The Venice Biennale is the world's oldest and most important survey of contemporary art. When artists have been chosen for the Biennale, you know they've truly arrived. This year, two native North Americans had prominent spots in the exhibition. Does this mean that native art in general has reached a new level of art-world recognition? Or is it a fluke, or even the kind of tokenism that could disappear again?
James Luna, a Luiseno Indian from Southern California and a leading native artist, was featured in a Biennale project organized by the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. Rebecca Belmore, a member of Ontario's Anishinabekwe native group, was chosen to represent Canada in its national pavilion. The two artists answered questions about their Venice experience, and the current state of native art, in a recent conference call. Highlights from that conversation are printed below.
Luna, who is 55, is based on the La Jolla reservation near San Diego. His Venice exhibition included a "chapel" -- complete with pews and sacred vessels, but also featuring video and sound -- dedicated to Pablo Tac, a Catholic Luiseno who in 1832, at the age of 10, set sail to join the priesthood and learn missionary skills in Rome, and who died there nine years later after completing the first outline of Luiseno grammar.
Luna also programmed a number of outdoor performances. Dancing in the middle of a pseudo-ceremonial stone circle, he put on a series of costumes that represented all the cliches of nativeness, and then some. There were the usual trappings: moccasins, loincloth, an eagle feather, a war shirt, a Winchester rifle -- most of which have little to do with Luna's own West Coast culture. And then there were strange updatings and hybridizations of such cliches: His war shirt had sports webbing up the sides; his loincloth was a blue thong with cheesy leopard spots. At various points, he put on the black leather vest of a Hell's Angel, tied a robber's bandanna over his face and donned a gondolier's straw hat. It was as though Luna was trying to inhabit everything an Indian is supposed to be, has been, or could be as nativeness comes up against the modern world. You want native? Luna seems to say. Okay, I'll give you native, in forms you've never even imagined.
Belmore was born in 1960 into the Lac Seul native band in Upsala, Ontario. She now works in Vancouver, where she is one of that city's most active and prominent artists. In Venice, she filled the Canadian pavilion with a curtain of falling water, onto which she projected a pungent video loop, a bare few minutes long. It begins beside the ocean near Vancouver, with a shot of a bonfire on a beach. Belmore is then shown standing waist-deep in the surf, struggling to fill a battered steel bucket. Back on land, she strides toward the camera, then throws the bucket's contents at the lens. Rather than the clear water we expect, however, the screen is covered in a veil of blood. The press release for the installation says that it "has an ambiguous meaning that is associated with awakening and emerging. There is a sense of a task to be done; one of ritual and portent." The work touches on many of the central themes of native culture and history: land, fire, water and the native person's presence among them. And then, of course, all this becomes drenched in red.
Blake Gopnik: What in general were your impressions of being in the Venice Biennale?
Rebecca Belmore: It was overwhelming. And then you end up at home and you wonder, "Well, what the hell was that?"
James Luna: I [once] said, "I'm probably not very interested in going to Europe." What I was thinking was that there were places in America that needed to see my work, and [their audiences] would get it way beyond Europeans. But I've changed my mind on that. This is a very important benchmark for me. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of it.
Gopnik: Did either of you think that being identified as native artists helped you carve out your own territory at the Biennale?
Belmore: I think there were certain people who were interested in my being aboriginal, but largely I think it wasn't an issue. In the work that I was making, I was trying to talk about something that connects all of us -- all human beings. Although I see myself as an aboriginal woman, at the same time I'm insisting that I have something to say to the world that's important and is relevant to all of us.
Luna: On the Artnet [Web site], they were talking about my performance and were curious about what it was and what I was trying to do: Was it really ritual? Was it performance? And someone said, "No, it's not traditional -- but Luna's Indian all the time." And I thought that was great: "Indian all the time." I'm going to put it on a T-shirt.
Rebecca and I are native artists, but sometimes in her work she speaks to native issues very blatantly, at other times it's very subtle, and at other times it's just artwork. And I've chosen to go another route, where the subject and the look [of my works] are more identifiable as native. So I was really gratified that we were together on the same bill. Because just by that very fact, people saw the diversity in quote-unquote "contemporary" native art. I don't like having all our eggs in one basket.
Gopnik: James, did anyone read your performance as a traditional folk form of Indian culture?
Luna: They always do. Because, even though it's tongue in cheek, part of the attraction is that I take my structure from a ceremony. But [my work] is not a ceremony, it's a performance. There are moments when I catch the audience out of the corner of my eye, and see them tear up: "Oh my God, it's an Indian," [they say]. And I kind of chuckle to myself.
But after all the Indian hoopla, [I hope] they'll just talk about the piece as a piece -- I'm waiting for that, but I haven't got it yet, or only a few times in my career. And I'm hoping this will happen with the Venice Biennale. We weren't at the [Biennale] by fluke, or just because we're Indian, but because we've earned this.
[The work] isn't just about native identity. It's never been just about that. It's about being human and being perceived as different, or being different, in this world.
Belmore: In my piece, when the blood is tossed up onto the screen, it's not only about my Indian history. It's about the history of this [North American] land. It's our history. It's a two-way relationship: It's not just about me; it's about me and you. It's about the people who came here from Europe.
Gopnik: James, you once said that people tend to come to native culture looking for higher truths -- for shamanism and things like that. Did you find that people were expecting magic from your work in Venice?
Luna: That's always there. People come up with these really oddball questions, particularly about religion -- wanting "The Word" from me. It's really an invasion of my privacy. I'm not up there to share my religious beliefs with anybody.
Gopnik: You are two of the most important native artists in North America. What has been your experience of making actively contemporary art in a native context? Is there an element within the native community that has a problem with installation art, with video, with performance? That expects baskets and blankets?
Belmore: I sometimes get asked to do workshops within my own community. Being out here on the West Coast, and not being from West Coast [native] culture, a lot of people come to a workshop and expect carving. And I don't know how to carve anything! It's very hard work to get them to come around -- but eventually they do. People can understand issues, they have life experience, they can understand our situation as aboriginal people. Once I start to talk about my work, and show [images], they get what it's about. Maybe the form is weird for them or difficult, but essentially, they understand.
Luna: I do see fear in the eyes of, let's say, "semi-traditional" artists. I'm the big-name artist, and I'm up there giving a talk, and they think that I'm going to say that they're wrong. But when I finally finish, I'm talking about issues that they're not talking about in their pottery, so they need not fear me. In fact, I see them smile, because I'm talking about topics that are close to them at home. They're thinking that I'm going to tell them how to be Indian. But once they hear me, and see what I'm doing, even though it's in a modern form, they see that it's accessible.
[Native] artists who lean toward traditional work may be shaking their heads about me possibly putting them down. But when push comes to shove, they're making a hell of a lot more money than I am. I was in Santa Fe, [N.M.,] and these painter friends of mine were saying, "You got that review in Artforum [magazine]. That was so great." They were sort of envious of me. And I said, "Now, if I could just sell one painting a year like you do, and live off it, I'd really be happy."
Gopnik: You're both making work within the mainstream of Western contemporary art that deals with native issues. Would it make sense to talk about native art that could somehow be apart from that mainstream? Is there something about Indianness, about the aboriginal condition, that could actually create a new way of making art? I was interested in the performative aspect of your work, James, and its links to ritual. Does the tradition of ritual in native art give native artists something to work with that other artists wouldn't have?
Luna: It's a starting point that maybe other artists would have to work up to. I can use people's preconceived ideas -- ideas that other, non-Indian artists can't be as effective with from the get-go. I think there are all kinds of possibilities with this material. When I look at certain native groups out there, doing their thing on a Western stage, I usually walk away shaking my head, because I don't think they quite take it to where it could go. They end up doing something close to performing for the white folks -- dancing for them. That's okay, but that isn't it. If you're going to be on a Western stage, I think there's a challenge to do something that speaks to that stage, and that tradition.
Gopnik: Which is now part and parcel of being a native person in North America.
Luna: We live in both worlds. There's just no getting away from that. And if you think we don't, then you're kind of in denial.
Belmore: There's still this interest [among aboriginal artists] in hanging out together and doing work together -- and I think that's a good thing, and normal. But at the same time, as an artist, once you get to a certain level you question whether it's a good thing to be in an Indian show. Is it good to be labeled, or not? What should you call yourself?
Gopnik: James, in the catalogue for your Venice show, curator Paul Chaat Smith asked a question that I thought was interesting: "Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived?" Can you imagine a world in which one is Indian, but not in relation to the past in any way?
Luna: I'm not a fortuneteller. But it would be wrong to say that we should stay where we are, culturally. That never happens. Cultures evolve. Where might we have been had the white man never come to the Americas? Would we have turned the cities we had into megacities? Would we be competitive with the modern Western world, if we hadn't been dominated and slaughtered?
Gopnik: Rebecca, have you ever made a work as a mature artist that didn't address Indianness in any way?
Belmore: Many of my works can look like they have nothing to do with my Indianness, but when I look at them, I see it. I am who I am, and I bring my experience and my identity. But I think it's great when people don't necessarily see it. That means they can relate to [a piece] as an artwork. They don't necessarily have to know that it was made by me.
Gopnik: James, you once described yourself to me as "one of America's oldest emerging artists." Does the presence of the two of you at the Venice Biennale mean that native artists are no longer doomed always to be emerging?
Luna: Well, my phone isn't exactly ringing off the hook!
Belmore: Mine neither!
Luna: Time will tell. This is a benchmark in my career. It's going to help my [curriculum] vitae. My prices have gone up. But I'm not going to let it change me. I'm just going to forge ahead in doing what I do, and not all the sudden start making work for the smart European crowd, or for the money. I can't change the system, but the system won't change me.
Belmore: I don't know if I've made any giant steps for aboriginal artists. But at least I can say, "Been there. Done that."
Luna: I think there are a lot of great native artists that people need to see. And it's unfortunate that there aren't more venues for them. Being an outsider, it takes longer for people to put the difference aside and just look at [your work] as art. But [Vancouver native artist] Brian Jungen is going to be having a solo show at the New Museum [in New York], and I don't think they're billing it as a "native" show.
I think there's progress. Is it a little slow? Yeah, it's a little slow. But at least it's progress -- at least we're staggering forward.
To see more work by Belmore and Luna, visit www.washingtonpost.com/museums.