Julio Cesar Morales re-enacts the birth of California

In 2004, when Julio Cesar Morales went to view the Bear Flag Revolt monument in Sonoma, truth was enjoying a particularly slippery moment. Dick Cheney assured the press that Saddam Hussein had long-established ties with al-Qaeda, and 42 percent of Americans still believed Hussein was involved in the attacks of 9/11, according to a Gallup poll compiled in October.

Morales, a San Francisco artist, had traveled to Sonoma as part of curator Sandra Percival's "Terrain and Terroir" project. Born in Tijuana, he was primed to view American history with a bipartisan eye. So when he saw the monument, a larger-than-life bronze statue of a heroic-looking man leaning forward, rippling with muscles, framed by a swirling capelike flag, he had two thoughts. "My first reaction was, 'Wow, these people look like Superman or Aquaman. Like superheroes,'" he says. "Then I thought, 'Uh, it probably didn't happen like that.'"

The Bear Flag Revolt, as schoolkids are taught, launched Alta California toward U.S. statehood. On the morning of June 14, 1846, a militia of 33 Americans knocked at the door of General Mariano Vallejo, who was a subject of Spain, a military officer of Mexico, and an admirer of the United States. The group was ragtag: some had no shoes, some wore buckskins, and all were hungry and road-weary. Vallejo answered the door in his military uniform and the Americans told him he was under arrest. Vallejo, unperturbed, invited them in for an all-day feast.

"Interrupted Passage" enacts pivotal history, muttonchops and all.
Julio Buffo
"Interrupted Passage" enacts pivotal history, muttonchops and all.
Julio Buffo

Details

Through Oct. 25; a party related to the exhibit is at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22, at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth St.), S.F. Free; 626-5416 or www.newlangtonarts.org.

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A highly skilled politician, Vallejo knew that Mexico's influence in California was waning. He also recognized that the Bear Flag Republic would be short-lived, since the United States would supersede it.

For Morales, the idea that Vallejo "essentially negotiated the future of California through food" struck a chord. Food as common ground among cultures remains a hopeful, fortifying idea, but one that also involves issues of ownership. In a previous project, Morales investigated the origin of the Caesar salad, which was invented in Tijuana in the 1920s but has been adopted as an American dish. This time, he decided he wanted to recreate the meal Vallejo served to his captors.

The result is "Tomorrow Is for Those Who Can See It Coming," a mixed-media show on display at New Langton Arts dominated by Interrupted Passage, a two-channel video shown on side-by-side screens. On the left-hand screen, amateur actors (actually artist friends of Morales') portray Vallejo, the Bear Flag revolters, and Vallejo's household staff, silently re-enacting the events of June 14, 1846. The right-hand screen shows close-ups of the food preparation: a steer carcass being bound with rope, a knife dicing fennel bulbs, a bubbling stew poked by a wooden spoon.

Edited to a soundtrack by Fernando Corona that alternates between humming electronic melodies and jolting symphonic thrusts, the two screens present a dynamic juxtaposition. On the left, there's the awkwardness of scruffy soldiers waiting in Vallejo's formal sitting room, then sitting down to eat with crystal wineglasses and porcelain plates. On the right are big chunks of meat that look either seductive or foreboding, depending on your point of view or when you last had lunch.

Years of research went into Interrupted Passage, and Morales emphasizes that it's a collaboration. The food was created with the help of chef and artist Max La Rivière-Hedrick, the costumes are by Norma Listman, and Parks and Recreation in Sonoma County gave permission to film on location at Vallejo's Casa Grande.

But the film also emerges from a growing movement of artists interested in historic re-enactment. In 2004, John Malpede remounted Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 "poverty tour" of southeastern Kentucky using locals as actors, some of whom portrayed their own parents. Perhaps the best-known project is British artist Jeremy Deller's 2001 Battle of Orgreave, a staging of the 1984 miners' strikes in Yorkshire using hundreds of extras, many of whom were strikers in the original event.

Re-enactments staged by artists raise a number of questions: Who makes history? Who gets to choose what stories are told, and who the hero is? What's the difference between an artist retelling history and a historian retelling it? Where does re-enactment bleed into reinterpretation? If, as R.G. Collingwood wrote in his influential book The Idea of History, a historian "re-enacts the past" in his own mind, how do we get to the neutral truth? And that old chestnut: Are we destined to repeat history, or can we learn from it?

Interrupted Passage brings up many of the same issues. "I was trying to come to something in between all these different variations" of the Vallejo story, Morales says. "History always has multiple points of view. How do you negotiate these points of view? How do you go further than what's handed to you? Especially when you see these monuments — is that really accurate? Is that what happened? It's about questioning history, but it's also about making it more accessible."

In a way, Morales is creating his own monument to counter the bronze statue of the Bear Flag rebels. "I just want to take a little bit of history back," he says.

 
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