The Rituals of Roberto Sifuentes
If Jeff Koons’ success is symptomatic of slack-jawed consumers eager to gobble up shiny, uncomplicated objects, Roberto Sifuentes is the anti-Koons. He doesn’t cultivate a celebrity to hide behind. He is inviting, rather than selling. He is not cynical or tongue-in-cheek; he is, rather, open and engaging. His performances are earnest, gruesome, unsettling, sad. He covers his body in blood, roaches, leeches and barbed wire, but when we met, he had a fresh haircut and a pressed shirt.
I invited Sifuentes to poke around the Museum of Contemporary Art on the last day of the Jeff Koons show. He agreed, but warned me that he can’t bear to dawdle in museums unless held prisoner by an audio tour. Inside the museum, he teased the receptionist and asked her where the Jeff Koons show was. She pointed over her shoulder and didn’t laugh. He was amused that she wasn’t amused. Upstairs, Sifuentes peeked behind the curtain of a video art installation, sat down for a minute, and hopped back up. Downstairs, he tore through the Jeff Koons factory showroom, though not dismissively. He acknowledged what was funny, and sized up the Calphalon pots and pans that dangled like a mobile from an uninflatable-inflatable dolphin. He would like to hang that rack, he said, sans dolphin, in his new apartment. He zipped through all three floors of the MCA in under 90 minutes, including time spent in the bookstore.
Sifuentes is a California-bred Mexican who recently moved to Chicago from Los Angeles to teach in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s performance department. Do not be fooled: what could be a sort of settling-down isn’t. He still travels most weekends, as a member of La Pocha Nostra, the international performance group he co-founded in 1993 with Guillermo Gómez-Peña. The global art organization aims to break down the borders between art and politics, audience and spectator, art practice and theory. They collaborate across borders, race, gender and generations as an act of “citizen diplomacy,” creating a network of rebel artists. Each participating artist is considered an artist of color, whether French-Algerian, British-Pakistani, or Australian Aboriginal, each an outsider inviting the insiders out.
Invitation seems to be at the core of Sifuentes. He is warm and affable, but certainly more intense and engaged than your typical nice guy. He is serious and drawn to ritual, called–as a priest might be–to challenge the Western world’s cross-cultural fears and desires. In his performances, he is inviting and ritualistic in another way.
In Temple of Confessions, one of Sifuentes’ most-discussed performances with La Pocha Nostra, he is a “holy gangmember,” a Mexican sleaze ball ripped from a prime-time crime show. Sifuentes sits on a throne, stuffed in a plexi-glass box full of hissing roaches, drug paraphinalia, guns, blood, spray-paint cans, and an angry iguana. In front of the diorama he inhabits, there is a genuflection kneeler, and a microphone for participants to vocalize their desires and fears related to the Mexican identity. Sifuentes is able to challenge his audience’s beliefs, and extract the innermost desires and fears out of his audience, in a way that so many museums, hindered by a fear of alienating donors and the public, aim for and fail.
Sifuentes receives confessions that reveal a continual fetishisation of the “other.” Some are blatantly racist, some violent, others descriptive sexual fantasies about one of the artists. One viewer confessed that he or she wanted “To fall in love with a Mexican and be mistreated.” Another says, “I want to bash your little head in.” Another confession reveals, “I desire more bikini-sweet women on the pages of Low-Rider magazine & Charo’s jiggily body & Rose Perez’s lips around my penis & my semen squirting into her mouth…” Most reveal a misunderstanding and glorification or degradation of the Mexican identity– “I desire this trash [the exhibit] be destroyed. The drugs, guns, witchcraft stuff and liquor make me think so highly of Hispanics.” But some are grateful—“I desire for all of us to know & love one another. Thank you.”
Every part of Sifuentes’ life is undertaken with careful consideration. He slept on the floor of his apartment for two months before he found the perfect bed, and, at lunch, before our trip to the MCA, I watched him eat his poached eggs discriminately with one piece of toast. He is part of an extreme swimming group, and he recently completed an Iron Man triathalon in just over 12 hours. In his performances, his body is not his own. Though his eyes capture the fullness of rage and a spectrum of sadness while performing, in person he is as functional and normal as anyone else, except that he is a vault for the collective fear and fetishization of the Mexican identity.
Like museum pieces, performance artists often unwittingly find themselves stuck in a vitrine, out of the public’s reach, but Sifuentes invites chaos, angry iguanas, animals, insects, and people to interact with his body inside and outside the vitrine. As a group, La Pocha Nostra has been terrorized by skinheads and a certain segment of the population who come out to “see the freaks.” Sifuentes puts himself in a vulnerable position, stuck in a clear box for 8 hours a day displayed in a gallery, and it is nerve-wracking to watch. His role in Mapa/Corpo is even more brave and affecting. He reaches out to audience members, offers his hand and invites them to write on his body as he lies on an examination table, his legs and arms covered in blood. A stream of other scribblers follow.
Looking into his eyes, one viewer says, was like looking into the eyes of Christ.