Anthony J. Jolley
Final - Critical Theory B (Parables of the Virtual)
Isabelle Massu & Tammy ko Robinson

11 May 2008

Nao Bustamante’s mixed media installation Neapolitan (2005) at the Yerba Buena Arts Center is part of a larger exhibit called The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics and prompts curious consideration relating to theories of signification, spatiality and identity. The artist encourages audience participation to engage in a feminist viewpoint offered through the symbolism and experience of her media installation. Being a part of a contemporary collective of women whose inspirations draw from past artist movements, activist movements, and ideologies, there is a “social consciousness” produced here that raises the question to newcomers, “What causes the need for such groups to form?” As stated by Stuart Hall in The Whites of their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media, “The transformation of ideologies is a collective process and practice, not an individual one.” The feminist collective finds strength in numbers but achieves this and more. It accentuates the thematic found individually in each artist’s work. Bustamante’s piece mirrors how she believes women are viewed with her own style of exaggeration by presenting an irony in her route to discovery through feminist language and understanding, the social diversities among gender and sexuality which have become a contemporary politic.

From a perspective of Foucault, Nao Bustamante’s piece uses the “sign” in a couple of ways. Firstly, when one approaches the installation you encounter an extraordinary display in how the artist has dressed the space for viewing in a manner not conducive to a typical representation for audience signification. A column draped of yarn made up of different styles of crochet patterns and colors sewn together like a blanket from grandma. The crochet covers the bench on which two pair of headphones rest with fluffy-feathered pink tassels attached to them and matches the fabric fanning out from the base of the column over the floor in horn-shapes like a jester’s hat with Dr. Seuss-striped tails. On top, vines from plastic plants hang down the sides that provide a perch for a black raven whose outspread wings are posed to take flight from its statuesque silence. All of which encase a monitor on the backside playing a video of the artist sitting in front of a television watching the end scene of the Gutiérrez film Fresa Y Chocolate while repeatedly rewinding in between her bouts of crying spells and emphatic laughter. After having participated by putting on the feather-modified headphones while watching the video myself, I must admit I felt silly but can understand what it must be like for a woman to live in a world of dominant, masculine design after experiencing the reverse. Secondly, the sign associated with her projected viewing exists in her video which does more than pass the time with continuous programming, its repetitive scene––likened by the artist as an ‘emotional vibrator’––has modified the standard of anticipation to its signifier in a moment of perpetual sentiment as she replays the scene with a remote. The facial expressions, tears, joys, and general intrigue, are capitulated in succession. By manipulating the expectation of those who encounter the television installation, Bustamante has precipitated the second variable of Foucault’s Classical thought of the sign, “A sign may belong to the whole that it denotes or be separate from it.” As a viewer, the experience of actualizing the materials combined with the emotional content in the artist’s video presents a sign that you might expect to see but is counteracted by the feminine aesthetics of the visual installation. Hence, in Bustamante’s piece, the expected symbolism is designated, disassociated and appropriated. And through participating by sitting down, putting the headphones on and watching the piece, the meaning of the spatial invitation may not be as clear to a man without much exposure to the feminist struggle for identity in a male-dominant world. I would have to admit to my short patience and dismissal of an extended engagement with the installation after a couple repetitions of the loop. It wasn’t until after further research that I was able to connect the significant meaning to her previous work.

From further perusal of other artist’s exhibitions, the common intent and use of space by the female collective featuring feminist ideologies becomes clearer. Bustamante’s piece in particular, plays with the spatial aspects more familiarly known to be associated with family-room entertainment centers. Where the T.V. often commands the central focus in many people’s homes, Bustamante is toying with the inherent precepts by offering an art of perception common to that of the collective but with her own personal voice raised. The craft afforded here is like that of a young girl’s playroom but adheres to an adult discourse within the San Francisco Art Center sparking a rather superlative surprise to the use of space. When Michel de Certeau describes the “process of appropriation of a topographical system”, he is describing the urban system of walking and its association to the act of speech and language. Bustamante’s installation conjures elements of a similar practice. However, attracting pedestrian foot traffic to the interactive installation space itself provides a temporary destination for the “walker” and its offering the choice to sit and involve oneself in the piece provides an interim residence as a use of space. But to the “pedestrian” displacements as de Certeau labels the walking urbanite, her piece acts accordingly by accumulating those who’s “paths give their shape to spaces.” Thus, in her space, the audience becomes one with the artist through her language; fully engaged in her affective media and message of feminist ideology before returning to their pedestrian pathways throughout San Francisco.

There is a clear message in the collective and Bustamante’s work that engages feminist identity. An identity of feminist ideology that appeals to those with empathy for what Stuart Hall describes as “fragmentation and erosion of collective social identity” or those who have lost it and question, “Where are we to find it?” With Bustamante’s work, there is great effort to capture and preserve identity through psychic reverberation and in that space––as in the Neapolitan installation––presence of identity is projected through her emotion and female design. Is it her intention to produce an endless representation of sentimental instability as a reflection of internal identity? Or is it a mockery of identity placed upon the female by the “other” that she addresses? The “other” being what Carol J. Adams explains oppression and sexism to be caused by: “Racism from a white supremacist patriarchy”. I think the latter is the point for what her video performance piece Indigurrito (1992) proposes. Bustamante addresses the males in her audience with an invitation to “Be absolved from five hundred years of oppression and guilt” that lay upon their little white bodies. By doing so, they must kneel and take a bite of her burrito that she has strapped to her naked body like a penis. The irony of this suggests that the ideologies of feminism have turned on its face from oppression commanding subordination over past centuries through the women’s liberation movements of the sixties and seventies; she identifies the absurdities of gender stereotypes and presents them with a provocative sense of humor.

While the artist encourages audience participation through the perspective of a feminist’s viewpoint implied through the symbolism in her multimedia installation, the politics of identity challenged here have circumscribed a wider positioning for the discourse of sexism while adding her satirical quirk. In doing so, she deliberately puts the viewer––be it male or female––in the role of her perceived identity. As seen in Bustamante’s earlier work America the Beautiful (1995) her stage performance sarcastically disfigures herself with extensive eyelash curling, overstated lipstick drawing, and curly-blonde wig primping topped with endless rounds of applying hairspray after wrapping clear plastic tape around her waist to tighten her naked body like a corset would; she is mocking the typical blonde, bombshell persona of what an iconic American woman should look like; complete, with her grinning enjoyment. Her extremities drive the point how society pressures identity. Like Neapolitan, one can relate to the crisis the role of a woman has in contemporary society. However absurd the repetitious loop of material may be in the installation’s video, everyone has experienced emotional outbursts and has sentimental histories. Yet, in Bustamante’s work we get her sense of wry grinning humor that the politics of sexual identity often lack and through understanding how a feminist perspective brings light to social diversities, we may become more inclined to realize how the use of space, signs, and the identities for others are shared quests in these language translations. As Stuart Hall states, “Identity is always in a process of formation.” We may never attain our true selves but through understanding the diversity of others, we may become one step closer to understanding completely how and why we perceive ourselves as we do.

© 2009-2013 Anthony Jolley