"The Best Art In The World"
By KAREN MOE, February 2022
It was nice to come upon reality right away. When I walked into Mexico City’s Zona Maco this year, I was greeted by Stefan Brüggemann’s Speculative Painting (Two women). Born in Mexico City and working between Mexico and London, the artist has the perspective of the outside looking in along with the intimacy of one born here, this roughing up of the connection with place often adding to the possibility of its reading. Made of pictures from magazines, Mexico City’s GAM gallery director Rafael Yturbe explained to me how Brüggemann appropriates everything. The photograph is of one of the many colonial monuments in Mexico City that reside in parks and line Paseo de la Reforma; its edges are torn, taken from a cultural context that has yellowed with time and is fading as it continues to impose and look down upon.
This monument could be any monument of a European female deity. The artist didn’t even care enough to know its name or, one could argue, cared enough not to. It is one of the legacies of dictator Porfirio Diaz’s obsession with France and his subsequent neglect of the Mexican people: an exact copy of a monument in Versailles, the context was shifted from a celebration of a culture to the colonization of another one. This is an appropriation of an appropriation: just as the artist appropriated the image from a magazine in order to subvert the conquest of his homeland, Porfirio Diaz appropriated the monument from a foreign culture in order to symbolically conquer it. As a print—and the inherent possibilities of infinite replication—Speculative Painting (Two women) obfuscates origin and, paradoxically, through layers of imposition and artifice, tells us what really happened.
This is because the monument is not the only one there. The most important part of the image is an Indigenous woman, sitting at the anonymous she-monument’s feet. Where the Versailles replica boasts center stage, the artist has placed the Indigenous woman at the bottom right corner of the image, an aesthetic positioning that could easily be overlooked. However, even though her is head underexposed and she is looking behind the frame as though into a world that once was, the Indigenous woman is the punctum, the part of the image we are drawn to, and what opens up the narrative of the photograph. The marginalized has become front and center.
But Brüggemann didn’t stop there. As she fades, this monumental imposition is further cancelled. She has been defaced by unruly scribble-strokes appropriated from Roy Lichtenstein that, in the Mexico City context, can be seen as a cheeky reference to the ruckus clown shows that drown out any attention given to Mexico’s colonial history in city parks on a Sunday afternoon. Made in 2010, did the artist subconsciously know that in 2019 his playful Lichenstein cancellations would become reality as Mexican women started raging enmasse against the femicide epidemic, breaking with hammers and literally defacing the colonial symbols of their oppression? Unlike the still-silenced Indigenous woman of Brüggemann’s 2010 collage, in 2022, Mexican women are looking dead ahead, wielding the reality of place.
At Mexico City’s Art Latinou’s exhibition, Fabián Cháirez, painter of the controversial painting of Mexican revolutionary and machista Emiliano Zapata naked and feminized on a horse, continued his practice of subverting the stereotypes of racialized, sexualized and gender dissidents in Mexico. As one of the most representative contemporary artists within the LGBT+ community in Mexico, Cháirez simultaneously blasphemes and complicates the icons of Mexican popular culture. The painting Idilio (Idyll) features two luchas (Mexican wrestlers) in their lucha masks and shiny capes. Cháirez’s luchas swirl idyllic in their spherical frame with the innocence of cherubs, their traditional machismo complicated as they yearn to kiss while programmed to punch and their repressed desire is punctured by the arrows that control their hearts. Desnudo de Hombre, half lucha, half hyperfem, lies glamorously on a bed of pink satin, surrounded by thrown swords that have just missed him/her. En-corseted and lucha-masked, his/her legs are coyly posed in the knee-together eroticism of conditioned femininity, while arms and shoulders, biologically masculine, are about to crawl towards a future as of yet realized.
As a feminist who decries all misogynist stereotypes of gender and sex, one may (at first look) wonder why I am featuring Horacio Quiroz’s Constructor del Chthuluceno. The answer is simple: it tells the truth. With its outrageously gloopy and globular boobs, ferociously erect nipple, and miniscule waist reminiscent of the corseted triumph of Scarlet O’Hara, there is everything feminist about this artwork (painted and animated)—feminism in the sense of eradicating all patriarchal divisions and containments bent upon civilizing, controlling and containing reality.
The title Chthuluceno (Chthulucene) is taken directly from multi-species feminist theorist Donna Haraway who introduced the term as a rejection of the word Anthropocene to describe our current, human-centered (patriarchal gendered man/sexed male) geological age that, through its anthropocentric divisions between the dominating humans and everyone/thing else, is what is responsible for the destruction of the earth.
Quiroz paints the narrative of busting out of the Anthropocene with his bolder as the background, Chthuluceno’s bad-ass glasses that could be made of crystal quartz, one arm en-marbled, knee high boots a-swirl as a mineral made of ambiguity and a blue stone teeters on the other elbow in symmetry with the certainty of testicles peeking out from below the curvaceous ass, keeping time with the about-to-burst boobs. Quiroz explains how he uses “the human body as a tool to represent the constant movement of our reality.” Like Haraway’s “multispecies muddle,” his work is grotesque and regenerative. Constructor del Chthuluceno is a Mexico City Earth/Gaia who makes as she destroys, stone hand partially concealing a mischievous giggle, eyes sly as she/he “undoes thinking as usual.”
So, too, Rosa Tharrats stretches the body out of its artifice, or perhaps within it. Her textile sculptures, featured at Madrid’s Galería Heinrich Ehrhardt, are constrained as they transform. A piece in her Anemomes series, El Buit de Brac, lies on its side, a lump that we can sense was once human, bound by diaphanous fabric and lace that conjure champagne cocktails amidst a whirl of a coquette. Claustrophobic, though, the lump has been washed up and stuck on an invisible beach, and, if one feels beneath the fabric of femininity, grotesquery awaits in the form of a dismembered corpse. It is an ‘it’ that was once a someone, caught by its own ambivalence, unable to flee, yet.
In Anemona Kheprì, the form is still recognizably human, some sort of woman in fact. This once-was-a-she is now a dissolving mannequin, an idealized female shape progressively slipping out of itself. Well on the way to being an ‘it,’ almost-it could be the precursor to the anemone counterpart of El Buit de Brac, still standing but predestined to fall. Armless, a layer of clay announcing a melted head, Tharrats’ sculptures are simultaneously eery and innocent as the known is transplanted into new (or ancient) habitats of inevitable transformation.
Meanwhile, four silver gelatin prints shimmered otherworldly. There were only four, but it felt like a universe. When photographic images are made of emulsion rather than immaterial pixels, the blacks can’t be blacker, grey-tones merge into one another with the ease of liquid, and the grain, when given the attention of long-exposure, can't be tighter.
The contrast in a bank of clouds render the edges palpable in Paraná connecting the Rio sharp enough to reach out and touch; the exposure of the trees are delineated with such detail that we can feel into the forest; the mirrored water realized in silver gelatin spins one into awe. You can feel the passion for what the artist is representing, and what his photography is fighting to protect. These are no ordinary landscape photographs; these are works of art meant to assault us with the beauty that is fast retreating. “It is the mission of shining light on injustice that has most guided my work as a social photographer,” says Sebastião Salgado. And he does it through Beauty.
Beneath the four prints, the book created by Taschen Books was on display. The 70 x 50.5 cm, 24.9 kg book has 528 pages filled with Salgado’s photographs of Amazônia, the epic proportions of the project mirroring the extent of the photographer’s commitment. Despite the unrelenting assault from the outside world on the planet’s largest rainforest and its people with logging, deforestation for beef production, mining, and oil drilling, there is no suffering here. Salgado does not photograph the destruction: he goes for our hearts and photographs the nobility of survival.
The series Amazônia is composed of the natural environment and its people or the people and their natural environment. Like the ancient tree that gracefully inhabits the center of Anavilhanas archipelago, Anavilhanas National Park, Lower Rio Negro. State of Amazonas, as conduit of water, earth and sky, there is no division between the people and what they inhabit. Salgado photographs the people both in their natural environment and in studio as, in the artist/activist’s words, “a celebration of the survival of their cultures, customs, and languages [and] … a tribute to their role as the guardians of the beauty, natural resources, and biodiversity.” In Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, state of Acre, 2016, the girl looks at us with dignity, ferocity and accusation, wearing a feather headdress, absolutely encircled by her environment and culture. With the care of centuries, a man—his tattoos in aesthetic harmony with the environment—passes on the heritage of immersion in place as he paints a young woman, a flower made of feathers in her hair. In studio, a man is technically detached from the natural world; however, even when absent, the natural world the man and his ancestors have lived in synchronicity with for millennia, survives the artifice of studio. His gaze, far away from this moment of the photographic taking, is worried, sad, as he seems to be remembering that which is disappearing, even as he carries on the tradition of making it. Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, state of Acre, Rio Gregório Indigenous Territory, state of Acre, Anavilhanas archipelago, Anavilhanas National Park, Lower Rio Negro. State of Amazonas, Rio Gregório Yawanawá Indigenous Territory, state of Acre, Salgado named each image with its place; the people photographed are represented by where they are from, what they are of, and in this reciprocal relationship of absolute immersion, Salgado gives us what is far from otherworldly; rather, it is what could be ours, too, if we paid close attention to what is real. WM
Karen Moe is an art critic, visual and performance artist, author and feminist activist. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. Her art criticism has been published internationally in magazines, anthologies and artist catalogues in English and Spanish and she has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. She is the founder of the Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine and the blog The Logical Feminist. She is the author of Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor 2022. Karen lives in Mexico City and British Columbia, Canada.
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