By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION-When audiences come to see renowned conceptual artist James Luna's work, some laugh and some are offended.
Luna, 39, a Luiseno Indian from the La Jolla Indian Reservation near San Diego, said he doesn't mind.
"I know I do some things that step on some toes, but that's what I do," Luna told a group of students and community members who gathered at Stone Child College on Thursday afternoon to hear him lecture. He gave an example of a piece called the "Hi Tech Sweat Lodge" he made with a nylon tent in front of a microwave oven, and the "High Tech Peace Pipe," which features a ceremonial pipe made out of iron pipe, sitting on the cradle of a red telephone.
"What we laugh at can be very perverse," he said. "That's part of our way of healing and our oral tradition."
Luna uses installations - modern art exhibits - performance and lectures to talk about issues like the way Indians imagine themselves and the expectations people have of them and their art. To do that he uses pieces of the everyday from cans of Spam to crutches.
On Thursday, Luna showed some of his major works on slide and video and spoke to the audience about them. This afternoon he was expected to conduct a discussion about Thursday's presentation and visit a class at the college before returning to his job as a counselor at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif.
His work has been exhibited across the country and beyond, in spaces like the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
But the audiences Luna enjoys most, he said, are the ones like he had Thursday afternoon at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
Luna spoke about one of his most famous installations, "The Artifact Piece," in which he gathered things from his own life - BIA papers, divorce records, his favorite music, books and a Willie Mays plastic doll. To these "artifacts" Luna added himself: For six hours he laid with his eyes closed on a bed of sand in the center of the room wearing a breechcloth. People who visited the installation could read cards that explained where the various scars on his body came from.
"They would stand there and look at me and read those cards," Luna said, describing people's disbelief that he was alive and their reactions to imperfections like toe fungus. "I had succeeded, because all the people who came to that museum to look at our past had looked at our present and couldn't deal with it."
Luna said the exhibit was in part a comment on the way Indian people are made into a "figment of people's past," and then used to represent people's cars, sports teams and brands of malt liquor.
He showed a slide of an installment titled "Tribal Identity" that included before and after pictures of students who attended boarding schools intended to "civilize" American Indians. "Let's look at the bigger picture," Luna said. "Why do some of our nations not speak our language anymore? Why does our relationship with education have to be so filled with strife? Why are we criticized by our people when we're successful?"
In an installment called "Take a Picture with a Real Indian," Luna put up life-size cardboard cutouts of Indians in various costumes, from traditional headdress to street clothes, and invited people to have their pictures taken with the Indian of their choice with a Polaroid camera.
"I change people's focus of what an Indian is supposed to look like," Luna said, explaining a performance in which he donned traditional warrior regalia and rode an exercise bike in front of a large video screen showing footage of motorcycle riders going down a highway. He said he intended the piece to get people to think about the mixed ideas people have of what it is to be tribal, from being "tough" to being a failure or in trouble.
Today's tribal stories "don't have to be from the past," he said. "They don't have to be about feathers. There's stories going on right now."
"I'm not saying the past isn't important," Luna said in an interview after the lecture. "You just can't go back. Just because you put on a headband or some jewelry, it doesn't make you Mr. Indian."
Luna said his more recent work has mellowed some.
"The strategy has changed. It's not about confrontation," he said. "The strategy is to talk about the similarities (between people) and then the differences."
"I thought it was pretty interesting," said student Neil Montano, 30, after Luna's lecture. "It took the native culture and put it more in a contemporary point of view.
"I thought it was pretty humorous, some of the stuff, like the can of Spam," Montano said. "That's something I can relate to."