By David LaGaccia
Last Friday night at Grace Exhibition Space was a night where flavor and performance combined to wet your artistic pallet, or at least, your odd curiosity. “Mextra 2! International Performance Art Festival, Mexico City -Brooklyn!” the shows pamphlet read. Curated by Pancho Lopez, the night featured Mexican artists Maria Eugenia Chellet, Alejandro Chellet, Paulina Flores, Quetzal Belmont, and Lopez himself. The whole gallery looked and smelled appetizing with food placed and boiling on every table, and a large spread of food neatly laid out on a larger table near the gallery’s entrance with a sign standing next it reading “Eat at your own risk.” Each performance had a theme of food or domesticity incorporated in it in some way. I’ll keep food puns to a bear minimum.
Quetzal Belmont was the first performer of the night. Dressed like a professional chef, she greeted the crowd and welcomed everyone to stand and wait for food she was cooking in a large pot. She stirred the pot, neatly arranged the plates and napkins, handed plates to audience members, and smiled warmly. I was thinking, ‘Oh, another cooking performance.’
These actions went on for a little while, ten or fifteen minutes or so. The audience held expectation of food being about to be served, ‘What’s in the pot’? Belmont built anticipation and prolonged the performance by saying, “Can you smell that? It’s almost ready!” It’s interesting that she implied that there was a smell of cooking food, where there clearly was none, but nonetheless, I’m sure more than a few people (myself included) believed there was. Plates, napkins, forks and knives we’re laid out on the table as if she we’re ready to serve a party, yet as time went on, you got the impression that there was more going on here; she was stirring the pot, so to speak, building curiosity of what was about to happen, and what she was going to do.
She approached several members of the audience, whispering instructions into their ears, and one by one, they laid down on the floor in front of the table. And then, finally, she revealed that all this time, there was nothing but rocks, solid gray rocks about the size of a fist that she placed on several plates. You got the feeling that this was absurdest imagery, and it should be taken as funny.
The performance may have been more poignant, or at least set a more serious tone if Belmont chose to dress more like a mother feeding a starving child, rather than being dressed like a professional cook presenting in front of an audience; this more frivolous tone, however, could have been the point, when after all, there are whole television channels that present cooking and eating as an entertainment, when in impoverished nations, food is scarce and a daily struggle to gain. After she took the rocks out of the pot with a ladle, Belmont talked candidly about world hunger, setting flowers and candles on the table, and kneeling in front of the audience and praying. She later passed out flyers detailing the real life actions Belmont’s performance portrayed, citing news reports that mothers do indeed pretend to cook dinner for their children until they fall asleep with empty stomachs, where the mother’s then reveal the indelible stones in their boiling pots.
Paulina Flores was the second performer of the night. Her performance was the only performance of the night that did not use food in it, but it did have themes relating to the role of a “traditional” woman, domesticity, and how that role can be suffocating, restraining, and a burden.
From skirt, to veil, to blouse, Florres stood inside the ring of stones and put on layer after layer of clothes that are symbolic of the traditional clothes and roles a housewife is expected to dress up in. The clothes became more constrictive with each layer, with the wedding veil wrapped around her head, and looking like it was chocking and suffocating her, and the blouse looked more like a restraint or straight jacket than a flowing dress.
After putting on dress after dress, Flores started to place the ring of rocks in a large black carrier bag. Being entrapped in her “roles”, she quickly began to struggle with the weight of the bag, which can be symbolically read as the weight of the roles women have to carry. Several times she asked the audience for help to carry the bag, but no one came forth, and so she struggled out into the crowd, eventually ending the performance.
Flores offered no solutions by herself regarding what to do about the role of a traditional housewife, but then again, the performance was relating a personal experience or personal opinion, and you have to judge what the piece did, not what you want it to be. Perhaps if someone did help her carry the bag when she asked for help, the piece would have carried a different meaning. If a man stepped up to help, it would have implied that men and women need to work together to solve this problem of the inequality and oppression of women, in other words it’s not an issue reserved for one sex, one gender or one person, it’s a human issue; if a woman would of helped her, then it could have been read as women need to work to together to solve this problem, however none did and she was left to struggle on her own.
Alejandro Chellet was suave and debonair, dressed in a tie, dress coat, dress shoes, and a fine hat. His performance started when he gathered the whole crowd of people in a giant circle in-front of the feast of food that had been laying on a table from the beginning of the night. He made a speech, giving thanks to the gallery owners, gave thanks for the food, gave thanks to the people who produced the food, picked the food, drove the trucks of food, and stocked the food. The group then broke, and headed straight for the table, enjoying cake, roasted garlic, pasta, drinks, bread, conversation and more. There was a general feeling that this was the performance, and heck, there should be more performances like this!
During the break, Chellet went around the crowd holding out his hat asking for donations for the costs for the food. I added a dollar to the pile, and so did others.
Chellet regathered the crowd after a half an hour or so, and placed the hat of money on a chair. He announced to everyone that the food which we all eat was fact found in the garbage, and that he had gone dumpster diving the previous night, preparing for his performance. He then talked about the incredible amount of food and money the United States wastes and throws away on a daily basis, and the food found in most garbage dumpsters at the end of the night, is literally the same food you were shopping for in the grocery store, pushing your cart down the aisles. He then lit the donated the money on fire, with several people adding dollars into the small blaze.
Maria Eugenia Chellet’s performance was colorful with feathers and glitter implying a more comedic performance, however, this was contrasted with the geopolitical connotations the piece had. This performance felt like it had a more theatrical approach it. Chellet opened and shared “gifts” given to Mexico from various world countries and leaders, including China, Fidel Castro (who to my recollection is amazingly still alive), Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and Mexican communications business magnate, Carlos Slim.
All of these gifts were chintzy, such as glitter, feathers, alcohol, cheaply made hats, and chocolates. Although these may been more culturally relevant, I assume she implied that these world leaders and powers offered “gifts” to Mexico, there are in reality, cheap, thoughtless, disposable–and Mexico as a nation is considered an afterthought in a global and political context.
Pancho Lopez’s performance ended the night, and it was certainly the most lighthearted. Lopez mentioned to me that the concept came from the 1980’s video game, BurgerTime, of the same name of the performance. Nine hamburgers were neatly laid out in a row on a roll of simple brown craft paper. Lopez sat at the head of the table facing the audience, and a projector displayed humorous quotes, and counted the hamburgers as he ate them, sometimes stuffing the wax wrappers to his face, devouring them in one or two bites. He kindly asked for a small cup of water after he was finished. That was it. Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture, specifically the “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” portion with its charging brass hoof-beat tempo set the upbeat tone of the performance, blaring out of speakers from the beginning. It may have been a playful comment on eating competitions, Coney Island’s Nathan’s hot dog eating contest comes to mind, but then again, it could have been just entertaining fun, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
The performers will stay in New York for one more week, each performing again as a part of Mextra 2-2 at The Gray Zone, Saturday May 24th in Kingston, New York.