even before you know what this photograph is, it's a little disturbing. When you find out it's a map made of dried spam, it's just gross.
That's part of the point. It's visceral: oil often drips down the wall from the spam, sometimes, on a hot day, you can smell it. In community galleries dogs are drawn in from the street by it.
The map above is part of the "Axis of Evil" SPAM/MAPS: a chart of Iran and Iraq. (The rest of the installation shows North Korea.)
For over six years, Mike Arcega's been making and showing his SPAM/MAPS of different geographic regions for different political purposes. As far as I know, his first one was a map of all of the islands of the Philippines, by island. I've also seen a map of the United States, by state. For the atlas(t) show I helped organize, he created a map of the world, by country.
SPAM occupies a privileged place in Asian/Amerian lore, especially among Filipinos. It is quintessentially American, and yet quintessentially corruptible into the manifestation of a hybrid culture -- just ask the Hawaiian consumers of SPAM musubi or Koreans who fry SPAM with kimchi to eat over rice. SPAM isn't just a simplistic symbol of American militaristic or cultural hegemony; it is also a visceral symbol of the mutability, the syncretism, of both materials and values.
Arcega bakes the SPAM in an oven until it's dry and then cuts out the shapes. He installs them by pinning them to the wall with straight pins. Often he'll paint the wall a flat blue, to indicate the ocean. This flat ocean that highlights and separates is a continuous motif in Arcega's work. His 2002 installation "Cast Away" recast his maps in 3-D. He created a series of islands, each dominated by a structure of industrial first world commercial culture (oil rigs, a freeway overpass, a billboard). Each island was built upon a miniature motorized toy car, which Arcega then set loose upon a blue formica table, again representing the ocean (click here for an animation).
It's a three dimensional map, a kinetic map, a satire of a map, a map of how hard it is to map culture. It's hard not to see a parody of -- and an angry commentary on -- the Philippine archipelago in the resulting bumper-car mess of the installation. Arcega's work is nearly unique in explicitly political Asian American art in that it both delves and attacks -- fruitfully, humorously -- without sacrificing complexity. He accuses without laying blame.
His most recent work, as all of his work does, plays with linguistic/material puns. Using "manila folders" as a primary material, Arcega has created a number of remarkably accurate artifacts of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines, including a miniature Spanish galleon (christened "El Conquistadork") that actually floats, and that Arcega sailed across Tomales Bay in 2004, and two complete suits of Spanish armor.
In galleries, the galleon is installed against a painted map of the Tomales Bay excursion, early-modernified to look like an explorer's map, and showing the triangular route of the afternoon's trip, referring to the triangular routes of Manila galleons between San Francisco, the Philippines and Mexico.