Performance Artist James Luna Surprises, Mystifies at the Blanton

When I sat down to watch performance and visual artist James Luna in the Blanton Museum of Art amphitheater, I had to do one of my regular did-I-accidentally-ingest-mescaline checks to make sure the psychedelic colors and droning voices were real.

It must have been a false alarm. I waited in anticipation as a swirl of tie-dye colors broke apart on a screen, coalescing into a lone male voice chanting wordlessly.

Then a video started to play, depicting Luna arriving at the shores of a modern-looking office block via, bizarrely, a chauffeured paddleboat.

Stopped by an accented guard, perhaps because he was pantsless, Luna rebuffs his questions by saying things like “I don’t need a passport. I’m an indigenous man of the Pacific Rim. This is my passport (points to ceremonial medicine bag)” and “I.D.? Why do I need I.D.? I know who I am.” The video stopped, and Luna stepped onstage.

Then things got weird.

After explaining his experience working with indigenous artists in New Zealand, Luna described several projects he’s undertaken in the States.

Besides a giant swirl made of bottle caps, corn, and other “indigenous things” he created over the course of eight hours with the Kiwi artists, Luna also spoke about “Talking Stones,” an installation that featured rocks cast into translucent resin, lit up underneath by projectors. Over each stone was placed an audio dish capable of projecting sound directly at the head of each individual listener–ensuring that only they could hear their personalized message, typically a traditional Native American chant.

Then Luna launched into one of his signature pieces, “We Become Them,” a piece where he walks around stage imitating the somewhat grotesque figures of Native American sculptures as their images appear on a screen behind him.

As Luna shuffled and groaned with his face contorted in a grinning rictus, I did reflect on indigenous art—though perhaps not in the way Luna most hoped.

As successful as I thought “Talking Stones” was in making relatable an important part of Native American philosophy, my brain just could not grasp the weirdness that was “We Become Them.” It simply refused all my attempts to make sense of it, which might have been the point (I hope it was the point). Thinking about Luna’s work, I realized what felt at the time like a great epiphany: it’s good—when it makes any sense. Little did I know I had just described most people’s feelings towards contemporary art, or even art in general.

I guess he must be doing something right.

Photo courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art


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