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Tucson Weekly Border Disorder

An Installation At The UA Museum Of Art Embraces The Desert's Deadly Dance.

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  DENNIS OPPENHEIM pioneers an art form new to the Old Pueblo in his gigantic installation piece The Last Dance. Call it Brutal Art.

Taking up much of the first floor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the aggressive 1992 work takes as its theme the border along the U.S. and Mexico. A white sculpted human head bangs--loudly--against a big bass drum; it goes 16 bangs in a row, rests about 12 seconds, and then bangs all over again. Adding to the aural jangle is a whole crop of old plastic radios, held in a set of huge pink fiberglass hands bolted to the wall. The radios are in old-fashioned turquoise and chrome, tinnily playing out the rock and roll of local radio. But if the din is dangerous to your ears--I had to cover mine--the dancing cacti pose their own perils.

Prickly pears are the partners in this dance, a minuet between two cultures that alternately love and loathe the other. Made out of green fiberglass and clusters of sharp nails, the four pairs of cacti are twisted into humanoid shapes. Three of the cactus couples are moving about the room on wires hung from the ceiling, and if you don't watch where you're going you run the risk of being impaled.

One pair of dancers circles warily about each other, traveling a regular orbit that will prevent them ever from meeting. Two other sets touch each other with their arm-like pads, with mixed results. One pair seems to have succeeded in sexual congress, while in the other one partner is struggling to flee. The fourth pair, immobile on the floor, look like they just may be in a combat to the death. Their necks are bound to each other by a black cord, and one seems ready to give up the fight.

The border may be porous, but it's a powerful cultural idea and a sometimes fatal physical barrier. Oppenheim's piece takes on some of the lighter stereotypes about life on the other side. A big row of letters on the floor slowly moves around a pivot, sometimes spelling out the words "Sunny Dormitory," sometimes "Su Dor" (golden south, perhaps). It's like a welcome sign, announcing Mexico as a gringo playland, filled with cheap music and exotic cactus.

But the piece is much harsher, and more serious, than that. It's hard to miss the implications of the spiny cacti doing their dangerous minuet of misunderstanding and death. And in this blazing summer, when Mexicans hoping to work in the United States have perished by the score in the unforgiving desert, a head banging itself painfully against a drum, over and over, needs no further explanation.


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