By KAREN MOE March, 2019
When I arrived back in Mexico City on January 9th, there were virtually no cars on the road. In an attempt to fight the epidemic corruption in the Mexican gas industry, the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had closed many of the main pipelines that fill the mega-metropolis with gas.
As I approached a 6 lane one-way artery called Patriotismo, it was barely recognizable. Usually a snarl of traffic, there were only a few lucky stragglers cruising down an almost empty road. The city was like a ghost metropolis, haunted by the phantoms of the cars that compose not only so much of its essence; but also, its very matter. It was as though the top layer of the city’s geologic make up had suddenly been washed away.
Now, everything is back to normal—as ‘normal’ as this oft toted surreal city can be, that is. Gas is mysteriously feeding the city (there are differing opinions as to how) and the traffic is a-snarl once again. And, yet, the weeklong absence of something as essentially Mexico City as masses of honking cars demonstrated how the surface, far from being impervious, can be undermined at any moment and we are left with a less than certain viewpoint from the ground we think we stand on.
At the Mexican Museum of Geology, Swedish curator Jonatan Habib Engqvist and Mexican curator and artist Gabriel Mestre Arrioja have intervened the one hundred and thirteen year old museum. The exhibition pays homage to Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) who is known for her performance and body art. In order to reject racism, divisive politics and violence as an innate part of the human condition, Mendieta performatively (re)connected the human body with nature and transgressed the foundational binary that delineates the human as other than nature. Running from February 5th to April 7th, 2019, Earth-Body correspondingly relinquishes cultural antagonisms by building dialogues between the past and the present, the global north with the south and the human with the earth.
Earth-Body is a collaboration between contemporary art and geology and also a creative partnership between Mexico and Scandinavia, two cultures that, on the surface, cannot be more antithetical. As the artists and curators immerse the art into the fossils, bones and chunks of stone, however, overlaps emerge that over-ride any previous separations and initiate a revolution of perception towards the universal that, in the deep structure of imminent environmental suicide, is no longer a contested reality.
Upon entering the grand building that hearkens back to the architecture of the Porfiriato, we come upon an ornate spiral staircase, polished oak and an art deco tiled floor in the company of a vitrine that Swedish artist, Nikolina Ställborn, has filled with empty plastic bottles. It goes without saying that, in our geological epoch, plastic, and in particular plastic bottles, is everywhere. Ställborn calls her project Sufocación briliante (Brilliant Suffocation) and explained to me how plastic is “the new geological layer that we are making here on earth. The plastic seemed like a brilliant material when we started to use it.” But now, I would add, it is suffocating not only we anthropocentric humans but also, all other species on earth. Like the layers of geological history that are housed by the museum, plastic will be the paleontological sign of our times.
In the Mineral Room, Norwegian artist Ane Graff has made cocktails out of the three main autoimmune diseases in Mexico: Lupus, Alzheimer’s and Diabetes. Engqvist commented how autoimmune diseases are products of what we surround ourselves with: be it pollution, what we eat, what we drink and the pharmaceutical drugs that we take to counter-act the effects. In Goblets, Graff has layered the minerals that compose each disease in wine glasses and champagne flutes. The art objects are delicate stratums of colour and texture that, made even more precious by their display in the vitrines, one would never suspect of causing harm. Through these playful gestures of subterfuge, the artist reveals the toxicity produced by the environmental carelessness of capitalism that we are being insidiously fed everyday.
In her installation, Silence/ Flowers of the Kola Peninsula, Sami artist Marja Helander combines her research on mining on the Kola Peninsula of Northern Russian with photographs of the Alta Hydro-Electric Dam in the north of Norway. In the 1970s, the indigenous Sami people initiated what the Zapatistas proclaimed the first Eco-Revolution and, through their unwavering dissent, they saved a village from being flooded. A much smaller version of the dam was still built, however, a facility that, according to Helander, is more a product of the Norwegian government’s wounded ego than a significant source of electricity. In her installation of confrontation and loss, the land of the Kola Peninsula is represented as a video projection on the floor of what could be forensic photographs where flowers and smoke stacks palimpsest upon and through each other while two stark images of the Alta Dam stand guard.
The Fossil Room has been invaded by Sci-Fi. Entitled Noir Desire, Mexican sculptor Pablo Castillo has built a futuristic plant/ animal hybrid out of car parts. In the company of pre-historic elephant skulls, Castillo’s futuristic fossil looks as though it is about to leap off of its plinth and scuttle across the floor as a Post-Apocalyptic mutant. Engqvist explained how, when constructing his car part creatures, Castillo manipulates the heated metal as though he is “drawing in air.” The pieces then come together, as arbitrary configurations or miracles, perhaps mimetic to the process of evolution itself.
As a resident of Tijuana, borders compose a deep presence in the life and art of video artist Pepe Mogt. Little did he know, as he filmed the wall between Tijuana and California, it was destined to become a thing of the past one week after the shoot. In Mogt’s video loop of the original US/ Mexico wall, Quadripoint, he used a micro-lens in order to document the progressive deterioration of the wall by natural forces. He commented how, “from far away, the border looks solid, but when you are up close, nature is persistently tearing it down.” The video is exhibited in a vitrine in the Volcano and Continental Shift section of the museum. In this context of geological upheaval, the inherent vulnerability of divisive human constructs is extended into the millennia.
At the Material Art Fair, Mexico City’s Labor Gallery featured Héctor Zamora’s Movimientos emisores de existencia (Existence Emission Movements). The work is composed of a series of squashed clay pots, typical of those carried on women’s heads in pre-industrial cultures. Gallery director, Ana Maria Sanchez, explained to me how the project is a symbolic deflation of the ‘ideological weight’ contained in these pots. During the opening, women dancers stepped onto the wet clay vessels, reclaiming their bodies in this act of dismantling the historical trajectory of female servility and creating an installation composed of a ceremonial aftermath of resistance.
Future Gallery of Berlin featured work by Mexico City artist Julieta Gil. Her piece, Jaguar, fuses ancient technology with that of our present and the future. Gil uses a Pre-Hispanic bust of a jaguar as the foundation for her subversion from the permanent collection at Mexico City’s Palacio Bellas Artes. The sculpture is alive with uncensored imperfections of history. Using the process of photogrammetry, Gil created a sandstone sculpture from a 3-D scan. However, the still to be perfected technology of 3-D printing added gaps to the cracks of the past and the final work ended up literally broken into pieces. Ironically, in Jaguar, because the idealized technology of the future is still far from perfect, the new is more fragmented than its origins—the present doubles back onto the past.
New York’s Lyles & King featured Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Beauty Masks. In this series of portraits, Grzeszykowska models rubber masks that women use to combat the inevitable sags of aging. She stares as an ironic zombie in these freak show cosmetic artefacts and the photographs appear more carnival than metaphysical. Unfortunately, a device intended to maintain normalcy and, specifically, the mandate that women are not allowed to age extends into ontological constructs. As Grzeszykowska poses deadpan with her lips forced into the well-worn sexy ‘duck lip’ pout, the beauty masks reveal the absurdity that they have been marketed to conceal.
The work of Filipino artist Cian Dayrit was featured at Berlin’s Nome Gallery. In his series of embroidered textiles, Dayrit presents ‘counter cartographies’ where the process of imperialism and its scrupulous mapping is turned on its head. This flip is, indeed, quite literal in the piece “Cultus Dominatur” (Ruler Culture). The artist has made the Northern hemisphere the South and vice versa, inverting the power structure where the Global South gets the upper hand over its historical oppressors. In authoritative Latin, the words “Novu-Liberalismus-Capitalismus” are embroidered across the top of the ironic inversion, stitching contemporary Neo-Liberalism together with its Imperialist origins.
At ZONAMACO, MAIA CONTEMPORARY of Mexico City hosted a kitschy combination of politics and play in Salvadorian artist Simón Vega’s Castaway Space Hostel. Modelled after a Soviet space shuttle, the artist slapped together his ironic replica with Third World scraps. The artist provides diagrams of the spacecraft: in Apolonia’s Salon, for example, we can get our hair and nails done, spend time with Miss Universe El Salvador 1975 and commemorate the Student Massacre in El Salvador of the same year. In his retrograde space ship, Vega plays a game of overlap between the superficial and the serious, the privileged and the otherwise as this once state of the art artefact is found rusting in a faux Central American jungle.
Marlborough of New York exhibited one of Cuban painter Tomás Sánchez’s Trash Landscapes. Gallery director Sebastian Sarmiento told me how all of Sánchez’s paintings are acts of meditation. In “Antagonismo” (Antagonism), this meditative softness in combination with such worldly brutality is, of course, ironic; but it also produces a pressure that deifies absolute interpretation: the painting is more about emotion than mind. The delicate, almost diffuse pallete and the loving precision of each tree create a hyper-real purity, stretching passed the painting’s horizon and emanating an uncanny combination of joy and melancholy. The monstrous garbage bag appears hyperbolic, but is it really? The pristine and the disgraceful stand in a stalemate and “Antagonismo” radiates a dreamy tension as everything teeters on the brink of devastation.
Mexican/ American artist Ray Smith has embarked upon a journey of Raku and has encountered a metaphysics of fire along the way. Smith initiates the realization of the large-scale vases, but it is the process of the firing of the clay that soon takes over both in the creation of the final work and in the imagination of the artist. Estéreo of Mexico City/ Monterrey featured a selection of Plata Quemada, Fired Silver. The artist explained to me how “there is a molecular subconscious because the Raku comes from an inferno. Everything is essentially left to the randomness of the flames, the heat and the cooling.” There is a gap between the human artistry of (attempted) control and the arbitrary art produced by the elements where, in Smith’s words, “even the broken is the beautiful.”
Monterrey based Tercerunquinto won the prestigious Tequila Prize this year. Since 2000, the collective has documented political murals that, starting in the 1920s, have become a part of the Mexican landscape. Found on walls and fences throughout the country, these murals emerged in tandem with the work of the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution. Tercerunquinto believes that the political advertising murals are as much a part of the national consciousness as the work of the iconic muralists. As a part of their on-going project, The Restoration of Mural Painting, the pieces entitled “Arqueologia del muro politico. Palimpsesto de estudios preliminares. Estudio de taller” (Archaeology of the political mural. Preliminary studies in palimpsest. Workshop study) are devised as ‘underdrawing sketches’ and are composed of roughly 150 layers of ink. These pieces reveal the infinity that lies beneath the concrete; and, as preliminary studies, they proclaim no closure.
SALÓN ACME is Mexico. Located in the historical Proyecto Público Prim, ACME features only Mexican artists or foreigners who have lived and created in the city. ACME was the first art event during the week of international art fairs in Mexico that gave emerging and non-represented artists a formal entry into the art world.
The building itself is a work of art and is representative of the glamorous fragmentation that combines to create a metropolis alive with surreal surfaces and ever-present ghosts. With the historic building’s often cracked and crumbling colonial detailing and sumptuous hues of the dilapidating surfaces, it is a delight to be freed from the white cube and enter a venue that is a part of the art it is exhibiting.
The work in the emerging artist salon spoke directly to Mexico. If you have ever spent any time in Mexico City, you may have noticed that there is a lot of cleaning going on. The smell of Fabulosa (the most toxic smelling all-purpose cleaner this Canadian has ever choked on) is a part of the air and the non-stop scrubbing and scraping of brooms underlays all other enigmatic sounds of the street. Stephanny López Lucero’s Patio interior is composed of multi-coloured brooms, dusters, and scrub brushes. On the surface, the installation appears a good bit of fun; however, it speaks to a city that, with 23 million people and air that requires a daily downpour to clean it, without the non-stop scrubbing, Mexico City would eventually bury itself.
Monterrey artist Carlos Adrián Lara Martínez’s sculpture Breve melancolía de un atardecer dominical (Brief Melancholy of a Sunday Evening) risked going unnoticed, it is so much a part of its context. Indeed, it is this near invisiblization that composed much of the intrigue as a clump of well-worn metal rocking chairs climbed up a corner of an equally well-worn wall. These rocking chairs are typical of Martínez’s hometown and can regularly be found on porches throughout the city. The artist initiated a collective process where the rocking chairs were acquired by crossing the city and old chairs were exchanged for new ones. The chairs are welded together in a complex communal network where they appear fixed in motion as they re-call the comings and goings of the bodies that have rested there.
In keeping with their commitment to the local, ACME dedicates one salon to Indigenous artists. Every year, a different state is chosen and this year it was Michoacán’s turn. The majority of the work exhibited was by artists from the town of Cheran, an indigenous community that rose up against the corrupt police and politicians who were in collusion with the cartels and were terrorizing the community and devastating its surrounding forests. Through their unrelenting vigilance, Cheran has been autonomous since 2011.
Artist Maria Sosa explained to me how, since colonisation, Michoacán has been a state under siege. Her piece, The Eighth Fatal Omen, tells the story of the last omen Indigenous peoples received before the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th Century. For Sosa, her five-meter tall man with two heads is colonialism. She told me how the two heads represent a lack of equilibrium and embodied violence. Sosa inscribed this contemporary rendition of her distant ancestor’s final omen with reports of violence that appear daily in contemporary Mexican newspapers.
Photographs taken in Arantepacua, Michoacán in 2017 were shown as a projection loop. Taken by photojournalist Juan José Estrada Serafin, the photos are as every day as they are extraordinary; and, perhaps, extraordinary due to the fact that such loss and grieving is a part of the every day in the majority of Mexican lives—or, in the case of modern day Cheran, was. The series of images are of a group of young men carrying another young man back from the countryside to his community. It is a death march, loving and full of grief. We don’t know why or how the young man was killed. It doesn’t matter. As a state with one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico, he is but another young Mexican denied his life.
In 2018, the Guardian reported that since the people of Cheran kicked out the politicians, the police and, in so doing, the cartels, not a single kidnapping or extortion event has been reported.[i] Painter, Bethel Pañeda, is one of the artists from the community of Cheran. Pañeda’s painting, Nanuka, is of a young woman who is training to become a shaman. She is the new generation of a liberated Cheran and, yet, she carries with her the wisdom of centuries. Unlike Sosa’s two-headed man, Nanuka is fully contained, coherent and unified by circles that maintain her autonomy; nevertheless, she looks beyond these symbols of liberty. Her expression is fierce and filled with the defiance, irreverence and vigilance that attests to the fact that never forgetting is a key component to any revolution.
For a little over a week in early January 2019, Mexico City was not entirely what it is. A key component that we take for granted had, like the top layer of sedimentary rock, been eroded to the point that it had become a momentary memory. But all of the cars are back; our reliable surface is once again intact. For now. Until, like in the boundless game of artistic mimesis, what is perceived as the right way up is once again undermined and re-awakens some of the beneaths and in-betweens and not-yet-to-comes that make up our permeable, and ever temporal, surfaces. WM
The devastation caused by the earthquake in Mexico on September 19th, 2017 still exists, especially in rural and easily forgotten towns near the epicenter. Los Angeles en México was at ZONAMACO raising awareness and funds for their project to build quality houses for those who remain homeless. For more information https://losangelesenmexico.org
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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