Warning: This piece contains nudity and may not be appropriate for work.
We heard her before we saw her. The sound of Oakland-based performance artist Xandra Ibarra’s laughter echoed from the other side of the Broad Museum while I roamed around with a friend. At first, I wondered: what could be making someone laugh in here? That Jeff Koons sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles isn’t that funny.
There’s something jarring about loud, boisterous laughter in a museum, a place that seems to demand whispers and hushed tones. Following the sounds, we found Ibarra walking around in tall yellow heels, nude except for a tan breast plate complete with nipples, carrying a long nylon sack filled with paradigmatic “white lady accoutrements,” furs, blond wigs, pearls, ballet shoes and fake breasts. Her voice oscillated between high-pitched giggles and orgasmic whimpers as she made a couple loops around the museum’s second floor, the audience entranced. Large-scale artworks by the likes of Koons, Christopher Wool and El Anatsui were rendered stagnant and dead when juxtaposed with Ibarra’s lively presence, fleshy body and hysterical laughter.
The piece, titled “Nude Laughing,” is drawn from John Currin’s 1998 painting “Laughing Nude,” which features a nude white woman with her face caught in the middle of maniacal laughter, straddling the line between the erotic and the grotesque. However, by performing the act of laughter in real life and in her own body, Ibarra adds another dimension to the laughing nude.
“I want to capture what I can of these white nudes in my brown figure and skin and enact a union between sound and gesture that can’t be captured within a painting,” Ibarra explained in an email to The Huffington Post. “I want to bring these nudes to life in the ‘wrong’ body and enhance the grotesque, tactile and expressive dimensions of how I imagine white womanhood.”
According to the artist, whiteness and white womanhood are intimately tied to the complexities, impossibilities and possibilities of racialized womanhood. Rather than performing white womanhood as an expression of aspiration, Ibarra is doing so to communicate the difficulty of and pressure to relate to white womanhood.
After her final lap, Ibarra laid down in the middle of the floor, kicked off her heels and pulled the nylon cocoon over her head and body. She silently writhed around in slow, fluid motions -- a stark contrast to her noisy jaunt around the museum.
Over the past few years, the artist’s work has explored cockroaches’ ecdysis, the molting process of invertebrates, in order to literally and figuratively wear the abject status of being Latina, according to Ibarra. Through her performances and photographic series surrounding molting, she explained that she has navigated around fixed images and exploitive expectations through the cucaracha -- fears of overpopulation, endurance and infestation.
“During ecdysis, the insect sheds old skin only to reappear exactly the same ... Like the cockroach, I remain the same -- a spic -- even after shedding hyperracialized costume as skin and skin as hyperracialized costume,” Ibarra said. “The viewer and the world does not allow for this transformation ... There is no transformation, just bodily presence as a racial knot.”
In addition to playing with this metaphor, the artist uses nudity to join and embody a centuries-long conversation in art history surrounding the nude. Instead of being the subject (typically male) attempting to represent an objectified body (typically female), she herself is both the creator and the creation.
“The nudity in this performance and in many of my works is essential and necessary because of the fleshy materiality that my ‘spic’ skin conveys. I think racialized bodies give way to an endless array of interpretations and significations depending on their context, history, and specificity,” Ibarra noted. “Is the nude brown body in a museum? A bus station? A desert? A painting? A sex trafficking ad? What’s surrounding it? How is it positioned? I am interested in the endless significations of the nude body in various contexts.”
At the end of “Nude Laughing,” Ibarra was no longer laughing and was even more exposed than before, having removed her breastplate and shoes. She walked down the Broad’s birth canal-like staircase and disappeared through the lobby. We were left -- an audience full of different shades of brown, black and white, reminded of our own bodies and the invisible complexities that hang between them.