by Roberta Fallon
Most people think of airports as people-moving hubs where impersonal bureaucracies keep schedules and order. But for Philippine-born Puerto Rican artist Charles Juhász-Alvarado, the San Juan airport is also a cultural crossroads where island customs run up against U.S. Customs and create a sense of cultural inferiority in island citizens.
In his Fabric Workshop and Museum installation "Jardín de Frutos Prohibidos/ZONA FRANCA" ("The Garden of the Forbidden Fruit/DUTY FREE"), Juhász-Alvarado successfully conveys the flavor of traveling through the San Juan airport and having your mangos--and your cultural identity--confiscated.
"Jardín" 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 exhibit's opening, Juhász-Alvarado himself was dressed as a Customs agent.) A 64-minute soundtrack made by Juhász-Alvarado and a Puerto Rican composers' collective called Oruga 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 necklaces and 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 find them familiar. ("Jardín" was Puerto Rico's representative at the 2002 São Paulo Biennial.)
There's an opulence and tropical excess to the installation, seen especially in the tabletop 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, Juhász-Alvarado suggests that mangos from the island will do less harm to the U.S. than the vast array of changes the U.S. has made to the tropical nation.
The artist says he hopes to effect a real change in the landscape around the San Juan airport. His proposal to create undulating berms of garden between the cloverleaf of airport access roads is currently under review by airport authorities. Like the puffy pillows of "Jardín," the flat airport landscape would be much improved by a little undulating garden. >>
"Jardín de Frutos Prohibidos/ZONA FRANCA" ("The Garden of the Forbidden Fruit/DUTY FREE"), through Aug. 16. The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1315 Cherry St., fifth floor. 215.568.1111. www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org