By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, April, 2018
Last October I took a trip to the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico for the launch of the 2017 Reserva de la Familia Collector’s Edition from José Cuervo. In the world of high-end beverage culture, this is a huge big deal; but for me, it was all about the box it came in.
Among the highlights of Mundo Cuervo, most center around the labor-intensive process of producing the tequila itself -- the agave fields, the harvests, the roasting, the fermentation, the bottling. The town is a colorful jumble of narrow streets and picturesque architecture in a green valley made fertile by the nearby volcano and its mineral-rich soil. The factory is also a museum -- to the history of tequila. And now, the stately family villa and estate adjacent to the factory is a museum, too -- this time, to art.
Over the last two decades, the company has built its collection of modern and contemporary art, with a particular focus on important works by Mexican artists, to include some 1,500 works by figures such as Melanie Smith, Darío Escobar, Edgar Orlaineta, Teresa Lanceta, Rodrigo Hernández, Marie Lund, Leonora Carrington, Francisco Toledo, Juan Soriano, Manuel Felguérez, and Betsabeé Romero. And now, as of 2017, that collection will include work by one of the most popular and acclaimed contemporary Mexican artists, Abraham Cruzvillegas. His visceral, witty, majestic, and subversive installation of mixed media sculpture and drawing, Tequioh inaugurated the crisp new gallery space at the José Cuervo Foundation -- the new contemporary museum on the grounds of the historic Hacienda, once home to the family and business, just down the cobblestone street from the factory itself. The soft opening of what would soon become a public art venue coincided with the release of that special tequila -- and its box.
For the last 22 years, this reserve release has been accompanied by -- or rather, nestled within -- an equally special and unique artist commission. Prominent curator Patrick Charpenel, Zona Maco director Zélika García, and Juan Domingo Beckmann, executive president of Casa Cuervo, selected Cruzvillegas to develop the famous box for the 2017 iteration -- finally available in the US as of this month -- and at the same time, to create an exhibition of new work to surround the launch and inaugurate the spectacular new museum. The result was Tequioh, a neat pun which refers to a spirit of collective work and is related to the root of the word tequila, tekilan, meaning “the place of the workers.” The idea of manual labor and traditional craft has long held sway as a personal and allegorical framework in Cruzvillegas’ work, but this is made especially salient by the proximity to La Rojeña itself -- the oldest working distillery in Latin America, in operation since 1795. In fact, I interviewed Cruzvillegas in the cool, stone-walled, iron-gated, and once-secret basement of this factory, while production never ceased two stories above our heads. “Tequila is a part of everyday life.” Cruzvillegas begins. “So I thought, what can I learn from this experience? Not only about its history and, production but about its symbolism, its meaning…”
It’s October, and he had visited the town in March. He’d done the same tour of the field and factory that we had done just hours before the interview, met the jimadors, seen them at work, returned to the factory and smelled the cloying sweetness of roasted agave pinas, tasted the results. “When I was here, it triggered something. Tequila is a place, a company, a product, a national history -- all bound together in industry, culture, history, politics, economy, society. The agaves are watered by nothing but the rain that falls -- or does not fall. There’s a little bat that pollinates the agaves. Animal and plant have this beautiful, nocturnal relationship; it’s unexpected. Labor,” he continues after a pause, “is a kind of complicity between nature and man.”
After that first visit, he returned to Mexico City where he lives and works, and thought things through. “I came,” he says, “and I took something home with me and continued my research, with scholars and makers, designers, and historians. The art is the learning itself, the work is simply the evidence of that learning. I met the jimadors, I noticed their hands, and finally their tools.” As his thoughts and visual imagination settled on the tools of the tequila trade, he not only found recourse in his usual process of hyper-local, site-specific material inspiration and incorporation -- he also began to imagine a fantasy narrative in which he saw himself as a gorilla, a primate “like we all are” with opposable thumbs and simple tools. Hook, broom, hat, machete, rope, whip, knife, net. The Coa is a primitive instrument, tourists buy them for ornament not for use. The work for the museum is a combination of large drawings featuring self-portraits as the primate artisan (one of which became the art for the outside of the box), and large-scale improvisational assemblage sculptures constructed of these very tools themselves. Some of the sharper tools are used to affix the drawings into the wall; all of them were bought and sourced locally, and well-used by the look of them.
Asked to speak more about the idea of the artist as a worker, and how much this really is an allegory of himself, Cruzvillegas laughs and says, “The word allegory is too beautiful for what I do, but yes.” He went once to his own ancestral part of Mexico, where they make “clay and cheese,” to find his own identity by learning from the people who produce things by hand. “You have milk,” he recounts, “you hold it in your hand, it becomes an oval, cheese, you crumble it on your beans. That’s the experience I’m still getting here. These men carving a sculpture out of a plant, and it becomes this lovely thing to share with friends. Humble and simple. Not didactic but instead philosophical, I am interested in both the character of the word “tequila” and the objecthood of things, which both become something else. Keep the box,” he says. “Put your love letters in there, your keys or underwear, whatever you like. Recycle it, hold memories in it. I as an artist always reuse my materials, I transform everything.”
In fact inside the box there’s already a kind of love letter. Cruzvillegas has composed an animistic text from the Coa, in its voice, explaining how it “feels about its job and its relationship with nature and with humans/primates.” It describes in part, “[The man who] sweats, impassible, and carries on with the hustle and bustle that shall become vestigial after imminent automatization: a living fossil… a link of common labor representing a barter of knowledge, raw materials, time, energy, work, transformation.”
Asked about the specific ways in which he approaches working on site with locally harvested materials, he admits to an unshakable, intuitive wanderlust. “More and more I try not to work in the studio,” he says. “I don’t produce properly. I would love to say I’m a kind of archaeologist of society, with a more animist approach. Local cultural identities and their traces are not necessarily in nationalistic way, that sounds dangerous to me. The things I find, they are more local, local, local -- emblematic of individual selves. I am always responsive to place, like a blind date that includes everything and excludes nothing. Tolerance is about not choosing. And I want to say something about who I think I am in this moment in society. This could seem frivolous to be here at this moment, drinking tequila and speaking like this, at this time of chaos and destruction. But at the same time, it’s important that businesses invest in art as a priority to reconstruct a country’s culture. Science, education and culture -- without these things we have nothing. Thank you.” WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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