On Saturday, performance artist and celebrated identity politician James Luna descended upon the Blanton Center with a maroon polyester lounge jacket and a medicine bag. He dangled the medicine bag in front of his microphone, facing the audience.
Luna is Pooyukitchum, one of the indigenous peoples of California. He lives on the La Jolla reservation north of San Diego. He cusses a lot.
He is best known for The Artifact Piece, an installation presented at the San Diego Museum of Man. Luna had visited the museum, he told us, and seen all the typical sculpture-garden scenes of indigenous children playing ball; stern braves with arms crossed, frowning proudly; women weaving baskets or gathering wood.
Inspired by this narrow depiction of American native people, Luna installed a series of three cabinets. In the first, he presented cultural artifacts of himself: college memorabilia, record albums, and personal documents like his divorce papers and rap sheet. The second cabinet contained ceremonial objects, a rattle and medicine bag, some eagle feathers.
In the third cabinet, Luna presented an Indian. He himself, shirtless, lying in state on a bed of sand with little folded cards indicating the location and origin of his scars. He went into a trance state, he told us, during the hours and hours of lying there.
As a participant in the installation, Luna could hear the interested murmurs of patrons as they glanced over his first two cabinets and then, nearly without fail, a gasp as they were arrested by the case containing the live man.
"It fucked up their day!" Luna told us. "They were there to see dead Indians."
Luna also explored the modern vitality of New Zealand's indigenous Maori culture for the One Day Sculpture project in 2009. Working on the floor surface of a performance stage with a camera suspended above, Luna constructed a spiral pattern out of items indigenous to New Zealand and the Americas (although he mentioned that the corn and potatoes grown in New Zealand were obtained by ancient trade, which may raise a question about how long ago something has to have arrived in a place to be considered indigenous, but this was glossed over in the talk and is perhaps ultimately of little consequence).
The spiral pattern itself, Luna explained, is also co-indigenous between Maori and American cultures. If you look, he said, if you're aware, you see these everywhere. Swirls are everywhere.
"When I was done," Luna said, "The audience was invited to help themselves." In this line, Luna brought much of the spirit of his work to sum. James Luna's installations tend to encourage, to incite and to surprise, but never involve themselves in the didactic muck of telling anyone how to feel. There are messages in Luna's work, ones that can help us and the world at large grow more strongly together, but we have to help ourselves.