At Corthell Hall on Sept. 25, USM hosted visiting performance artist James Luna, who’s show consisted of a postmodern blend of traditional and contemporary art from a variety of disciplines. Luna’s art was sophisticated, political, funny and controversial. As an American Indian artist Luna is very much concerned with identity and what being an American Indian artist means in contemporary society.
After a traditional Native American performance by the Awaska Singers and Dancers, Luna introduced himself with a short film. The film featured the artist washing up on the shores of some concrete industrial wasteland in a clunky plastic paddleboat. As he makes his way up the sun-baked boat launch he is stopped by a tall white border guard who demands to see his passport. Luna responds “I am an indigenous man from the pacific-rim, it is you who needs a passport.” He then demands to be taken to a theatre. The video ends with James Luna entering this theatre and was followed immediately by the real James Luna walking into the auditorium in Corthell Hall to begin his multimedia slideshow aided presentation: part artist statement and part retrospective on Luna’s past installation and conceptual work.
Early in his show, Luna discussed being young and struggling with being typecast as a Native American artist. He wanted to be seen as an artist first. This desire to lampoon the stereotype of the minority artist comes through in Luna’s work as an edgy humor and refusal to take himself or his heritage too seriously.
For instance, “Wet Dream Catcher” is one of his more successful visual puns. In the piece Luna takes an object that is sacred to his culture and subverts it to make a statement not only about cotemporary culture but about himself. By taking the traditional native American dream catcher combining it with contemporary sexual iconography Luna makes these objects relevant to him as a contemporary artist.
In another sculptural piece Luna takes ubiquitous native American peace pipe and turns it into the receiver of a landline telephone. Luna explained the traditional spiritual function of the peace pipe which was a way of communing with the spirit world via sky-bound smoke. Again by combining very different cultural ready-mades into this humorous visual dialogue Luna actively plays with preconceived notions that of the audience may have of his cultural Identity.
Luna’s performance touched on many different subjects explored in this eclectic body of work. Many of the issues were deeply American. Rock ‘n’ roll for instance has been deeply influential on Luna–of course he is just as much American as he is Native American. His performance struck a unique balance between sincerity and irony, for instance he talked in a sarcastic manner about forming a rock ‘n’ roll church, to which he got a few chuckles but then followed the audience laughs by saying “We played allot of Miles Davis/Jack Kerouac spoken word pieces, so maybe it really was a church of sorts.”
Even while talking about the genre, however, his Native American ancestry was never fully out of the picture. In a staged photograph from a series he did for the rock ‘n’ roll church, Luna put himself in the place of Jimi Hendrix, re-creating the iconic Fender burning performance. Instead of lighter fluid however, Luna ignites the blaze by rubbing two sticks together.
While James Luna can’t escape his cultural identity, his performance proved that he does succeed in escaping the box that many “Native American” artists get put in by deliberately exploring and challenging cultural stereo-types. Luna is an artist who is not trading in his cultural heritage but creating a dialogue between the past and the present all while finding his own voice somewhere in between.