On war’s front line


“I asked him if he wanted to come back with me to my studio so that we [could] have a fight,” artist Yoshua Okón said about a policeman he just met. “And then we took it from there.”

Blending reality, documentation and fantasy is a challenge that Okón seeks to overcome via multimedia art. By addressing unpleasant themes with instances of humor, he invites viewers to reflect on mainstream culture. Wanting each member of his audience to be “an active spectator,” Okón emphasized, “Humor I think can be great because once you’re laughing you are implicated. In a way you are already inside of the piece.”

Okón was born in 1970 in Mexico City where he currently resides. After receiving his BFA in 1994 from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, he received his MFA from UCLA eight years later. His work has appeared in nearly hundreds of exhibitions for the past 20 years in countries across the globe including Brazil, Germany, Japan and more.

In 1999 while roaming the streets of his youth, camera in hand and no notion of what to film, he came across the aforementioned police officer. When they were in Okón’s studio with the camera rolling, they had their “fight” — a verbal exchange of harsh yet comical insults that highlighted the city’s social issues. “Since there’s no script,” Okón said, “what happened was, in many ways, the unpredictable.” Okón arranged multiple similarly staged pieces featuring other officers, incorporating the video performances in an exhibition titled Oríllese a la Orilla, which roughly translates to “pull over.”

The installation, like many of Okón’s works, was comprised of multichannel projections, immersing the viewer in screens and speakers. Since the beginning of his career, he regarded video as a physical medium, one the viewer must build a relationship with. “I’m interested in creating environments that kind of surround you,” he said, opposing the idea of his spectators “passively watching from a distance.”

Another example of his multichannel work is a 2011 piece filmed in Los Angeles. Having just read the book The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman, the United States invasion of Guatemala was still fresh in his mind. It then occurred to Okón that the Guatemalan Civil War was closer to home than he realized, recalling the time he met a local Home Depot worker who had fought in the same war. With the employee’s help, Okón gathered a group of ex-military men who had also done combat in the civil war, directing them to perform a reenactment in the parking lot of a Home Depot.

Titled Octopus, the looped 18-minute long footage referenced the nickname of the United Fruit Company who had their hands on many corporate interests such as land, ports and railroads during the war. Throughout the video, 14 men of Mayan descent crawled on their bellies, held up imaginary rifles and crouched in their armored vehicles (shopping carts).

Although adept in their roles, Okón noted, “To me the real subjects of this piece are not them but the customers around them” as nearly every passerby ignored the performers, even when they played dead. “That became a very good metaphor for their invisibility.”

The sequel to Octopus, currently on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art until April 30, also relates to historical events. Named Oracle, it references a small town in Arizona where the largest-yet protest against the immigration of unaccompanied minors from Central America occurred.

Installation view of Oracle at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

Installation view of Oracle at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

The multichannel installation contains a scene where nine Central American children have their backs to the camera, singing a modified U.S. marine hymn that instead narrates the history of the U.S. invading Central America, the key reason for the mass migration north. In contrast, other scenes feature members of the AZ Border Defenders reenacting the protest, holding bright yellow signs that read “Stop Invasion.” Consequently, the piece portrays multiple views on the immigration debate where Okón aims to raise awareness of the topic by giving every side a voice — even if the sides are at war.

“We live in a very violent society but we have the illusion that it’s not violent,” Okón said. “It’s kind of this far removed violence. The clothing that we’re wearing is made by slaves but it’s so far away that we don’t see it. … We are completely desensitized because it’s not happening right here.”

See more of Yoshua Okón’s work: http://yoshuaokon.com/