction–whether good or bad–is deemed a success, because then at least you’re reacting. I agree with this. A strong opinion, be it negative, is a step in the right direction because it means people are talking. Read the things that upset you, watch the things that you find fault in because it is reason for discussion. Conversation is forward thinking. Stagnancy, in my opinion (especially in fear of failure or disapproval), is as detritus as not writing or performing at all. At least Mexotica was a cause for movement.
Colonnade Archives. “More concerns about Mexotica.” The Colonnade, 16 April 2004.
Colonnade Archives. “Visiting artist stirs controversy.” The Colonnade, 26 March 2004.
“Guillermo Gómez-Peña.” Pocha Nostra, 2001. http://www.pochanostra.com/antes/jazz_pocha2/mainpages/bios.htm.
Smith, David. “Special Olympics coordinator appreciates the help.” The Baldwin Bulletin, 22 April 2004.
Thackara, Tess. Interview with Guillermo Gomez-Pena. Art Practical, 13 April 2001, http://www.artpractical.com/feature/interview_with_guillermo_gomez-pena/.