Yoshua Okón



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Not on display

Yoshua Okón born 1970
Original title
Video, high definition, 4 projections, colour and sound (stereo), plastic buckets and foam
Overall display dimensions variable
Lent by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of Juan Carlos Verme and Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2018
On long term loan


Octopus 2011 is a four-channel video installation lasting eighteen and a half minutes and shown on a loop. The four videos are projected on four different walls at different scales and heights and visitors are invited to view the work while sitting on upturned red plastic buckets. The footage shows a re-enactment scene, intended to portray the thirty-six-year long civil war in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, being carried out in the parking lot of a DIY store called The Home Depot in Los Angeles. Groups of unarmed men are shown miming weapons; casually dressed, they are grouped according to their black or white t-shirts and riding supermarket carts and trolleys, or else crawling like commandos on the asphalt. The men engaged in this activity are illegal immigrants and former combatants from the war in Guatemala who, displaced after the war, have come to find informal work in the United States as day-labourers by waiting in the parking lot of The Home Depot where the film was shot.

Making reference to re-enactment societies popular in America, particularly those focused on the re-enactment of the American civil war, Okón’s work seeks to upturn the conventions usually followed. Civil war re-enactments most often take place on or near to the site of the actual battles and are performed by people who by definition could not have been involved; in Okón’s work, the Guatemalan conflict is relocated to American soil and is performed by those who were involved in the original events, either in the army or as guerillas. They are twelve undocumented members of the Los Angeles ethnically Mayan community, a group who, already treated as an underclass within Guatemalan society, suffered the most from the conflict (approximately 83% of those killed were Mayan, according to a report titled Guatemala: Memory of Silence written in 1999 by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification). John C. Welchman has discussed Okón’s choice of subject and location for Octopus, explaining that:

while the precincts of Home Depot are radically distinct from the indigenous villages and working-class suburbs that bore the brunt of the violence and destruction during the Guatemalan civil war, they constitute perhaps the only zone in which, out of shared economic necessity, combatants or victims on both sides of the conflict might stand side by side waiting to be picked up for an off-the-books construction or gardening day job. But the resiting of the conflict in an immigrant neighborhood in Los Angeles – itself notorious for gang violence by and among ethnically calibrated groups – is also the product of another recursive logic, for it stages the symbolic return of the conflict to the disenfranchised margins of the nation whose actions and crusading financial self-interest fomented and then stoked the war for forty years. Okón thus offers a kind of shadow economy of the ‘original’ conflict funded by the negative dialectics of simulation. In this scene the high stakes, tax exemptions, institutional privileges, and sheer military power of mercantilist imperialism are answered by the ‘invisible’ solicitation, low-grade tax evasion, undocumented lives, and utter social disempowerment of a displaced underclass.
(John C. Welchman, ‘War and Peace (Volume II)’, in Valdés and Welchman 2011, pp.31–3.)

The title of the work, in Spanish ‘Pulpo’ meaning Octopus, is the nickname given to The United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita Banana) in Guatemala, a company which was implicated in the origins of the conflict through its links with the CIA-led coup to overthrow President Jacobo Árbenz that triggered the war. At the time of the civil war, the United Fruit Company, an American firm, was Guatemala’s largest landowner and possessed tax-exempt export privileges dating back to 1901. It accounted for ten percent of the Guatemalan economy through a monopoly of the ports and rights over the railways and communications systems, and had similar influence in several of the other Central American countries, hence the popular nomination of these countries as ‘banana republics’.

Octopus has been exhibited extensively; it was first shown at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2011 and then at the Gwanju Biennale in 2014. The video exists in two formats, one with four screens and one with two. Tate’s copy is an artist’s proof of the four-screen version.

Further reading
Raúl Hernández Valdés and John C. Welchman, Pulpo/Octopus, Mexico City 2011.
Francisco Goldman, ‘Octopus’, Bomb, no.118, Winter 2011, pp.12–13.
Catherine Petitgas (ed.), Contemporary Art Mexico, London 2014.

Tanya Barson
May 2016

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