Chicago, May, 2008: Mario Ybarra, Jr. is a LA-based visual and performance artist who has created room-sized installations all over the world and most recently right here in Chicago for the Art Institute of Chicago. This year Ybarra was also selected to participate in the Whitney Biennial. Beneath Ybarra's friendly demeanor lies a keen observer who is quick to expose visual rhymes in seemingly unrelated sources and to expand and build upon those connections until a cohesion is reached, or as he might say, a story. Ybarra graciously met with ArtSlant's Abraham Ritchie while putting the finishing touches on his installation at the Art Institute. Ever the raconteur, Ybarra talked about his native LA, baseball and King Arthur. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
Abraham Richie: I think a lot of Chicagoans, and everyone, might want to know what the connection is between Southern Los Angeles, Catalina Island and Wrigley Field? It’s kind of funny to think that Wrigley Field had a “secret brother” or something like that on the West Coast, because I am not sure that many people remember or know about this other Wrigley Field.
Mario Ybarra, Jr.: Well that’s where this whole project started for me. About a year ago Lisa Dorin, the Assistant Curator in the Contemporary Art Department, asked me if I wanted to come up with a proposal to do a Focus project here at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I said I would think about it a little bit. The way that I try to work is that I try to make some kind of relationship between a personal experience, or my personal understanding or knowledge and the place that I show. I don’t like the idea of coming in and claiming an expertise on a place that I know nothing about. I’ve found that doing something that starts in the realm of the personal and then taking it out to another place and trying to make relationships between those two places is the most successful tactic for me. . . I try to make bridges, so to speak.
As a kid we would take trips out to Catalina Island, which is part of the Channel Islands, about 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. I remember part of the tour was the local history. They’d always tell us that William Wrigley, Jr. owned Catalina Island and he had famous movie stars of the time going out there, like Clark Gable. His Chicago Cubs would go out and have their spring training there. The main town there is called Avalon and it gets its name from [Wrigley’s] niece, who told [Wrigley] to name it that after the Avalon of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and those stories. So it has this mythological side of it too. It has real histories, the local histories, of it being owned by Wrigley, and it has this mythological history through the King Arthur association. My studio back in LA is on Avalon Boulevard and they named [the street] that because that’s where the boats used to take people out to Avalon Harbor on the island. I started doing research about that, I’m like a de facto historian, and I found that Wrigley, along with owning the island, owned this other Wrigley Field that was in South Central Los Angeles on Avalon and 66th street. So we had the Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island, my studio on Avalon, this field that Wrigley owned was also on Avalon, I just kept following the line. I thought I could take this story from Avalon, to Avalon Boulevard, to my studio, to Avalon were the stadium was, to all the way down Highway 66 to Chicago and the Art Institute.
I’m figuring out ways to make these relationships between historical figures like William Wrigley, who was important to historical cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, and bring these stories together somehow, make bridges between the stories. Between what I know and my experiences and the places that I go.
AR: Sports are the site of an obvious physical conflict and throughout the exhibit are interesting juxtapositions: the Mexican flag and the U.S. flag, the sword and the baseball bat, the fist of the Revolution and an image of a capitalist’s private island. The history of the island reflects conflict as well, in the seventies it was occupied by the Brown Berets. How are sports, especially baseball, viewed both literally and metaphorically for this project, and the issues it raises?
MY: Well I have always thought of the history of baseball as particularly related to the United States. It’s billed as “the American Game;” it’s not really played around the world at all other than some Latin American countries, like the Dominican Republic where all these new players are coming from and where young people are specifically groomed to be ball players. But in relation to the United States, and this comes from the different things that I have watched or read, the developments of social movements in the United States almost always came ten years later than in the ball game itself. Baseball has been very slow to change, and it hasn’t changed really over the few centuries its been played here. But it still has these kind of leading edges. Let’s take for example the story of integration and civil rights. Jackie Robinson starts playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950's and certain places, like schools, weren’t integrated until the early sixties or late sixties. Baseball reflects a little bit in advance the kind of social movements that will happen in the United States.
Another thing that I think is very interesting in terms of conflict and it being a spectator sport, even though there are rival teams and most big cities have their own team, [there is a sense of unity]. Before professional baseball, each little town would have a team, even though there was a sense of rivalry or competition, the people were brought together as spectators to cheer on their team. So even though there was a site of conflict, it wasn’t like it was Rome and gladiators were getting fed to lions [laughter]. There is a sense of sportsmanship [. . .]
Related to issues of capitalism and revolution, or acts of civil disobedience, there is a sense of teams. I play off that with the posters, we have here a baseball with two bats crossed, but instead of a regular team you have the Brown Beret guys who tried to occupy the island in 1972 so they’re like “the team.” The idea of “the team” is important too and the metaphor of a team. The idea that everyone has their positions but also act as a unit is very important and is a metaphor for myself.
AR: The idea of teams is also apparent in this wall of flags you have installed. What are the flags we have here?
MY: This is the state of Illinois’ flag. The flags are also stadium-esque, they always have them. The other thing, again about making relationships, is this is the state of Illinois’ flag, which has an eagle perched on a rock holding a shield and in his mouth is a banner. I thought that is very interesting, because over here is the Mexican flag, and again we have the eagle, this time perched on the cactus, and the snake in his mouth pretty much mimics the banner in the Illinois flag. Those kinds of aesthetic relationships and symbolic choices are very interesting.
AR: Even looking at the Illinois flag, that’s more of an Aztec style eagle than a typical American-style eagle.
MY: Yeah. Those are the kinds of things I noticed in my visits to Chicago to prepare for this show, last year and earlier this year. I started seeing these kinds of relationships, like the Illinois flag’s similarity to the flag of Mexico.
This row of flags will start off with the U.S. flag, the state of Illinois flag, Chicago flag, Los Angeles flag, state of California flag, and the Mexican flag. We have these different relationships between these two places starting with the cities and then going to the states. We have the state of Mexico flag, even though California is not part of Mexico, it used to be part of Mexico, but it’s related to the histories that we have here. Catalina Island was occupied by the Brown Berets because in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which separated the Southwest from Mexico after the Mexican-American War, the island wasn’t specifically mentioned. This is why the Brown Berets tried to occupy it.
There are interrelationships between the two places [Chicago and LA]. I thought that was another kind of metaphor for the show, in terms of Wrigley being this character and starting with him, saying no man is an island, or no city, or no country or land is an island. They’re all in relationship, in context, to their neighbors. Imagine if we thought that we could do everything, under our own power, we’d get ourselves in trouble. We can talk about it in relationship to land, in relationship to people. Or no island is a man, we could even switch it.
I wanted to draw these kinds of relationships together, one between Los Angeles and Chicago, two between Mexico and the States, three between baseball and mythology. Different symbolic orders, things like ships or bubble gum.
ArtSlant would like to thank Mario Ybarra, Jr., Jenny Gheith and Lisa Dorin for their assistance in making this interview possible. Additional thanks to the Anna Helwing Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago
(All images are installation views of Take Me Out. . . No Man Is an Island, 2008; Courtesy of the Artist)