Hammer Projects: Yoshua Okón

Mexican artist Yoshua Okón’s videos blur the lines between documentary, reality, and fiction. He collaborates closely with his actors (often amateurs who are also the subjects of the work) to create sociological examinations that ask viewers to contemplate uncomfortable situations and circumstances. He works with marginalized groups such as pit-bull owners, Nazi-war memorabilia collectors, and Venice Beach homeless people, in order to reflect back onto mainstream culture. For this show, Okón debuts a new two-channel video installation which was produced during his residency at the Hammer. The work, shot on location at a Los Angeles Home Depot store, explores the relationships amongst Guatemalan day laborers who at home fought on opposite sides, yet here in the U.S. are working together in their efforts to find work.



By John C. Welchman 

Deployed in signature outsize orange shopping carts, squatting on low-slung lumber trolleys, or crawling commando-cum-campesino-style on the parking-lot asphalt between ranks of SUVs, light trucks, and pickups, the combatants in Yoshua Okón’s multichannel video installation Octopus (2011) face off in the precincts of the Cypress Park Home Depot, a couple of miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Dressed in jeans and black or white shirts, they tote imaginary handguns, invisible AK-47s, or hand-faked binoculars. Ducking around the commercial signscape (“California’s Home Improvement Warehouse,” “Rent Me Hourly At . . . ”) and weaving between vehicles, Okón’s irregulars act out abbreviated conflict simulations in a ritualized replay of the civil war in Guatemala. Set off by a CIA-led coup that ousted the reformist president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1954, the conflict simmered—and raged—in the Central American nation for nearly four decades before being drawn down to an uneasy conclusion in 1996. The title of Okón’s work refers to the nickname used by Guatemalans for the United Fruit Company, which had enjoyed tax-exempt export privileges since 1901, controlled 10 percent of Guatemala’s economy through exclusive rights to the nation’s railroad and telegraph systems and a monopoly on its ports, and was the nation’s largest landowner when the conflict began. 

1. “Omer Fast, Spielberg’s List,” website for Life, Once More exhibition, Witte de With, Rotterdam, January 27–March 27, 2005, www.wdw.nl/project.php.
2. In a statement on Octopus, Okón cites some of the research on the U.S. role in the Guatemalan civil war, including the government’s receipt of more than $66 million in military aid from the United States between the 1960s and the 1980s. Between 1957 and 1972 some two thousand Guatemalan army officers were trained in U.S. schools; more than 425 police officers received training at the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C. and many of the tactics of the Guatemalan army were based on counterinsurgency manuals designed in the United States, while the highlands of Guatemala were a test laboratory for the “scorched earth” strategies later used in Vietnam.


Hammer Projects: Yoshua Okón is presented through a residency at the Hammer Museum. The Hammer Museum’s Artist Residency Program was initiated with funding from the Nimoy Foundation and is supported through a significant grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

Yoshua Okón’s residency also received support from the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles Cultural Exchange International Program.

Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley; L A Art House Foundation; Kayne Foundation—Ric & Suzanne Kayne and Jenni, Maggie & Saree; the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles; and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.