Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Migrating Cultures with Sara Serratos

Still from Sara Serratos’ “Institutional Photography.” Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Here’s a question each of us should ask ourselves: what is my legacy likely to be? Lately, each generation or era gets assigned an identity — the Greatest, the Boomers, the Millennials — each of which might signify something. But what is the relation between a generational impact and a personal one? Sara Serratos, whose exhibition “Mystic Tongues and ears struggle with our structured brain” is now in the sunset gallery at Finch Lane, considers some candidates that few in her audience will want to identify with, but which are characteristic of this scrupulously honest artist’s self-apprehension. Someone who refers to both her original Mexican address and her current one in Salt Lake by the names of the Peoples those lands belonged to, and from whom they were stolen, has little ease or comfort to offer. And so, in her statement, she has this to say about the material goods that, in art and so by extension in her life, might now be identified with her. Only the addition of the adjective “temporary” expresses her hope that art can immunize our world from having this become our legacy:

In my artwork, my preferred material is the remnants of objects that trespass my door frame, such as plastic bags, packing materials, cardboard, bottles of personal hygiene products, beauty products, sounds, and songs. All these are becoming part of my temporary archive. … Those materials inform us of how our contemporary society is assembled: in a very individualistic perspective, surrounded in bubble paper, isolated but at the same time globalized and mechanized.

Sara Serratos’ “Godalupe” at Finch Lane Gallery. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Serratos doesn’t disclose when she made the move from Mexico to Utah, but the extent to which her response to immigration fills the work here suggests it was recently. Like so many of today’s artists, she declines to limit herself to a single medium, but like the best of them, she subordinates most of her techniques to the service of one, for which she may well have designated a genre: Video Performance. At one end of the gallery, a pathway made of astroturf and spiraling lengths of braided human hair, which might otherwise be called an Installation, instead serves the primary video performance by directing attention to it. “Godalupe” presents the image of Serratos dancing beneath draped and trailing vines that frame her figure. Dressed in the manner of modern dance — what is known to the theater as “rehearsal attire” — she has what may be serpents or wraiths — green auras, each with two pale red eyes — painted on the back of her hands, from which wisps descend onto her forearms.

“Godalupe” appears to be a mashup of cultural symbols, particularly mythical and religious, specifically creation stories. The title conjures up Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, an apparition of the Virgin, who appeared before a Mexican campesino in 1531, an event that served to unify indigenous and invasive Latino populations. Much of the imagery of the video may relate to the Garden of Eden, with such intercultural encounters chosen to reflect Serratos’s choice to trade one place for another, which she relates in her statement through observations and questions:

Being a total stranger, you don’t know anybody, and nobody knows you.
Your mother tongue is not the local language.
The color of your skin seems relevant to this society.
What about your homeland?

In addition to “Godalupe,” “Beauty Secrets” finds the artist poised behind a virtual wall of cosmetic packages, the contents of which she applies to herself. Reminiscent of a young person’s first attempts to use these ubiquitous and seemingly magical products, if nothing else it makes the point that regardless the goal, it’s all a matter of social construction, even, as she suggests at one point, engineering. A third video, this one titled “Institutional Photography,” contemplates something 15 Bytes has observed before, which is that the camera today has far more documentary uses, in ID, social connections, and other, more technical purposes, than the small number of artistic functions originally envisioned by its artist-inventors.

In one back corner of the gallery, a sampling of the artist’s interest in signage hangs on the wall. Comprising slogans and linguistic learning devices, its overall title, “American Dream Wall,” imagines a romantic teenager’s journal that captures the anticipation that might be felt by someone contemplating emigrating. The show’s overall title appears here, as do positive symbols, like “the Big Apple,” and some suggestions of the emotions she might struggle with, not least a couple of large panels covered with questions marks and exclamation points in both the commonplace and the more expressive, paired Spanish forms — in which both first appear upside-down.

Sara Serratos, “American Dream Wall,” Finch Lane Gallery. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

In the other corner, Serratos locates a tiny store, like the entrepreneurial efforts one sees everywhere in Mexico. Hers offers t-shirts with either of two designs, each available in “long leaves” and “short leaves.” One image, “Saint Modem,” depicts the title device surrounded by a nimbus similar to that which surrounds Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, along with candles and a vase of flowers. It could be said to combine the artist’s two cultures in one universally popular garment. The other, “Flying Bed,” presents a floral coverlet hovering over a stack of mattresses, with the motto, “Mi cuarto podría estar en cualquirer parte (del mundo)” … “My room could be anywhere (in the world).”

And since that includes Utah, why not here?

Mystic Tongues and ears struggle with our structured brain, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through June 9

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.