Most people think of airports as people-moving hubs where impersonal bureaucracies keep schedules and order. But for the Philippine-born, Puerto Rican artist Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, the San Juan airport is also a cultural crossroads where island customs run up against U.S. Customs, a collision that creates a sense of cultural inferiority in island citizens (who are also U.S. citizens).
In his Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) installation, Jardin de Frutos Prohibidos/ZONA FRANCA (The Garden of the Forbidden Fruit/DUTY FREE), Juhasz-Alvarado (Yale MFA, 1994) successfully conveys the fruity flavor of traveling through the San Juan airport and having your mangos -- and your cultural identity -- confiscated.
"Jardin" is an airport facsimile complete with faux metal detector, airplane replicas, benches, a large aerial photograph of the airport, a faux duty-free shop and a mannequin dressed like a U.S. customs agent. (At the opening, Juhasz-Alvarado also dressed as a customs agent.) A 64-minute soundtrack made by the artist and "Oruga," a Puerto Rican composers' collective, provides ambient sound, from bird calls and music to airport noise.
Large, official-looking billboards illustrate funny, staged scenarios in which the artist's friends and family pose, arguing their way onto airplanes with briefcases full of mangoes, necklaces or hats made of peppers. The scenarios are fictitious, says the artist -- but real enough to trigger a knowing laugh from Puerto Rican or Brazilian viewers who've seen similar. (Jardin was Puerto Rico's representative at the 2002 Sao Paolo Biennial.)
There's an opulence and tropical excess to the installation, seen especially in the table-top, aerial photograph adorned with puffy, fringed pillows (made at the FWM). The pillows, like unruly, tropical extrusions, just won't lie flat. "I wanted this feeling of luxury and pleasure," the artist said while installing the work. "This is an extravagance. It's about beauty."
It's also about the island identity and its colonial affiliations with Spain and, since 1898, with the United States. "Puerto Rico's identity is always in flux and negotiation," the artist said, referring to the mix of indigenous people and the Spanish and American influences. "We're always negotiating. You have to construct, defend and let go."
That said, this is not a piece about Puerto Rican independence. But, through gently mocking a heavy-handed system imposed from the outside, Juhasz-Alvarado suggests that mangoes from the island will do less harm to the U.S. than the vast array of changes made to Puerto Rico by the U.S. have done to the tropical land.
Speaking of change, the artist says he hopes to effect a real change in the landscape around the San Juan airport. His proposal to create gardens between the cloverleaf of airport access roads is currently under review by airport authorities. Like Jardin's puffy pillows, the flat airport landscape would be much improved by a little undulating garden.
"Jardin de Frutos Prohibidos/ZONA FRANCA," July 12-Aug. 16, 2002, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1315 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.