t the top of the broad flight of stairs glows a row of stained glass windows, like what you'd find in the arcade of a monastery. The windows are each composed of a bright primary color, a tribal image inscribed on it in white light. From a distance these have a similar effect to the Chagall windows in Chicago, part commissioned artwork, part upscale design element, part museum dramatics.
But up close they read more like a lightbox poster ad for a traveling ethnographic exhibition. "Savage Artifacts Here! Now With Twice the Post-structuralist Selfconsciousness!"
The gallery they gave Mike Arcega to continue this thought is more a throughway. A landing, two hallways, and two doors give onto--or are accessed through--this space. Glass-covered vitrines sit in the center, each filled with the promised savage artifacts, and to the left--on the wall and in the corner--larger objects not suitable for display cases sit in theatrical isolation: a large, wooden ceremonial implement, and a rough-looking map, possibly of some sort of aboriginal provenance.
From the doorway, that is.
Up close, the ceremonial implement resolves into a giant spork, the map (of Oceania, natch) turns out to be made of spam, and one vitrine houses a selection of cheap tourist souvenir wooden spoon-and-fork sets (some bought in Quiapo in August). The "legit" artifacts, a solemn row of tribal war and ceremonial clubs from the Peoples of Oceania, are solemnly echoed in another vitrine by a series of Arcegaesque wooden "war clubs" (the photo thereof jacked from famsf.org/deyoung/exhibitions/) topped by wooden miniature aircraft carriers and the like, and "dance clubs" topped by miniature nightspots flashing lights.
The gallery is filleted by two windows giving onto the interior entrance hallway; these, also covered with "stained glass" transparencies, emit almost no light, and make of themselves the interior backlit didactics of button-pushy educational museums.
Sadly, in the center of this organized breakdown you'll find a real didactic explaining Mike, the work, and His Point. (Don't worry, I won't tell you What It Means. I'm too bored by the prospect of Educating People.) I suppose it was necessary, or at least inevitable. But I would have rather been given the opportunity to walk swiftly past ... or to stop, look, and say WTF? (especially to the fork-and-spoon sets on loan courtesy of Lordy Rodriguez.)
Far from placing him at a disadvantage, giving Mike a foyer for his installation Homing Pidgin was a perfect choice. The hallway to the right leads past a wallpaper of "Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique" to another gallery sporting hybrid American art-ifacts from Indigenous artists incorporating European elements and from European artists about indigenous subjects.
That entrance in turn leads to the museum's permanent collection of American art, organized by era and topic.The gallery on the opposite side of the staircase shouts out some dramatic--and actual--indigenous artifacts from somewhere or other--aren't they all the same?
The doorway opposite leads to a dim gallery displaying oriental carpets made by the Turkmen. And the hallway to the left leads into the middle distance, a place too far for the casual museum-goer to go.
As near as I can tell, from various websites, programs, wall didactics, and the half-remembered tales of Arcega himself at parties, Mike was invited to a residency at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. This residency was part of the "Collection Connections" project they started to "attract new and diverse audiences to the Museums." The De Young opened up its collections to Mike to browse, and Mike ended up putting together an installation/exhibition in a gallery provided for the purpose, created out of old and new work by the artist himself, and work from the Museum's collection. Plus, his friends' tourist souvenirs.
Very cool, the De Young. Props.
In all of this it's hard not to see the things I'm tracking in this blog--Manila, Quiapo, and Green Papaya, and Megamall--in Homing Pidgin. Heretofore, Mike has trafficked solely in eurocentric images and styles, with Filipino content. I've talked about Mike and hybridity before, but the hybridity has existed more in the artist's identity and subject matter than in the meat and bones of the work.
But here Mike is (re?) appropriating "savage" "indigenous" "tribal" images, making them not lyrical frills or mark-making on a more recognizable piece, but rather confrontational in their size and manner. The "stained glass" images are grainy, ultra-reproduced, slick-vinyl photos of pieces that have been discussed to death. The authentic war clubs seem rather tame and powerless in comparison. And all of these exist in the presence of too much self-consciousness about colonization ... and in the absence of an aesthetic that could be definitively attributed to a Filipino American 1.5 Generation X American-trained conceptual artist (re?) claiming a public identity.
I'm not sure what all that means, but for an artist like Mike, pre-identity totems seem a logical, bold statement. His lock on these images is what is hybrid: does he claim them as an artist of pastiche? As a clown/ethnographer? As a pseudo-curator? As a son of the islands? I don't think there's another artist who could keep all the possibilities in the air for so long; any other artist would have to mean something by it.
Maybe it's just from being in a museum (those windows!) but there's a size and attitude here. Basically, it seems to me that Mike has acquired the confidence to not make fun of the museum, but rather take advantage of it. His piece respects and dovetails with what the museum is trying to do, but is so much clearer on the whys and wherefores--and where-to-nows--of this kind of intersection, that he's able to hijack the discussion for the space of a short hallway.
The show's up until January 20. I'm a loser for not posting about it before. Go see.