Famed performance artist pushes boundaries

Famed performance artist pushes boundaries

Date posted: 2006-07-06 14:42:00

By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript
North Adams Transcript

Wednesday, April 19
After developing an international reputation for herself in San Francisco, performance artist Nao Bustamante is finally ready to unleash her unpredictable performing side in the local area with her new show "Let Me."

Bustamante arrived four years ago to function as an assistant professor of new media and live art at Rensselaer (N.Y.) Polytechnic Institute, but has not performed in the area. Last year, she had two performances in New York City and hopes to bring her show to Massachusetts. Bustamante says "Let Me" is inspired by her years in the Northeast, utilizing a mish-mash of styles and ideas such as karaoke, fairy tales, heroism, the downfall of the Vikings, the Ice Age, climate control, and war.

"I'm taking a '70s aesthetic and mashing it with a Russian fairy tales aesthetic," said Bustamante. "I know I sound a little bit confused, but it's because it's a kind of delicious stew of ideas and I am trying to create their point. That's pretty much the way that I have worked all along. Even the work that have very specific messages have been the outgrowth of the absorption of the cultural surroundings and a reformatted, regurgitated version of what I've been absorbing."

Bustamante's earlier work, walked the same zig-zaggy line, offering the same level of complication challenging, audiences to derive any single, simplistic message from them.

In her performance "America the Beautiful," Bustamante took on the role of a sex kitten parody, with a flashy showgirl suit, a blonde Farrah Fawcett wig, and a host of unrehearsed ladder tricks, prompting Bustamante to describe the character as "a circus performer without any skill."

"The more the audience the gives me, the more it becomes not enough," said Bustamante. "It's a really strong relationship of playing with the Third World and theatrics and performing and this idea of beauty being pushed to the level of grotesque, so the character becomes erotic and grotesque at the same time. She passes through the ideals of beauty and keeps pushing."

As the performer becomes a metaphor for the over bloated beauty of the United States, the piece takes the form of a tragicomedy.

"There's a lot of physical comedy involved," said Bustamante, "but it's sort of one of these characters that you feel sorry that you laughed at. It engages the audience in a way that draws them into the physical comedy and the laughter and then immediately takes on a tragic tone."

One of Bustamante's most audacious performances, "Indigurrito," featured the performer in exotic bikini and headdress, with a burrito strapped to her pelvis, pleading to white male audience members to come up on stage and take a bite in order to relieve themselves of 500 years of guilt. The performance began as a quip to her friend about a "strap-on burrito."

By the time it made its way onto stage, Bustamante had fashioned it as a response to the idea in the 1990s that some art funding was specifically designed for people of color to react to the historic idea of 500 years since discovery.

"I've never been able to buckle down and make work that is politically correct or representative of a group of people," said Bustamante. "I'm not a good spokesperson at all. This work grew out the rebellion of the idea of wanting to make that kind of work. Of course, the work was vastly political and exactly about the issues that were on the table at this time. It was born out of this refusal to line up and be counted."

Bustamante began by asking white men to come on stage, then people with an inner white man, then people who were hungry, then people who knew a hungry white man. The participants lined up and each took a bite from her strategically-placed burrito. Bustamante was doing the unthinkable, skewering some sacred forms within the very tradition she was working in — performance art and the liberal tendency to political correctness.

Bustamante reached her largest audience — and perhaps her greatest level of subversion — with her character Rosa, an exhibitionist, who she appeared as on the "Joan Rivers Show" in 1992. The performance artist got the opportunity to be on the show when a friend of hers, an actual exhibitionist, was unable to appear and referred the producers to Bustamante.

"I told them that I was an exhibitionist," said Bustamante, "but I told them that I had an alter ego that was an exhibitionist. What they want on this type of television is entertaining stories and that's what I gave them, what they wanted."

The goal was to get a free trip to New York and introduce a few new words to the general television viewer and Bustamante succeeded on both accounts. Joan Rivers, as it happened, rose to the occasion and indulged in a game of talk show cat and mouse as she tried to deflect everything Bustamante could dish out.

"Joan Rivers was such a trooper," said Bustamante. "She was amazing in that she could roll with anything, but I would say these crazy stories about this multi-gendered, ambisexual person and she would latch onto the idea of 'Oh! An aquarium! That's interesting!'"

Bustamante also figured out a lot about performance and improv from that appearance — especially in regard to taking something scripted and commandeering it to see where it goes — as well as the nature of titillation. She realized that television takes it to a certain level in order to bring its audience there and then holds back at the last minute. In many ways Bustamante's aesthetic is to keep going pass that safe boundary.

In a career defined by grotesque characterizations and outrageous stunts, it's apparent that Bustamante is not her characters, but merely their vessel.

"I think of a lot of my work as an exposé format as opposed to a modeling format," said Bustamante. "I'm not saying to anybody 'This is the way we should all behave,' I'm exposing a kind of behavior that's present, a compressing of a type of a behavior."

Nao Bustamante will premiere her show, "Let Me," to day, April 19, at 7 p.m., in West Hall Auditorium on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Admission is free. There will be a reception for the artist immediately after the performance. For more information, call (518) 276-4829.