Michael Arcega: Baby and the Nacirema at The Luggage Store

[uds-billboard name=”arcega”]In Baby and the Nacirema at The Luggage Store, Michael Arcega ambitiously examines cross-cultural exchange through American icons, anthropology, and Manifest Destiny. In Body Ritual Among the Nacirema(1956), Horace Miner inverts the anthropological study of Otherness by studying North American culture through the fictional Nacirema, American spelled backwards. Additionally, Arcega draws upon Lewis and Clark’s scientific and economic survey of the American west (1804-06), which contributed to the case for westward expansion. Launching from these two ideas, Arcega balances pointed social critique with lighthearted play in a complex web of histories and meanings.

In the spirit of Miner, Arcega’s Nacireman Inventions (2012) references ancient and pre-modern terra cotta anthropological museum collections. In his installation, Arcega displays a profusion of small Sculpey representations of technologies that originated in North America. His objects juxtapose modern innovations, like cameras and electricity, and seemingly inconsequential ones, like corn—which may cleverly reference indigenous agricultural and culinary contributions, or the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) patented by Monsanto. Additionally, there is a spattering of mysterious abstract objects that could either be pre-modern inventions, or representatives of our increasingly abstract contemporary technologies, like the integrated circuit. Similarly, Arcega previously riffed on ethnography in Dance Clubs (2008). Exhibited in vitrines in the Oceanic galleries at the de Young Museum, Arcega fused architectural renderings of discotheques with indigenous South Pacific dance and ritual clubs. Wielding visual and linguistic puns, Arcega pointedly critiques the legacy of anthropology, in regards to representing and collecting artifacts of Otherness.

In Arcega’s Pinata Mobile (2012), piñatas dangle from the ceiling in a delicate network of string and poles. The pinata, like many cultural items, has a history of cross-cultural transformation. Originating in China as a Lunar New Year ritual, Marco Polo exported the pinata to Europe where it was transformed into a Christian religious custom; where then the Spanish introduced it to Latin America, and now it is acculturated in North America as a secular festivity. Arcega builds upon this complex history by interspersing both positive and negative, aspirant and promulgated American icons, like the Statue of Liberty, the Masonic symbol from the dollar bill, a tank, etc. With their youth pop culture iconography, like Sponge Bob and Elmo, piñatas are one of the many, sometimes insidious, ways that children domestically and abroad are inculcated with American culture. Moreover, in play, participants repeatedly lash piñatas with the intention of destroying them to release their treats. Figuratively, Arcega’s Pinata Mobile engages in a dialogue of cultural exchange, aspiration, destruction, and reward.

In Arcega’s Baby (Medium for Intercultural Navigation) (2011-12), he presents a handmade Pacific outrigger canoe, photographs, and commemorative plates. Like Lewis and Clark, Arcega surveys the economic and industrial structure of the US from a nautical perspective. The four accompanying photographs chronicle Arcega’s journey through the Rio Grande, Mississippi River, San Francisco Bay, and St John, Louisiana to contrast urban with rural areas and industrial shipping with luxury waterfront homes. Baby revisits themes and approaches Arcega established earlier in The Maiden Voyage of El Conquistadork (2004). In this piece he sailed across Tomales Bay in a small galleon constructed from manila envelopes, in reference to the Manila-Acapulco Trade Route. While decidedly more rugged, Baby takes on more and larger navigational goals, physically expanding Arcega’s vocabulary beyond the Bay Area.

In Baby and the Nacirema, Arcega straddles collective and individual histories by revisiting broader cultural production alongside his own artistic practice. Throughout the exhibition, Arcega demonstrates his impeccable craftsmanship and conceptual rigor in his references, approaches, appropriations, and titles. Moreover, Arcega balances warm-hearted play and serious critique to graciously allow viewers a vast array of entry points and interpretations.


Michael Arcega: Baby and the Nacirma is on view at The Luggage Store in San Francisco, CA until November 17, 2012.
Images courtesy of Michael Arcega, The Luggage Store, and Marx Zavattero, San Francisco, California.

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