Perez-Mendez: Upstairs/Downstairs at the Encantada

Roxana Perez-Mendez
The plan for the Hotel Encantada, from Roxana Perez-Mendez’s installation, Encantada, at the Painted Bride

This First Friday, we wandered and circled rather aimlessly for most of the time, but we were good and focused at the Painted Bride when we looked at Roxana Perez-Mendez’ Encantada, a tongue-in-cheek display of plans for the tallest hotel in Puerto Rico.

Perez-Mendez’s art has been about her own Puerto Rican identity right from the first work we saw by her at Temple Gallery a couple of years ago in Mixmaster Universe. We’ve seen her as the first Puerto Rican astronaut in space, painting her nails, reading women’s magazines and cleaning, and we’ve seen her tumbling through the atmosphere as her signal is picked up by a giant parabolic radio telescope (at least that’s what I remember it as, not knowing what a giant parabolic radio telescope really is). She remains center stage in this exhibit, incorporating numerous self-portraits in disguise.

Roxana Perez-Mendez
The spare upstairs hotel hallway is oppressive and tells the story of the workers behind the hotel magic

Upstairs, three door-shaped panels with nothing but peepholes in them (no knobs–no escape) make great use of what is normally a difficult space, the low ceiling this time successfully used to suggest a vacant, oppressive hotel hallway.

The upstairs of this exhibit is doubly funny because it’s not the domain of the upper classes, but rather the domain of the worker bees. It’s the place where the hotel staff (Perez-Mendez herself) labor to create a paradise for the rich, bringing room service, cleaning and answering a call. Each of these workers is behind a door peephole. The creepiest of them is the maid wielding the vacuum cleaner, because peepholes normally only look out, not into a room. That sense of surveillance permeates the lives of the workers and adds even more creepiness to the space.

As in Perez-Mendez’s Fleisher exhibit, this one has a few carefully considered objects scattered through what seems a convention-center’s worth of space. That sparseness works best in the upstairs space at the Bride. But most of the objects in the downstairs space are engrossing and pack a punch, including the architect’s models presented as a trade-show display.

The hotel itself is a tower fantasy of shower-curtain plastic topped with silver doilies and crowned with rotating little birds on armatures, a Space Needle for the futre. The lovable wiftiness factor is off the charts.

Roxana Perez-Mendez
the pool deck model, with sea-shell decorations and June Taylor-style synchronization in the pools and on the stage

The kitschy glitz of the table-top model for the pool and deck area–with its June Taylor synchronized swimmers and dancers (all clones of Perez-Mendez)–and the other trade-show details put the emphasis on the wealth of development and its power to create something false–and not necessarily something good. The downstairs show of corporate and financial power stands in stark contrast to the upstairs behind-the-scenes underpaid workers; the two parts of the enrich eachother. Meanwhile, a digital image of a promised paradise exploits the real paradise that the poor enjoyed before development and sociological change transformed it into a planned playground for the wealthy.

In the midst of our own casino and river development promises, this cautionary tale of Puerto Rico’s own development dreams strikes a familiar chord.

This is political art but it’s the good kind (see discussion here). It’s open ended and subtle, going in many more directions than just questioning who’s gaining a paradise and who’s losing a paradise as visions of development dazzle and create dreams of financial gain.

I want to mention that when we saw this show, we had a bunch of students with us, and their conversation about what they were seeing contributed in some ways to the way I took this show in. I’m glad they saw it, and I’m glad I saw it, and I’m also glad I saw it with them.

For more images, go to my First Friday Flickr set here.