James Luna often uses his body as a means to critique the objectification of Native American cultures in Western museum and cultural displays. He dramatically calls attention to the exhibition of Native American peoples and Native American cultural objects in his Artifact Piece, 1985-87. For the performance piece Luna donned a loincloth and lay motionless on a bed of sand in a glass museum exhibition case. Luna remained on exhibit for several days, among the Kumeyaay exhibits at the Museum of Man in San Diego. Labels surrounding the artist’s body identified his name and commented on the scars on his body, attributing them to “excessive drinking.” Two other cases in the exhibition contained Luna’s personal documents and ceremonial items from the Luiseño reservation.
Many museum visitors as they approached the “exhibit” were stunned to discover that the encased body was alive and even listening and watching the museum goers. In this way the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer was returned, redirecting the power relationship.
Through the performance piece Luna also called attention to a tendency in Western museum displays to present Native American cultures as extinct cultural forms. Viewers who happened upon Luna’s exhibition expecting a museum presentation of native American cultures as “dead,” were shocked by the living, breathing, “undead” presence of the luiseño artist in the display. Luna in Artifact Piece places his body as the object of display in order to disrupt the modes of representation in museum exhibitions of native others and to claim subjectivity for the silenced voices eclipsed in these displays.
Artifact Piece was first staged in 1987 at the Museum and Man, San Diego. Luna also performed the piece for The Decade Show, 1990, in New York
Quote from Luna:
The Artifact Piece, 1987, was a performance/installation that questioned American Indian presentation in museums-presentation that furthered stereotype, denied contemporary society and one that did not enable an Indian viewpoint. The exhibit, through ‘contemporary artifacts’ of a Luiseño man, showed the similarities and differences in the cultures we live, and putting myself on view brought new meaning to ‘artifact.’ (Durland 37)