When one of the oldest arts organizations in the US has a history marked by a racist founder, few bother to examine it. But a new experimental film is doing exactly that: The Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California has released a short starring performance artist Karen Finley, dealing directly with its benefactor’s racism—and Donald Trump’s.
James D. Phelan was the senator who dedicated his villa and estate to the development of the arts, which became the Montalvo Arts Center. He was also one of the biggest political forces behind legislations and bans against the immigration of Chinese, Japanese, and Arabs from 1882 to 1924. Non-legislature samples include his essay, “The Japanese Evil in California,” and letters declaring his stance. “I believe the preservation and development of the white race in California is of first importance,” he said in one. “It determines the success or failure of the American Republic.”
Far East of Eden is a 24-minute video created by Finley and director Bruce Yonemoto, created earlier this year while both were visiting artists at the Lucas Artists Residency. It looks Phelan’s racism squarely in the face. Filming on the grounds of Villa Montalvo, the film is timed with the 2016 election, overlapping Phelan’s portrayal with that of a more familiar face. It’s really not meant to be liked. Rather, the jarring juxtaposition of James Phelan and Donald Trump shows just how the rhetoric of racism can span a century.
In alternating scenes, Finley plays both Phelan and Trump. Their monologues smack of Trump-isms, so much so that it’s hard to remember that one man preceded the other. Finley’s rendition of Trump himself is hefty, a more in-depth take than her portrayal in Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. Her speech sounds like he really wrote it.
Instead of recreating the usual crowd of spectators that flock to any politician in public, a single, silent boy walks through the villa’s grounds and witnesses the film from start to finish. The result is eerie and isolates the script—in one scene, Finley uses the lilting meter of a Woodie Guthrie song to intone Phelan and Trump simultaneously. “This land is your land. This land is my land. This land is our land. And it’s not going to be their land… Keep them out.”
Debuting the film is both personal and risky for the creators. Bruce Yonemoto’s own family was torn by the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, emphatically backed by Phelan. “Both my grandfathers were arrested off the street, put in jails, and separated from their families for over three years,” Yonemoto tells The Creators Project. “The Asian Exclusion Act was really successful. It effectively stopped Asian immigration. And it heightened racism during World War II. To this day there is hardly any Japanese community in the US anymore.”
For a guest appearance, Yonemoto reached out to George Takei, who was a boy when his parents were taken away to camps in Los Angeles. Takei witnessed his family go through the horrors of being driven out of their home with three children, and loans his voice to Far East of Eden in the film’s arresting final minutes. “We were ‘enemy non-aliens.’ We were taken to horse stables, and looking back now, I can’t imagine how degrading and humiliating it must have been for my parents,” he says in the film. “It was a racist act, pure and simple. And it was an unconstitutional act.”
At the project’s inception, the filmmakers were reading the writings of Phelan when the similarities to Trump became all too clear. “It’s a risk, but I think there’s a greater risk in not making the comparison,” Finley tells The Creators Project. “We have a history in this country of incarceration and discrimination linked to race. Much of what’s being suggested now—sending Muslims away and keeping Mexicans out—it’s similar rhetoric to what was used during the second World War. Too many Americans aren’t even aware of what’s happened in our country. I don’t see a better way for us to make the point.”
Yonemoto is hopeful that the film will have an impact. “Asian Americans generally don’t like to portray themselves as being angry. But in some ways, perhaps we have to become angry in order to be heard in the contemporary art world.”
And what is it they want to be heard? Finley puts it succinctly. “Anti-immigration violence and hatred are more than just words. Those words become legislation.” When it seems doubtful as to whether that kind of legislation will happen, it’s key to remember that it already has. The art is just here to remind us. Watch Far East of Eden, in full, below: