“My America is a continent (not a country) which is not described by the outlines on any of the standard maps.” —Gómez-Peña
Standard maps, those which position national identity, cultural allegiance and the laws of wealth and poverty, are precisely what come under scrutiny in the CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS, a collaborative book project of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya and Felicia Rice. Instead of fixed borders that appear in printed ink, it is the thin, imaginary lines stretched taut against unequal relations of power between North and South that chart the longitude and latitude of this unique project. The CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS exists between—rather than within—traditional domains of artistic practice; unraveling the formal outlines and delimiting vocabularies that separate visual images from spoken-word performance, book arts and typography. A rich unfolding of colonial conquest, cultural genocide and linguistic admixtures that have formed the Americas “from Columbus to the Border Patrol,” the CODEX offers a critical analysis of a border politics through a density of historical references, icons of popular culture and masterful typographic compositions that orchestrate the many voices in the text.
Inspired by the pre-Hispanic codices of Central America, the book is printed on thick, deeply embossed Amatl paper and expands in accordion folds to thirty-one feet (following the form of the original codices that sometimes exceeded this length), creating a monumental textual space for the reader to inhabit. When the pages are fully extended the work becomes sculptural, a multilateral mural within the frame of book ends.
The artists also choose to honor the tradition of the codices that read from right to left by having the book open on the left-hand side, while at the same time they subvert this traditional form, as each individual panel of the text reads from left to right. Caught between two worlds, between familiar and unfamiliar visual and corporeal modes, the viewer begins to experience the dissonance of bi-cultural literacy as a concrete, material practice of reading in two paradigms. Registered in this ghostly manner, the problem of textual legibility is more than a question of words, it is a question of distinct systems of signs coming into conflict, or merging in a conflation. This is the case regarding not only the overall structure of the book, but also the relations of text to image that fill its pages.
Thus, for all of its reference to a pre-Hispanic form, the CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS ought not to be thought of as a facsimile. Instead it is a reinterpretation of this original form through the contemporary concerns of Gómez-Peña, Chagoya and Rice who have created a structured narrative and layered iconographic system in order to examine in an imaginary and ideological cartography what the past has been and what the present is becoming. Canonizing tales of colonial greed and power with a visual and textual montage, the CODEX implicates such US popular culture figures as Superman, Mickey Mouse and Wonder Woman in a visual history of political oppression and exploitation. Action figures and cartoon icons stand in for the cultural imperialism perpetuated in the commercial as well as the political realms. A montage of contemporary text and pre-Hispanic drawings, European colonial representations of indigenous populations and nineteenth century political cartoons, civil rights movements and high-tech science fiction machines serves to link contemporary border politics and xenophobia with a much longer history of economic inequalities. It is from such details that the multiple voices in the text emerge as a chorussomeone has blood on his hands.
Indeed the primary visual trope that flows throughout the flawlessly printed text in black and scarlet is that of blood, from the red fingerprints that mark the pages to the drips and flows that stain the bodies of a slaughtered indigenous population, to the hands, fists and footprints of the cartoon super heroes, to the body of Christ (serving as an ambivalent, iconic trope of colonization and Catholic conversion on the one hand, and as an image of suffering and martyrdom on the other). Blood is even added to the pre-Hispanic images of indigenous populations in conflict, exaggerating the European images of violence that continue to plague contemporary interpretations of these early civilizations. Less concerned with historical accuracy than with a poetics of the imaginary, Gómez-Peña and Chagoya take an artist’s liberty with many sacred sign systems—even those of the academy and of the history of art itself. Their goal, however, is not iconoclasm in any traditional sense, nor is it a simplistic post-modern gesture. Rather, the work can be understood as a kaleidoscopic vision of those historical moments of violence that fall together into a repetitive and overlapping pattern to structure contemporary human relations.
As a work of contemporary art, the CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS is an unusual hybrid artifact. Rather than mimicking the latest 1990s technophilic, glossy, computer generated, synthetic look, the CODEX reaches back into the past, to create historical effects within a surprisingly seamless montage of heterochronic signs. The artists have offered their audience a new visual discourse that reveals, through an iconography of the past, a revised topography of the present.
Professor of Art History
University of California, Santa Cruz