Peter Yumi takes his role as CEO and chief curator of the Fruitland Contemporary Art Museum seriously, whether you do or not. Inspired by a nineteenth-century Scottish scoundrel named Gregor MacGregor, who invented the Central American nation “Poyais” from the ground up in order to swindle French and English investors, Yumi is playing a confidence game of his own with Fruitland Contemporary Art During the Autonation Dictatorship, his first solo exhibition as an associate member of the Pirate: Contemporary Art co-op.
The show is driven by an underlying theme of the ersatz mystique: the bells and whistles that go off in our heads when we step into Disneyland or, closer to home, the shlock-palace Casa Bonita. How Yumi began to weave an imaginary land and culture based on fakery is a story in itself.
It all started with a fascination for Brazil, says Yumi, whose preoccupation with the country, which by all appearances looks to the world like a tropical paradise, grew into an obsession. He knew through following Brazilian news, politics and culture that there were more than a few holes in that theory, from the favelas of Sao Paulo to a government in upheaval, leaning to the far right.
"It’s all about a fictitious country I created called Fruitland,” Yumi explains. “I essentially began the project after going to Brazil with my wife. While I was there, I got to talk with artists about how Americans love fake things.” But as he walked around Sao Paulo, he began to notice that Brazilians have their own versions of glorified fakery, too. (Think the monumental Cristo Redentor art-deco statue that looms over Rio, or Brazil’s modernist, utopian capital city of Brasilia.)
“It dawned on me to take these exaggerated, erroneous views of Brazil and fetishize the culture,” he adds, pointing to the invention of Fruitland, a promised land in danger of succumbing to what he calls the Autonation Dictatorship, a dangerously nationalist regime vying for control.
Yumi was particularly interested in creating a cultural scene for Fruitland, informed by actual Brazilian arts movements, such as the late-’60s Tropicália musical aesthetic exemplified by bands like Os Mutantes and musicians Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé, who sang out in politically charged response to Brazil’s military dictatorship of the time — a regime not unlike Autonation’s.
To go with his fictitious country, Yumi took a MacGregor-style move and created a “group of fake artists who made all the art in the show.” Pop-arty artists with sarcastic and pilfered names like Pedro Maximo and Sandor 21 began to show up with fake mustaches in Yumi’s studio, a charade recorded on social media, each with his or her own personality and style.
In addition, Yumi created the society and religion of Fruitland, inviting local artists and friends to his studio (aka Yumicorp International Studios) to pose as the rulers, artists, society, and gods and goddesses of the imaginary nation. Throughout this process, Yumi continued his ongoing tongue-in-cheek documentation of the developing project using social-media platforms.
Therefore, the art is all online at the same time it hangs in the gallery, inviting a critical look at the Internet as a fantasy world in its own right. “There’s so much fake stuff on the Internet, you don't know what’s real, and I wanted to make a mockery of that,” Yumi says. “Putting it online opens up a performative aspect of work, which is crucial for me.” The online work then becomes as integral to the process as the actual work itself.
There were rules, Yumi notes, as to how his faux civilization and traditions were conceived and brought to fruition. For one, the forty works in the show were made using Xerox toner transfers, referring back to Brazil’s Xerox-art revolution led by artist and poet Paulo Bruscky beginning in the ’70s, a time when technology was a lot less sophisticated. But the easy ability to make copies, using cheap materials, made the art accessible to everyone: “They were not educated artists,” Yumi says. “They were making art for a large number of people, distributing it to the masses at a low cost.” He put a contemporary spin on the concept, driven by his ability to use digital technology in the same way: “It’s like the copy art of Brazil, only I’m also using photos or cheap images from the Internet.”
Similar rules even dictated the color palette of Fruitland. “I used Gucci style as a color guide, and I also followed other hard and fast rules to create this universe,” Yumi reveals. “Fruitlandians don't exploit animals, so there are almost no animals in the work. Fruitlandian people also don’t believe in painting portraits full-face — gods and goddesses are the only ones portrayed facing forward — so many of the images are fractured and broken up.”
In Fruitland, Bob Dylan, an artist with a decades-old mystique, has lyrics that work their way into the artwork. Dylan is a cultural figurehead, “not a deity, but a messianic figure” in Yumi’s imaginary world, exemplified by Dylan’s admonition to “get born,” pilfered from the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
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You will learn more about Fruitland by walking through the exhibition at tonight’s opening reception, Friday, September 27, from 6 to 10 p.m. at Pirate, 7130 West 16th Avenue in Lakewood, where a special playlist, heaps of fruit, face-painting by Fruitland tattoo artist Elena Thunderson and a working juice stand will enhance the Fruitlandian atmosphere. Yumi recommends dressing in tropical style and intimates that there might be a costume contest. Fruitland Contemporary Art During the Autonation Dictatorship then continues through October 13.
In the meantime, Yumi can’t contain his excitement, and yearns to remind people that our views of other cultures can be skewed and off-kilter, and that humor conquers all. But Yumi has high hopes: “In a world that’s so dark right now, we can all use a little bit of light and beauty in the world.”
Intrigued? Yumi says Fruitland Contemporary Art During the Autonation Dictatorship is only the first cog in a series of projected Fruitland exhibitions, with the second show set to debut at Pirate in 2020. Let the great swindle begin.