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Art review: Yoshua Okon at the Hammer

September 13, 2011 |  6:30 pm

Yoshua Okon 
Yoshua Okón, a video installation artist from Mexico City, stages partially scripted scenes in the unscripted world, using ordinary people whose own identities and histories are the true, underlying story. Equal parts absurd and provocative, his work thrives on incongruity, the convergence of artifice and reality, the intended and the unintentionally telling.

In “Octopus,” his new four-channel, 18-minute piece at the Hammer, Okón gathers day laborers, former fighters on both sides of Guatemala's civil war, and has them act out military maneuvers in the parking lot of an L.A.-area Home Depot. Half of the men are in black T-shirts and half in white, they scoot on their bellies across the asphalt aisles, hide behind hedges and aim their pointed fingers like guns at the presumed enemies in their midst. Cars roll by and shoppers pass with barely a blink.

Fragments from the semi-staged event are projected on all four gallery walls, one at a time, and simultaneously. The splintered presentation helps only minimally to enliven Okón’s slight, disconcerting riff on a deeply complicated historical phenomenon. Our government supported the coup that led to the military dictatorship that resulted in decades of oppression and violence in Guatemala, including the genocide of thousands of indigenous Mayans. Now these survivors of that trauma are here, disenfranchised yet again. Okón’s work makes smart sport of their invisibility but otherwise proves a weak vehicle for such a heavy conceptual load.

--Leah Ollman

Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 443-7000, through Nov. 6. Closed Mondays.

Image: A still from Yoshua Okón's "Octopus." Credit: From Kaufmann Repetto, Milan.