Culture » Visual Arts

Skeletons in the closet

Peruvian filmworks offer deep views of a complex modern world


Guinea pig skeletons dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in the work of Cristian Alarcn Ismodes, one of the artists in Three Approaches to Contemporary Visual Arts from Peru, the next show at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Gallery of Contemporary Art.

The guinea pigs are part of a video titled, "El Regreso de los Cuy-ratas Muertos Vivientes," or "The Return of the Living Dead Guinea Pigs." Ismodes borrowed the idea from his grandfather, who made the doll-like carcasses dance at the dinner table when Ismodes was a child.

Caitlin Green, interim director of the gallery, explains the curious juxtaposition.

"He said, 'I'm Peruvian. I grew up eating cuy [guinea pig], and I'm born in a time when I'm dancing the "Thriller." So that's just me.'"

She adds, "These are very personal references to him and it's about where he finds himself in contemporary Peru."

Alarcon's artwork may be personal, but it's born from experiences shared by fellow Peruvian artists and Three Approaches contributors Diego Lama and Fernando Gutierrez.

All of the artists were in their early teens when violence between the Peruvian government and a revolutionary group "The Shining Path" brought atrocities from indigenous villages to Lima, where they were growing up.

"The artists were old enough to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We're sitting here Saturday morning watching cartoons and Michael Jackson ... and there's all these atrocities happening right outside our window,'" says Valerie Brodar, director of the visual arts program at UCCS.


Three Approaches showcases Peruvian responses to Western popular culture, but as Brodar notes, it also invites you to simply see the U.S. through a different lens.

It came via Brodar's trip to Peru in 2005, when she asked gallery owners for a curator to help her choose artists for a guest lecture. She found Mauricio Delfin, who selected cutting-edge artists whose work depicted the diversity within Peru's contemporary arts community.

Delfin chose the artists' video artwork, and Brodar secured a Roser Grant to fund a lecture (which happened about a month ago). Upon seeing the artwork, Green decided to team with Delfin on a gallery show featuring the artists. She set up the gallery and put all of the pieces on one large screen.

"Video art speaks the language of cinema," says Delfin, "which has become international. These artists can put their work on YouTube and reach a much larger audience than they would with paintings in galleries."

But the artists are not primarily video artists.

Take Lama, whose video work is influenced by his training as a painter. Green says each frame is carefully composed, as a painting would be. Lama also uses mythological themes, as did classical artists, embedding primal desires and fears within mythological narratives.

In "Triptych," a naked woman dances while a pit bull looks on, combining beauty and danger. The colors are lush, as in a classical painting, with different shades of gold and beige. The space within which the woman dances has columns and looks like a Roman hall.

Even as Lama's pieces employ elements that only work through time, like movement and music, they feel different from cinema. They operate without a linear structure.

"It's not intended as a movie it's art, and that intention has some bearing on how it's going to be viewed," says Green. "There's an audience in popular culture movies that these projects wouldn't share."

It takes three

Green's not saying that if you enjoyed a Judd Apatow flick, for example, you wouldn't enjoy video art. But the placement of these videos in a gallery creates a different set of expectations; when you look closely at the pictures, how the frames are constructed, you might see a more potent meaning from video art than from a movie still or clip.

"The artist has that expectation of the viewer," says Green.

That goes even for the works of Ismodes and Gutierrez, which have less painterly qualities than Diego's works. The appropriation, for example, of elements of popular culture in video art serves a different purpose.

In one of Alarcn's pieces, a cuy rata devours Mickey Mouse. Alarcn sees the Disney character as a representation of Western popular culture, and this allowance for reappropriation makes video art distinctly postmodern.

Gutierrez does the same thing with his reappropriation of Kill Bill, a video art piece of the same name as Quentin Tarantino's popular film series.

In Gutierrez's works, Uma Thurman is replaced by the Peruvian anti-hero "Juan Chaco," who's always drunk, late and messing up.

"He represents that aspect of modernity," says Delfin, "that's unable to be perfect."

The perspective on modernity is not necessarily held by all Peruvians. Green and Brodar both caution North American viewers against seeing these artists as indicative of the whole Peruvian experience. North American viewers "tend to come at this art with a Western gaze and see it as 'other' and have all these ideas of what that art is," says Green.

"This isn't the work of the country," she says. "It's the work of three Peruvian artists individually responding to events and ideas."

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