Yvette Mattern’s text-based light sign Mulatta (2007), with its many blinking light bulbs, has the garish, yet exciting and alluring look of amusement parks, street festivals, 1930s and 1940s Broadway marquees, and cheesy boardwalk attractions. Together with a musical score by the renowned jazz musician and composer Don Byron, it also evokes a whole lost milieu of circa 1950s Puerto Rican dance halls in New York and elsewhere, which helped to inspire the famous 1957 Broadway musical (and later film) West Side Story, with its tale of transcendent biracial love tragically enmeshed with racial and ethnic conflict. Mattern’s term mulatta refers to a woman of both black and white ancestry, and while no commentary is provided, this illuminated word seems imbued with longstanding stereotypes: excessive sensuality, dangerous beauty, exoticism, emotional turmoil linked to not fitting in with “normal” racial categories, parental rejection, and social ostracization, to mention but a few. With dazzling lights and wonderful music, Mattern’s work is attractive and compelling, yet its single brazen word seems rife with fractious matters of identity, in a world which still has enormous troubles dealing with those who do not easily fit into readily understandable and identifiable racial categories. It is likely that Mattern’s own experience as someone born in Puerto Rico to mixed-race parents, and who grew up with an ambiguous racial and cultural identity, infuses Mulatta, but the work goes much further than autobiographical concerns, inspiring a fresh reappraisal of what this oftentimes pejorative word really signifies and evokes. In a remarkable time when the new president of the United States is himself of mixed-race heritage, with an African father from Kenya and white American mother from Kansas, Mattern’s work is especially apt.
Mattern’s Mulatta combines sculpture, music, and installation, and working in a combinatory way across media is her forte. Now based in Berlin, Mattern is also an acclaimed video artist and video designer involved with avant-garde opera, theater, and performance, including providing the video stage design for a production of Wolfgang Rihm’s opera Jakob Lenz at the National Opera House in Riga, Latvia.
CARNIVAL WITHIN TEXT WRITTEN BY – GREGORY VOLK