Paul Clay, How to Immigrate to the United States of America
by Daniel J Glendening
Paul Clay’s exhibition at Recess, “How to Immigrate to the United States of America,” is made up of three digitally composited, high-sheen and high production value video works, circling around themes of ethnic and cultural identity, immigration, and human rights. At least, ostensibly.
In the first floor lobby of the Recess complex is “Paul Clay on Lopez Tonight.” Clay has digitally inserted himself into a segment of the talk show “Lopez Tonight,” casting himself in the role of Latin pop-star Enrique Iglesias. The piece is a brief segment, looped, in which Lopez and Clay discuss fashion trends among Latina women.
Upstairs, the main gallery is split in two by a temporary wall, creating two viewing rooms, each housing another of Clay’s works. One of these, “24/7 Waterfall,” is a mock newscast narrating the story of Felipe Salazar, a fictional immigrant who has moved from Mexico to the United States looking for opportunity. In his time here, the character Salazar has worked as an agricultural laborer, has run a (since-closed) restaurant, and has now taken up offering his services as a human waterfall. Clay has cast himself, again, in the role of the narrative’s protagonist, Salazar. The video boasts high-end post-production, with the contemporary news-cast’s graphic overlays and spinning logos, and features several scenes of Clay, as Salazar, toting his waterfall: a neon “OPEN” sign around his neck and a showering cascade of water pouring out of his chest and pooling at his feet. He walks towards the camera in stoic measured steps, water pooling around him, through the aisle of a grocery store and across a parking lot. He stands, water flowing, atop some granite boulders in tree-dappled light, and looks around.
The second piece in the main gallery is “How to Immigrate to the United States of America Via International Arrivals at SFO.” Here, Clay adopts the role of narrator/spokesman in a corporate instructional video detailing the proper means of immigrating to the United States, boarding a plane in Mexico City to San Francisco, and how to pass through customs without attracting undue attention. As in “24/7 Waterfall,” the work adopts the aesthetic of its satirized form, incorporating computer-simulated visualizations of the airplane interior and airport.
One gets a sense here that Clay has, if not an agenda, then definitely a stance. The work starts to point towards political discussion around immigration law and immigration reform, and the status of those members of US society who willingly contribute to a system that, often, demonizes them, in hopes that eventually things will get better. The work Clay presents in “How to Immigrate to the United States of America” is satirical in tone, and seems to be attempting, at least, to point towards a critique of the flawed immigration policy currently in place in the US—the satire, though, falls flat.
Clay identifies as a “Canadian-Irish American,” according to his website bio, albeit one who spent his preschool and kindergarten years in Costa Rica, and several months in Mexico and Barcelona in High School and College. He “dreams of one day being a Latin Pop Star.” However, despite whatever intentions drive the work, and despite the extent to which Clay has been exposed to the culture of Latin America, the artist is working from a position of privilege. The three videos on view are, at best, problematic. Clay has cast himself as a person of a cultural heritage not his own, digitally inserting himself into a dialogue here removed from context, and what we see is a white man speaking on behalf of the exoticized other.
Here, I’m going to shift gears a little bit: while I am always only offering my personal read of a work I write about here, and make no claims to speak for any other party in my interpretation, this exhibition may draw out some more personal, more political, lines of investigation. However blurred and self-made our identities might be in the twenty-first century United States, in Portland, I also speak from a position of privilege: I am a citizen of the United States; I am a Caucasian male; I did not grow up wealthy, but I definitely did not grow up in poverty. I was raised in Northern California; at least one of my parents has a college degree.
So, how do I unpack a series of works in which a Caucasian man casts himself as a range of Hispanic or Latino characters, in a series of moderately high-production videos, in order to talk about immigration? Something about the premise makes me uneasy, and I don’t buy the explanation that that uneasiness stems from my own set of prejudices or expectations of identity. It comes, I think, from an examination—or, at least, a consideration—of power structures: economic, social, political, cultural. Somehow, a corporate presentation video outlining a MEX to SFO airplane trip, however satirical, fails to capture the nuances or tragedy of the reality of US-Mexico immigrant relations; according to statistics compiled by the Arizona Human Remains Project, 2,381 bodies have been found in the Arizona desert since the year 2000, primarily the remains of people attempting to enter the US illegally from Mexico.
A faux news-cast following a fictional migrant worker’s success as a human waterfall does little to speak towards the reality of the migrant worker’s experience which, according to reports, is often inhumane—agriculture laborers often work long hours for very little pay, with poor and crowded housing and exposure to unhealthy or even toxic conditions.
Perhaps it was the artist’s intent, through his work, to stir just these concerns.
It’s the role of satire to offer up a critique through the guise of humor, however biting. The work, to that end, doesn’t push far enough. Clay’s work doesn’t reach a point of self-reflectivity that empowers the artist, as satirist, to point out the hidden or suppressed flaws in not only their audience, but also in themselves. The artist is hidden behind a digitally produced facade—he’s there, but he’s not there—and how can I, as a viewer, believe this cold, flattened entity?
To take on the guise of another—to imagine the world through the eyes of one of another culture, ethnicity, gender, political-stance, upbringing—this is the challenge of character building. People do it all the time, in novels, film, theater, art, the list goes on. For such a project to succeed, the audience needs more than a shell—more than a name, more than an accent, more than a brief line of dialogue. The audience needs to believe in the totality of the character, in the breath of their lungs and the electricity of their mind, in the memories, successes, and failures of the character. The audience needs to believe, at least temporarily, that the character is real. Clay’s characters don’t feel real—there are too many holes, not enough history—they serve a function and little more. I can’t see the weight of the life that could be Salazar’s life, and I’m not convinced Clay can, either.
In order to be believed as someone else, you’ve got to become someone else.