James Luna is known for pushing boundaries in his installations, where he engages audiences by making himself part of a tableau
You've been called "one of the most dangerous Indians alive." What are you trying to say?
Well, at times the message can be potent. One of my subjects is with ethnic identity—how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. Not everybody can talk about that, so I guess that makes me a dangerous character.
Why do you make yourself the subject of your art?
Because I know myself better than I know anything else. How do you talk about things like intercultural identity. Do you talk about it in third person? If you sacrifice yourself, so to speak, then it becomes much more dynamic. I like to think that in my work I'm talking about something I know because I've lived it, as opposed to something that I read about.
I was looking at work that I hadn't been involved with. There was a gap there that I filled rather quickly when I looked around at myself, my family, my tribe, my community and my reservation. It was all there, I didn't have to go anywhere for subject matter. I've been at this 30 years and I have probably another—I don't know how many years—to be done because it's there, it just needs to be spoken to. That's a message for younger artists.
Could you give an example of one of your pieces and how it deals with ethnic identity and perception?
I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one—sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn't talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people.
In "The Artifact Piece" I became the Indian and lied in state as an exhibit along with my personal objects. That hit a nerve and spoke loud both in Indian country, the art world and the frontier of anthropology.
The installation took objects that were representational of a modern Indian, which happened to be me, collecting my memorabilia such as my degree, my divorce papers, photos, record albums, cassettes, college mementos. It told a story about a man who was in college in the 60s, but this man happened to be native, and that was the twist on it.
What role does the audience play?
What I like about installations is that the audience participates. They walk around, they look, they become part of it. As the artist you know how you can make them stop, you know when you can make them go to this corner because that's how you lay it out.
I involve the audience. People give you control of their imagination. I can have them outraged one moment and crying the next. That's the power the audience gives you. It's knowing that and knowing how to use it effectively.
I guess the statement is that I'm not up here to entertain, though I can be damn entertaining. I'm here to teach you.
In one piece you ask the audience to take a picture with you, a "real live Indian." The reaction is just as much a part of the artwork as what you're doing.
That was one of the more ultimate audience participation pieces that I scripted. I was unaware of the impact it would have. That piece could have been a disaster if nobody wanted to be involved or they wanted to get up and sing and dance. But what it created was a conversation amongst the people in the room as to whether they should or not—what was going on in the present when you're asked to take a picture with a real Indian. What does that mean?
It also was leading—There was an Indian in a breechcloth with everybody going "Oh wow, there's an Indian." Then I came out in my street clothes and they said "Oh, there's a guy." But when I came out in my regalia, I knew that it would get that response from the audience. Everybody went for it. There was a big ooh and aah when I stepped up on that pedestal with my war dance outfit. They forgot about all the rest and really lined up to have their picture taken. This is the memento that they really wanted. Even people that were art savvy fell for it.
What are some of the other surprising reactions you've gotten?
Well, shock and dismay, sadness, empathy, association. I changed that "Take a picture with a real Indian" at the last moment during one performance. I took down my headband and it covered my face. I said "Take a picture with a real Middle Easterner." Everybody's mouth dropped. It wasn't so fun anymore. I was just doing something spontaneous because it was something timely on my mind. It really wasn't that far from what I was saying, but for some people it was. It certainly reminded them that this is current news. There are definitely some racial things going on in our society today.
Tell me about your latest work, "Emendatio" (Latin for emendation or correction), which pays tribute to the 19th—century Native American Pablo Tac?
Tac took the perceptions of our culture from being looked at as spear chuckers to linguists. How many people knew that we had this person who trained in the ministry of the Catholic Church in Rome, who started to devise our own alphabet and stories from an Indian point of view? Today we're looking to recapture our language. That's a key to any culture and it will make us stronger. That's one of the first things that we were denied, was our language and our religion.
It's something that I wish other people knew that maybe would change people's attitudes about us. For our people he's a really important figure. Here it was over 100 years ago someone trying to learn English. Pablo Tac was absorbing this language because he could see the future for our people, which didn't look good. One way to make the culture survive a little is to write it down.