Walk through the capital’s Sunday ferias these days, and you might notice one spectacle that’s a little bit, well, ‘off’. Among the hawkers and tango dancers, ‘Tranqui Yanqui’ cuts a goofy figure dressed in a florescent outfit and an Uncle Sam hat, beckoning passers by towards a precarious cardboard stand bursting with saccharine visual treats. “Yo yo, soy yo!” he can be heard shouting in a US accent, while waving about questionable pairs of gold Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses. “They’re designer!” he beams.
On closer inspection, all his wares are made of cardboard and paper, including the glasses, painted hot dogs, pretend dollars and florescent ‘clothes’ decorated with half-naked girls and US basketball stars. His in-your-face persona is a ruse. He is neither a vendor, nor an ‘entertainer’.
So what is this strange gringo really about?
Who are you?
I’m just Tranqui. And Tranqui likes to just hang out with his closet made of garbage, look at pretty girls, drink Tranqui-Cola, and keep his clothes on their hangers.
Who are you really?
[Laughs] I’m Nick Mahshie, an artist from Miami. I’m a painter, but since coming to Buenos Aires I’ve combined painting with intervention and performance, and taken it out to the public.
What the hell is Tranqui Yanqui all about?
I created Tranqui as a stereotype of the dumb, goofy North American in order to talk about it, to see how people react. It’s exploring the label.
How did this strange cross-cultural exploration start?
Tranqui was created in an artists’ residency I did in La Plata. I was the first North American so I put up a sign saying ‘I am the first Yankee’. Then I became very interested in the label. It’s misleading to give those labels but we always fall back on them. Then things kind of went from there.
Why do you pretend to be a salesman?
I’m using crappy stuff and jokes to get in people’s faces. I’ve extracted marketing garbage and I’m naively embracing it, but there are all these other issues in the background. People are attracted to the surface side of it but maybe later they think more about it. I trick them into looking at it.
It comes back to a thing about making a character for yourself. I get annoyed when ‘serious artists’ look down on what I’m doing as not classy enough because it looks like trash. Art that does something has to confront people.
What are the contents of your closet?
The things in the closet are a reflection on Miami that are rooted in the idea of fantasy – the champagne, club lifestyle. It’s playing on a popular reflection of the place to do with pop, money and indulgence.
Other symbols I use are things I’m attached to such as alligators, flamingos and palm trees. They are personal icons, masks, costumes and decorations to do with making a festival or party.
I also like the idea of the copy, the false, the imitation.
You’re playing up to a stereotype of the US, which has to do with instant gratification, desire, and consumer culture.
Yes, Tranqui Yanqui’s closet is obviously packed with cultural baggage, but I like to avoid talking about this – I know what I’m thinking about it but the more important thing is to bring out what they’re thinking.
What are they thinking?
Generally, what is he doing? What is this? [laughs]
I think most people are happier when they don’t have to ask questions. To ask a question might warrant a series of thoughts about something strange or difficult to understand. And who really wants to think about something that maybe, possibly, doesn’t have a reason or a solution at all? But that is part of the reason I do this. To see what people think, see, or wonder…So what’s the point again?
How do people react?
It depends on the place. In Recoleta they understood it as art I think, whereas in other places like Chacarita and Once I was understood more as a clown. The aesthetic of Tranqui also shares a lot with Latin sitcoms and tv shows so everyone sees it as funny.
People in Once, in particular, open up to it. One guy took hold of Tranqui’s hat when setting up and put it on. People seemed to expect it – they were giving me positive hand signals as though they knew what it was about.
The reaction changes depending on what’s going on around him, but the point is that he remains something that doesn’t quite fit in, so later on, when the feria is over, people think: actually, what the hell was he doing?
Tranqui quickly seemed to become something of a celebrity in Buenos Aires, appearing in the national press, back in October 2008, when he first started out.
Yes, and what was interesting was that he appeared alongside stories of US ambassadors being expulsed in Venezuela and Bolivia, so photos of him smiling at the camera ended up next to murals of evil Uncle Sam, saying ‘Yankees go home’.
I’m still not sure what people thought about the juxtaposition. Maybe they thought I was making fun of Yankees. But this kind of exposure is all part of the work.
So you let your oblivious character stroll through a quagmire of bad feeling towards the US?
As a Yank you are always on the defensive. You carry with you the baggage of Bush, and decades of aggressive foreign policy.
An Argentine made a comment on my blog about this, saying: “I imagine it’s hard at times to struggle with the karma of being a Yankee outside the USA. Not many others share your experience. But if what you do is good, then it drops the flag and it’s for everyone.”
Are you trying to defy this reputation or make it better?
No, neither. I’m just kind of poking people with it. Better than a facebook poke though!
Is there a new North American identity emerging, with the change in power and shifting economic fortunes of the US? If so what does this mean for Tranqui?
Will Obama change the identity of Yankees? Are we not still imperialist, capitalist, ignorant, and uncultured? Maybe that stereotype is still going to be what distinguishes me.
As for the crisis, on the brink of economic collapse, Tranqui represents a happy oblivion. With the empire falling the new Yankee might be an immigrant, or a cartonero [person who recycles rubbish on the streets], but they’ll still revel in the symbols of their past. I’m turning those US symbols into a grandiose thing.
Money is just an idea. It’s confidence in it that makes it work. So Tranqui revels in the idea of money. Tranqui celebrates his symbols just like fileteado celebrates the opulent past of Buenos Aires.
Could Tranqui Yanqui exist in the US?
Tranqui’s heart is here. He only exists here.
What were you doing before Tranqui Yanqui?
With my work I always like to cross borders and engage with different people and cultures. In Rome I worked with Gitanos and put paintings of them out on the street where they would often sit. The Italians stepped over these people. They didn’t count as legitimate.
My work presents questions without solutions, its just art. It can be troublesome to look at because of that.
When I came back to the US from Rome I started talking to recent immigrants, since I wanted to socially engage with the city (Providence, Rhode Island) more. I started doing a doll project with their kids where I interviewed them about how they wanted to be represented, then I made wood carvings. It was interesting that these dark haired Latino kids wanted to look like Barbie.
What’s next for Tranqui Yanqui?
Tranqui’s future can be summed up in a couple of words, that is, the Argentine mullet: business in the front, a party at the back.
I’ll be hoppin’ on the Tranqui Express for 2009, getting some gold teeth and getting down to business. In production is a new line of clothing, and a thorough advertising campaign to uphold it all, slapped with the Tranqui tag to make it even more awesome.
Wait. More awesome? Yes. More awesome.
Tranquify that shit.
Tranqui Yanqui can be found at various Ferias around Buenos Aires. For more information, or to make a comment, consult: http://tranquiyanqui.blogspot.com/