Irvin Morazan: From Boy Band to Mayan Mysticism

Many of us could have already seen the performance art of Irvin Morazan in action without ever having known it. One of the artist’s pieces consisted of a choreographed performance in the middle of Times Square, a location where his colossally ornate attire may not have seemed too out of place. Another saw him orchestrating choreography via Bluetooth speakers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Using a collage of materials both standard and bizarre (such as Monster energy drinks and Cheez-Doodles), Morazan creates masterfully wrought headdresses that blend historical heritage with political activism.

Several of these massive pieces are on display in his current exhibition Xolo Yawning, a collection of work that addresses everything from his Mayan ancestry to immigration reform to a rare breed of hairless dog. Understandably curious, Milk Made’s Jake Boyer reached out to Morazan to find a little out a little bit more about the man behind the five-foot-tall mask, where he discovered, among other things, Morazan’s style of performance art, his love of teaching, and his past life as a childstar in a boy band.

Can you tell us a little about your current show?

Well there are headdresses, I have a video and I have photographs. And I have some ceramics and steel pedestals I added into the mix. What I have been doing with this show is making headdresses and performances around them. There’s three headdresses that each have a different function. All three of them have these kind of urn like objects in the front and instead of ashes I have soil from the US/Mexico border, dirt from Arizona, dirt from New Mexico, and dirt from Miami beach, all places where many immigrants die in their attempt to enter the country.

So why headdresses?

These are Maya, representing my Mayan ancestry. I’m contributing to the lineage of what the Mayans were doing, but using urban elements, mixing in what’s happening now. I’m creating my own ritual aesthetic; the headdress is just the foundation from where they started. The name of the show is based on this Mayan dog, the only indigenous dog in the continent of America, this hairless dog, the Xolo. Mayans used to use this dog to get to the underworld. And I wanted to use the underworld as a metaphor for the journey that Central Americans go through, it’s a dangerous area to migrate, and you’re lucky if you make it all the way to Texas. A big part of this show was creating urns for young lives that have died in this journey. I actually got a shaman to help me with the sound, he’s playing the harmonica.

When did you first begin to create performance art?

I have a large background in performance. When I was little I used to be in a boy band when I was in South America. I’ve been drawing since I was little. I learned early on that I had my own voice, how to work with objects, make new objects, and incorporate that all into performance. I have a BFA in photography, I perform, make objects, make photographs, work with 3 dimensional objects and make videos too. I do everything but paint. Sound is a huge component as well, especially during the performance videos.

The boombox is a prominent figure in many of your pieces. What is its significance?

I moved to New York from El Salvador in 1984, and when I got here I saw that everyone was carrying ghetto-blasters around us. Like, 5 guys blasting it full blast, acting in their own private space but blasting their music into everyone else’s space. Now it’s the opposite. Everyone has iPods and phones; everyone’s going inner rather than outer. These guys with the blasters were frightening to an extent. So that inspired me to create these kind of urban beasts. I perform with several headdresses, but I specifically go to the Ghetto-Blaster character because he’s a conductor. And all of the masks that I use are functioning speakers with Bluetooth. If I’m performing with 20 people, they all have cues to the sound, so I’m using the sound to choreograph the people live. Often with art performance you don’t have the luxury to rehearse like a theatre performance.

You mentioned that sound plays a big role in your work, but what exactly does it mean to you?

Sound creates the atmosphere. It transforms the art. It’s very shamanistic, very primal. But it’s also very digital. You get goosebumps from the very weird, obscure beauty. You can tell that it creates a lot of internal feelings in people as they watch.

How difficult is it to wear some of your pieces?

I do have to practice when moving around in them. As I’m constructing I kind of balance it out. Sometimes they’re top heavy, sometimes back heavy. The weight is distributed on the shoulders, the chest, back of the neck, and the back. There’s almost zero weight on my actual head. There is a head harness there, but that’s just for balance. As I get ready for performance I do wear it, its very limiting to how I move.

Take us through the construction process for your pieces. How do all of these objects stick together?

They all have a core of this wooden skeleton so they’re really strong. I use this glue that I invented that I mix with the microwave to keep it together. It’s made from children’s glue, some salt, a little of this and that, it’s what gives it that texture. Once that dries it’s kind of fibrous and pretty much indestructible, it’s really powerful. And I spray paint and add other elements as I go along. Some of the materials include feathers and animal skins and skulls and things like that, even Cheez Doodles.

So can you tell me a little more about this boy band you were in?

This is where the absurdity comes from in the work. It was a cover band in El Salvador, and I was in it from 6-8 years old. We were pretty active, we practiced almost every day. I was the smallest member of the band. We would tour around Central America, during a civil war in this time, and we would entertain people. But it just didn’t work out, with agents and inner turmoil and such.

You had inner turmoil with your fellow 7 year olds?

Yes! Some of them wanted to take center stage and be the lead singer. We would have made a great reality show. It made me interested in being in front of an audience. But in a different way; in this very colorful, very playful, very absurd way. And my performance work really comes from that whole thing. Despite all the things that are heavy and serious.

What was the most important thing you learned in art school?

I had very unique experiences because I was in New York. To me I always thought New York was the teacher. I think for the most part it was just listening to other artists, because we’re all so different in how we work. And I think I learned then that I wanted to teach. I have a huge interest in being a professor, I want to help other artists develop themselves. It’s really important that we can all help each other. People are really thankful and you go out of your way to help them. It’s another way of giving back, even if my work doesn’t involve physically being a mentor with them.

What inspires you?

Well I guess it’s interesting. I’m a professor, I teach art, and I do art, and I’ve done it my whole life. There’s not a lot of others that I just go see and am inspired by other than my ancestors, the Maya. All the culture is there. Those are the ones that I look to for inspiration. I feel the need to continue their lineage because a lot of it was lost and destroyed, almost completely wiped away.

Any specific part of the Maya culture?

Well during the Mayan peak 500-700 years ago, the artists were a part of the hierarchy. Kings, shaman, the artists were really up on that level of the chain. They saw artists as being really important for culture, they could construct the biggest monuments and such. Now we’re the lowest of the low, unless you get famous and get that status. So that aspect is my influence, and now hopefully I’m meeting that level with this combination of the political and the poetic.

‘Xolo Yawning’ is on display at Y Gallery through May 12th

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