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A rebel performance artist goes through his mid-life crisis

February 10, 2010

By Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Brand new website:

Photo by Zach Gross, 2007

Genre: Confessional chronicle. Archival text.

(While revising my unpublished literary archives I came across this highly personal text I wrote in 2005, immediately after turning 50.  As I re-read it I find it a bit self-indulgent and whiney, but I recognize that it reflects my troubled feelings at the time. I have chosen to distribute it with a post-script as a tribute to all the aging rebel artists facing similar demons).

I just turned 50, which is quite dramatic if you consider that I am a “radical” performance artist who is well known for his transgressive aesthetics, political bravado and uncompromising irreverence. I am the guy who became notorious for speaking in border tongues and spending three-day periods inside a gilded cage as an “undiscovered Amerindian”; the very Vato who crucified himself dressed as a mariachi to protest immigration policy. Suddenly, I’m growing white hair and a belly, and my voice sounds reasonable and tempered by my experiences. A cruel curator friend of mine tells me that “(I am) no longer feared or desired but respected.” Auch!! When young rebel artists call me “professor Gomez”” or “maestro,” it pinche flips me out.

But let me elaborate a bit: I have spent a lifetime utilizing my body and my tongue as tools to express my opposition to mainstream culture and values, advocating anti-authoritarian artistic practices and supporting outsider communities. And I always thought of myself as age-less, or rather as permanently young. To remain young for me implied a relentless capability to reinvent myself, to constantly take risks, and to remain in touch with the cultural and political pulse of the times and the streets. It also meant not to think too much about the past or the future, to always operate in the “here” and the “now,” the time and place of performance art. My existential motto was “If I don’t go crazy at least once a week, I will loose my mind,” and I was loyal to it.

By the time I turned 40, my rebel contemporaries and partners in crime began to settle down. They got full-time jobs. They married and began to have children. They bought homes. And suddenly they had much less time to hang out in seedy bars and undertake daring art projects. I saw them, one by one, loosing their spunk and bravado, becoming cautious and moderate, talking about saving for the future (anathema for a radical artist), and dyeing their hair to hide the grey. They gave me all kinds of advice: “Gomez-Pena, you should write more accessible (and profitable) books; follow the example of Eric Begosian and Ana Devere-Smith and get a job in Hollywood or in a TV series or at least get a tenure job in academia. It gives you medical insurance and the certainty of a monthly check.” Those kinds of comments made me depressed. The subtext was “aren’t you a bit old to live as an outsider artist?” I hung out more and more with younger artists who were willing to jump into the abyss with me. I even perceived a generational fault line between people of my age and me.

I experienced my mid-life crisis by going out with someone 17 years younger than me, a Mexico City upper class princess. Our generational differences in “lifestyle,” taste in art and political beliefs made me even more conscious of my age.

Once day, I realized I was definitely going through my climaterio (Spanish for male menopause) when I found myself disco dancing in a Mexico City nightclub surrounded by 20-year-old hipsters. ‘Patético’- I thought. I excused myself, pretended to go to the restroom and escaped through the back door for good. Now in retrospect I realize that this escape was a spiritual relief and that I wouldn’t give anything to be that age again.

In my mid 40s, I began to perceive the symptoms of aging as cruel. I wrote in my performance diary: “When I was younger I had visions, utopian visions; now, I have dreams. As a young artist, the streets were my laboratories of experimentation; as a “mature” artist, conversations and rehearsals, have replaced the streets. Taking physical, aesthetic or political risks was an integral part of my artwork. Today, I am more interested in the pedagogical dimension of my art. I even have stopped getting naked on stage. (Clearly, I did this to protect my audience from my growing love handles.) I used to always collaborate; suddenly I am thinking more and more of my solo work and of my personal voice. (Was I becoming more selfish or merely wiser?) I am becoming increasingly more conscious of my “artistic legacy,” another anathema for a performance artist. But worse than anything, I am becoming more tolerant of political difference and cultural insensitivity: I no longer have formidable intellectual fights with conservative critics and ethnocentric curators.”

In my late 40s, I became increasingly aware of the fragility of my body. After a lifetime of abusing my body partying constantly and simply working very hard one day I got gravely sick. While touring Brazil, I caught a tropical parasite with an unpronounceable Latin name and experienced a total liver crash. With my body connected to machines at a Mexico City hospital, I came face to face with Death. I looked like one of my Chicano cyborg performance personas. For eight months I faced the prospect of a life without touring, without performing: a life as a stationary intellectual forever meeting my inner demons in front of my laptop. I was inconsolable. During my slow recovery I wrote my first script ever that dealt with my past; a biographical reflection on what it meant to be a Latino artist facing the abyss of the end of the century and the dark clouds of middle age. I noticed that my poetic tone had changed. I was more somber, and self-critical; less outrageous. I was thinking about my place in the world, my relationship to family, friends, art, community and the universe at large. I had lost some of my sense of humor. I was obsessed with literary craft. That script was better literature, but denser and clearly less accessible to a live audience.

I eventually recuperated from my illness and went back on the road, thinking it all had been a temporary nightmare. But I was wrong, pinche wrong. Soon my memory began to betray me. I started forgetting names, conversations, incidents, and book and film titles. My recent memory, say of the past three to five years, was even worse. I first attributed this loss to Caribbean rum, tobacco and sleeplessness, but then I started talking to other artists my age, and they were all going through an identical experience. An Indian artist friend told me: “Don’t worry ese; it’s the Big Smoke. You are simply going through the Biiigg Smoke.”  My wise mother told me: “It’s the German guy inside of you, Mr. Alzheimer. You have to start making peace with him. His going to be living with you for a long time.” It wasn’t funny. I began to consciously engage in memory exercises, in acceptance exercises.

I became an involuntary Chicano Buddhist.

And then of course, there was the loneliness: Young people simple didn’t look at you anymore.

I now wonder if as a 50-year old artist one can remain current, “hip,” sexy and connected to the world, or if soon I should withdraw with dignity from the world, become a neighborhood drunk or commit ritual suicide as my last performance art piece. But when these thoughts begin to linger over my inner stage, my sense of humor and my love for life somehow redeem me once again. I think to myself: Perhaps I can hang my weapons on the wall and still be a warrior, like my Colombian Brujo told me or perhaps I can become a hip elder loco artist like the late Marcel Duchamp or Burroughs or better yet, a sexy old rockero like Bowie or Jagger.

For the moment my only hope is to continue walking, not running, with style, lots of style; to remain open-minded and tolerant; to consciously continue taking risks and opposing authority whenever I smell it; and to exorcise any disconcerting thoughts about the future as much as I can. My blessing is that Carolina, my wife, also 50, is still gorgeous, hilarious and as much of a lunatic as she was when I met her eight years ago in New York City.

-San Francisco

September 2005

Post-script/2009: I stand naked in front of a mirror for an extended period of time. I’m drinking a delicious single malt scotch, toasting with my self on the other side of the mirror and making peace with my 54-year old aching body full of performance scars and biographical tattoos. I toast to my panza (tummy), my dimming memory and libido. This aging scotch tastes better than ever. My flying Chihuahua Babalu is barking at his own image on the mirror. Tomorrow I go on the road again. Roberto, Violeta and I will perform the last version of Mapa/Corpo, a ritual performance involving “political acupuncture.” I’m still a nomadic provocateur. Life is ok. Salud!


This bi-weekly literary project by Gómez-Peña is intended to both recapture his archival performance texts and provide new writing for online distribution. This exercise on virtual citizen literature includes weird performance chronicles, poetic journalistic pieces, activist epistolaries and brief theoretical reflections on art and other “related matters” such as politics, culture, identity, nationality, technology, sex and language. Editors and advisers include, La Pocha’s project coordinator, Emma Tramposch and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Coombs. This is the second text of the series. Please forward it to colleagues who might be interested.


Please note La Pocha’s change of address to the following:
La Pocha Nostra 657 Mission St, #200 San Francisco, CA 94105

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