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The Boston Phoenix Que viva Mexico?

Two Art Books Raise Provocative Questions About the Nature of Cultural Identity

By Fred Turner

NOVEMBER 3, 1997: 

HELEN LEVITT: MEXICO CITY, with an essay by James Oles. DoubleTake/W.W. Norton, 141 pages, $35.

TEMPLE OF CONFESSIONS: MEXICAN BEASTS AND LIVING SANTOS, by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes. powerHouse Books, 143 pages, $29.95.

Never mind the hush of whitewashed galleries: in the world of documentary art, there's a war going on. On one side are the humanists. These folks see documentary work as an exercise in revealing the essential human likeness between viewer and viewed. On the other side lurk the postmodernists. Armed with a multicultural, multimedia sensibility, these artists suspect traditionalists of a hidden antipathy toward "the Other." Rather than promote what they regard to be an illusory empathy between subject and audience, they urge their audiences to confront constructions of cultural difference, both in the world at large and within themselves.

Helen Levitt's photographs of Mexico City street life circa 1941 clearly belong to the first tradition. Yet when viewed alongside Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes's explosive postmodern collage, they suggest that the two schools might not have to come to blows. For all Levitt's emphasis on the transcendent humanity of her subjects, her Mexicans emerge very much as creatures of a particular time and place. And for all their attention to intercultural conflict, Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes never entirely close off the possibility of transcultural communion.

Levitt, of course, is most famous for her images of children playing in the streets of New York. While not always up to the standard of that work, the photographs in Helen Levitt: Mexico City also depict ephemeral moments in the daily lives of strangers in the street: a man running for a bus, a trio of mutts camped outside a doorway, a flower seller at work. Unlike Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, or Paul Strand, all of whom worked in Mexico early in the century, Levitt rarely reaches for the grand formal composition or the stinging social critique. Rather, she tries to see beyond the webs of poverty and wealth, religious discipline and official corruption, that characterized Mexico in the 1940s to focus on the individual.

Such attention to human particulars gives Levitt's photographs much of their appeal: to look at a photograph and feel the living presence of its now-dead subjects can be an almost mystical experience. But as the postmodernists would be the first to point out, this mystical sense of connection often glosses over social realities. In one particularly arresting image, a washerwoman, down on her knees in the dirt, glares up at Levitt as if to dare her to acknowledge not only her obvious beauty but also her poverty. Photography reveals the woman's suffering, but Levitt's attempt to create an empathetic moment obscures its social roots.

In Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes's Temple of Confessions, on the other hand, we come face to face with the social construction of Mexican identity. The book documents a performance piece first staged at Arizona's Scottsdale Center for the Arts in 1994. There, Sifuentes and MacArthur fellow Gómez-Peña built two altars on opposite sides of a mock mortuary. At the first, the "Chapel of Desires," Sifuentes perched inside a Plexiglas box, his arms decorated with pre-Columbian tattoos and his bloodstained tank top pierced with bullet holes. Surrounded by cockroaches, a live iguana, drug paraphernalia, and a whip, he became what Gómez-Peña calls an "ethno-cyborg" of the Chicano variety. Gómez-Peña himself sat atop a toilet in another box, the "Chapel of Fears," draped in tourist souvenirs and tribal talismans, a pseudo-Aztec crown of feathers on his head. In front of each of these Tex-Mex-Aztec "saints," visitors found a microphone and a prayer stool, where they could "confess" their fears and desires about Mexicans.

These confessions -- sexual, scatological, political -- fill much of Temple of Confessions. Yet there are also photographs of the performers, essays by anthropologists, velvet paintings of bikini-clad women in sombreros -- you name it. As Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes explain, the book, like the performance it chronicles, tries to depict and defuse American cultural projections about Mexicans. It is an attempt, they write, "to open a Pandora's box and let loose the colonial demons."

It does so with abandon. Temple of Confessions is everything Helen Levitt's photographs are not: caustic, confrontational, ironic, self-conscious. As what Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes call "a project of reversed anthropology," the volume makes a delicious riposte to conventional "scientific" studies and even to their distant cousin, the straight documentary photograph. Yet the book also raises certain questions: is a Mexican more than the sum of the stories told about Mexicans? And what will remain after Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes have stripped these stories away? For answers, we must return to the work of humanists like Helen Levitt -- to the possibility that some part of ourselves stands beyond the reach of cultural labels, and can be shared.

Fred Turner is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory.

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