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Weekly Q&A: Artist Jevijoe Vitug talks controversy and compassion

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In July, artist Jevijoe Vitug drank his own urine as performance art for the London Biennale in Nevada. It had everyone talking and, as he points out, caused one publication to dub him a “bad boy artist” with a “hunger for controversy.”

Bad boy? Hardly. The Filipino-born artist, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife and children, is more bent on drawing attention to serious issues, namely poverty, survival and environmental concerns than an image.

When we first met him in 2010, he was exploring ideas of national identity with his collaborative installation/performance, Let’s Build a Nation at the CAC. Among his lengthy list of exhibits and projects in the U.S. and Philippines is a collaboration between Vitug and a physically disabled vendor in the Philippines, which might best sum up the artist’s intent: using art to help communities help themselves. The collaboration, titled "In Search for the Source of Living," involved Vitug designing a cart for the vendor to operate with his hand (using a bike peddle) so that he could travel across land and in water to sell produce.

- from YouTube.com

On the night we sit down with Vitug, he’s hosting students and adults from the project, Nuclear Weapons Testing Legacy: A Tale of Two Cultures, at 5th Wall Gallery. We talk to the artist who put together the London Biennale in Nevada at Pop Up Art House, documented for an exhibit opening September 6 at the Contemporary Arts Center.

What is the essence of your work? My projects are all about survival. How to sustain one’s community in that immediate environment. I can make art that is symbolic, but also functional.

When did your interest in working with communities begin? After I decided not to pursue my MFA program and quit art school. It was the height of the global financial crisis, and I felt I was detached from reality. I realized that there was an urgency to use my time and my limited financial resources in a more meaningful and sustainable way by being directly involved with communities.

Details

2012 London Biennale in Nevada: Documentation Exhibit
Featuring artists Noelle Garcia, Eri King, Jevijoe Vitug, Matthew Couper,JK Russ, Mina Kahn, Darren Johnson,Toshie McSwain, Brent Holmes and Yasmina Chavez
Through September 29 (opening reception Sept. 6, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Contemporary Arts Center,107 E. Charleston Blvd., 382-3886
For more information: londonbiennale.tk

Is art effective in drawing attention to larger issues? Art is the most effective way to bring attention to some of the world’s issues, because it’s an open platform where an individual can exercise his or her freedom of expression. Art does not necessarily give direct solutions, but it helps us to think and see things differently.

You’ve been referred to as controversial. Do you agree? My approach is not even controversial; I’m not into challenging authorities or breaking rules to create media hype. My approach is to create thought-provoking works that can open a dialogue and negotiation for potential future possibilities. While superstar artists in the art world are being packaged as art brands by large global corporations and often being sponsored by global mega-banks, start-up young artists like me are more interested in nonprofit organizations and self-sufficient communities.

Thus the Biennale? Absolutely yes—the event is a statement in itself. With or without institutional or corporate funding, artists showcased in the biennale will always find alternative ways to make things possible.

What else inspired you to put that together? Las Vegas is one of the most well-known cities in the U.S., and yet, at the moment, we don’t have any internationally recognized art events here, such as curated exhibitions, survey shows, art fairs and biennales. Our city deserves a vibrant art scene that can also be competitive with other major cities with art centers, but it can only be made possible with a strong commitment of the local art community as a whole.

Talk about the vendor in the Philippines I was in debt from school. My house went through a short sale. Then I got to thinking about this guy. All these years, he’s survived. That was an awakening. I immigrated to the states because I had this idea of a better life. There’s this notion that you’re going to help your family. Then came the market crash. I felt devastated by my situation, and he became my inspiration. I am really inspired by people who are self-sufficient using alternative models for economic survival that are also environmentally sustainable.

You’re here. He’s there. How did you make it work? I collaborated with him by redesigning his vendor cart so that it can turn into a boat useful during flood season. I made the design, emailed it to my brother. My brother hired the carpenter and the videographer.

Why drink urine as performance? It’s all about survival. When I was a kid, I was a victim of Mount Pinatubo [a volcano that erupted in 1991 in the Philippines]. The only way we could survive was to drink urine. We were stuck for two or three days on the roof. My father is paraplegic. He needed the available water. We had his concerns first.

Do you plan to stay in Las Vegas for a while? It’s not really important to me now if I live and work in an art center or not. The important thing is to keep on producing works that are relevant to my immediate environment and could address issues that matter most. I was motivated by the contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Even when he was missing and was put under house arrest in China, he could still produce works and have it exhibit in various venues around the world.

It doesn't matter if you're in San Francisco, New York or LA, It's what you're doing.

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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