With locations throughout the state, this year’s California Biennial literally invites a nomadic experience. In fact, much of the included work is actually about movement and transition. Both Julio Cesar Morales’ and Rubén Ortiz Torres’ contributions to the Biennial fit that bill, exuding a haunting potential energy that, installed at LAX Art and isolated from the rest of the exhibition, becomes all the more forceful.
Knowing about Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, or about the night in 1846 when he fed the U.S. militia men who would take him prisoner and take California from him, is not a requisite for understanding Interrupted Passages, Morales’ two-channel video installation. The textures and tensions that run through the installation communicate its thrust without explicitly detailing its historical impetus.
The friction between the screen on the left, on which a hunk of what must be steer is ritualistically roasted, and the silent, portentous movements of the carefully costumed figures on the opposite screen is as romantic as it is unsettling. The silken purple tie and the soft, luxuriant side burns of Vallejo contrasts the ever-roughening surface of the roped-up meat, just as it contrasts the unkempt beards of the militia. The way the housekeepers’ hand caresses the banister as she descends the stairs to let in the guests, members of the Bear Flag Rebellion who have come to disenfranchise, is longingly and quietly sensuous. Then there’s the shot in which the camera hones in on an officer, sitting silently in Vallejo’s parlor. For a moment, only the lower part of his face, his sprouting beard, and his light pink lips are visible against the striking red of the wall behind him. And there are those brief intervals in which the image flips and Vallejo’s face is upside down, as if contradiction and wrongness are perfectly natural, unavoidable parts of a dinner like the one Morales’ portrays.
The music that accompanies Interrupted Passages, composed by Mexican electronica artist Fernando Corona, is a cinematic combination of classical and electronic sounds. It further accentuates the tensions that exist in Morales’ work between tradition, change, and now— Interrupted Passages, with the clarity of its footage and the contemporaneity of its aesthetic, never allows the viewer to forget that this is not a nostalgic venture into the past; it’s a conversation being had now, in the 21st century.
Fernando Corona’s music bleeds into the next room, where Torres’ Hi ‘n’ Lo stands. A huge, lifeless object, Torres’ scissor lift with hydraulic pumps is flashy and lonesome. After watching Morales’ video installation and thinking about cultural tensions that have existed for centuries, this object seems more unnecessary and thus more foreboding. With its glittery base and its perfectly posed, aestheticized platform that has been arranged at an angle, Hi ‘n’ Lo looks as though it will never lift or transport anything and that it will remain stagnant for the rest of its life, basking in a fictionalized sense of its own glory.
Together, Morales’ and Torres’ installations portray the present seem as upsettingly unresolved. Like the textures in Morales’ videos, Torres’ structure is seductively romantic in its materiality. But neither artist romanticizes. “Is this what we are?” the work seems to ask. “Are these things, this indulgent slab of meat, this stagnant fabricated tower, indicative of what we want from the world?”