Some Precarious Ruins in the Present
Mexico’s Xlll FEMSA Biennial
“We Have Never Been Contemporary.”
Zacatecas, Mexico October 26, 2018 to February 17, 2019.
By KAREN MOE November, 2018
The monument bases are sinking and emerging at the same time, or are they emerging and sinking simultaneously, achieving a tension of absent presence, as stone apparitions, about to be and become otherwise. Cynthia Gutiérrez’s “Rumores de piedra” (Stone Rumours) are replicas of monument bases that are denied their monument, unrequited supports with their destinies withheld, foundations with their significations suspended. Thresholds. As the non-monuments are caught on the cusp of here and there and what could have been and what is not, they are so immersed in their architectural landscape that there is a seamlessness to the question as to whether they have been here all along—the answer is: yes, no; both, and
In 1973, Zacatecan artist Manuel Felguérez had his landmark exhibition “El espacio multiple” (the Multiple Space) at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
Felguérez was a part of the Generation of Rupture that confronted the School of Mexican Painting headed by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco that they viewed as having been reduced to surface dogma in service of the government. Within this context, Felguérez set out to activate multiple spaces; that is, the multiplicity that has always been here, alive in what critic Teresa del Conde terms, “the edges of trajectories;” or, what lays latent in the folds and on the peripheries of Cartesian compartmentalisations of this/ that and us/them: the binaries that initiated the metaphysics of the ‘modern.’
Held in the historically rich, colonial city of Zacatecas, the conceptual legacy of ‘multiple space’ is an ideal trope through which to extend the idea of the biennial beyond the tradition of autonomous innovations bereft of context. The name of the 2018 Mexican Biennial is a play on the title of French philosopher Bruno Latour’s book, “We Have Never Been Modern,” that, through a philosophy of anti-dualism, calls for a hybridity that is able to break through categorical separations and realize spaces that exist within other spaces. Rather than attempting to show the artistic present, the curators and artists have collaborated with a specific place by super-imposing the museums and the public spaces upon and within the exhibitions. As the Xlll FEMSA Biennial works to engender a dialogue between archival, public and artistic representations, the project activates the inevitability of multiple spaces when creative processes are immersed within their context.
Cynthia Gutiérrez’s “Rumores de piedra” whisper truths that inhabit the liminal and are a lyrical point of departure for the Biennial. As her stone rumours stand, lean, sink and rise, monumentally stranded in the front garden of Museo Rafael Coronel, Javier Hinojosa’s (META-tepalcates) El Torbellino Dentro del Torbellino (Whirlwind within the Whirlwind) instigates a gyre composed of colonial control and its precarious present. By stacking found, intervened and fabricated chunks of the baroque buildings of Zacatecas, the artist has created architectural balancing acts that threaten to topple and testify to civilization’s imminent fallibility. El Torbellino Dentro del Torbellino is strategically installed alongside Museo Pedro Coronel’s permanent collection of 18th Century architectural drawings, impeccably preserved artefacts from the city’s conquistador founders. This merger of the precise with the precarious initiates a rupture within the continuing legacy of Colonial control.
Iván Krassoievitch’s installation, La uña de la cara (The Face Nail), utilizes local stone, along with branches, chunks of jam space sound proofing foam, wigs and clown-nose-red bobbles. Nature and synthetic objects form an awkward pastiche and the sticks stick out phallic, either drooping, ambivalent or triumphant. His project is in conversation with the permanent exhibition of Zacatecan artist and collector, Rafael Coronel’s, extensive collection of Pre-Hispanic masks in the adjoining gallery space. Predominantly worn for dancing and festivals, the masks from millennia passed participate in Krassoievitch’s correspondingly whacked-out characters as modern day kitschy rock stars. However, where the present is composed of scraps of popular culture stuck haphazardly onto chunks of stone, the pre-Hispanic masks emanate a unity in their chaos—with the stranglehold of the modern between us and them, ours is a far less certain time.
Ricardo Alcaide explained to me how his work always has strong references to Modernism in contrast with what he recognizes as the precariousness of the present, especially in Mexico and Latin America. In his installation, Estado inconsciente (Unconscious State), Alcaide has composed a circle of rectangular bases that have been constructed, like the incremental tones in a chromatic scale, harmoniously, exuding order and rigor, determined not to leave anything out. However, the bases have no middle and stand, like dissolving soldiers, as a sort of hollowed-out Stonehenge. His fortress is pervious.
Alcaide collected industrial debris from the marginal spaces of Zacatecas, objects that he describes as “ruins from a very recent history,” and placed these wayward artefacts both on the periphery of and within his sacred circle of failed autonomy. Engaged in a silent siege, the debris has advanced upon the center and many pieces have succeeded in ascending the pinnacles of the empty rectangles cum plinths, some to the point of being cast in bronze, achieving a tension of deified doom. Estado inconsciente stages a consummation between order and corrosion and, in so doing, reveals that they are one and the same thing—a sort of messy, and highly volatile, marriage.
As a well-preserved Spanish colonial town with its tell tale pink buildings made of local Cantera stone, Zacatecas was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. ‘Cantera’ is the Spanish name for quarry and, it was through the discovery of silver and gold that the Spaniards took a real interest in subduing the Caxcanes and Guachichiles in order to exploit the mineral resources most effectively. Ironically, a stone that has been the bedrock of a place since the beginning of time is now only known through the word ‘quarry’: a designated location of mineral extraction.
It goes without saying that Cantera is a key component to the history and economics of Zacatecas. Zacatecan born sculptor Plinio Ávila commented how “there is only one thing to talk about when you are in this city and it is mining. Because it affects everything that you eat, you are, and how you live. Mining is the only thing that happens here. The rest is surviving.” When asked how the localized format of the 2018 FEMSA Biennial will reflect upon the mining in Zacatecas, Genaro Borrego, a director of the FEMSA corporation, stated flatly that without mining, Zacatecas, not to mention Mexico, would not exist. Of course, such a reductionist statement maintains the modern mandate of ‘progressive’ tunnel vision and, yes, there is most certainly truth to the statement: the Zacatecas and the Mexico of today would not exist in the same form if it weren’t for mineral exploitation—with its reality of beauty for some and blight for the majority. As Zacatecans walk through the exquisite baroque streets of their city, the environmental toxins that made such grandeur possible literally contaminate their blood.
Carved from the pink Cantera, Plinio Ávila’s Fuente de azogue (Mercury Fountain) is a composition of the ironies that his home is comprised of. Mercury is the substance used to extract the gold and silver from the ground and, according to Ávila, after centuries of mining, there is such a high concentration of mercury in the soil that if one rubs a handful of dirt in their palm, lethal droplets form. Modelled after Alexander Calder’s 1937 Mercury Fountain in Barcelona, Ávila’s sculpture connects the intimacies of a local space to the colonial sources of its origins in Western capitalism. At the same time, in dialogue with Calder’s fountain that was commissioned during the Spanish Civil War, Ávila’s dramatizes the conflict in his locale between the typically foreign owned mining corporations, the Mexican people and the local environment. During our interview, Ávila commented how cultural constructs can be beautiful and harmful at the same time, and how this is especially true in Zacatecas.
Ávila told me how he is not an activist artist and yet, paradoxically, through the process of creating Fuente de azogue, his fountain produced an irony that it was only a pump for donating blood that had the power to propel the mercury back up through the body of the stone. Because of a medical device that is used to save lives, the lethal substance is able to weep from the glory of its fountainhead and to trace the sculpture’s baroque filigrees and curves as toxic tears. The base of the fountain is a topography of Zacatecas and, before being pumped back up to the pinnacle, the mercury flows through the veins of its geography. Like the mining corporations that blast and drill in order to uncover riches, Ávila’s Mercury Fountain surfaces the toxicity that lies beneath excessive wealth and corporate greed.
Naomi Rincón Gallardo works through twisted lenses. She explained to me how: “I am interested in contradiction, in bringing a very wide scope of emotional forces into the work so that you never feel really comfortable.” In a no holds barred feminist fashion, her 3-channel video installation, Sangre pesada (Heavy Blood), is a narrative of desire and resistance within the devastation of a locality that has succumbed to centuries of abusive mining practices, first by the Spaniards and now from primarily Canadian and American corporations. When I asked her how the project originated, she proclaimed: “I started out of indignation. And it’s not only about the situation in Zacatecas but in the global south in general and these new forms of neo-liberal, violent, patriarchal, capitalist possession.”
Even though the work is grounded in the harsh realities of environmental devastation, Rincón Gallardo uses fantasy and puts together combinations that have not been seen before. Like the pain in the present that is far too often paralyzing, she told me how she is trying to address landscapes of dispossession through a narrative that is not a pain narrative: she is trying to find a narrative based in desire. There is a rollick to the work as performance and sound artist Bárbara Lázara plays a woman warrior with copper teeth decked out in a lime green leopard pattern shirt, a playful breast plate made of breasts and sparkly sneakers. Shot on location in Vetagrande that has been a mining town since the 16th Century, Rincón Gallardo bashes together synthetic kitsch with a decimated countryside. In the section entitled “Lungs,” Lázara plays a phone-sex worker who gurgles and pants through her abject copper teeth alongside a gasping male cross-dressed miner/ ‘john,’ also played by Lázara. Rincón Gallardo describes these two characters as ‘proletariat lungs’ that, together, perform a heavy breathing suffocation. And yet, in an act of metabolizing their own toxicity, they still manage to expel black spit, dramatizing the biological truth that, no matter how small, a contaminated body can still resist. In the section, “The Curse of Minerals,” the lady with the copper teeth sits quaintly upon a blanket in the devastated landscape as though on a picnic. She wears a mask of parched earth as she sucks a blood coloured beverage through surgical tubes from a plastic bottle; she smokes toxic soil like crack accompanied by voices of a man and a woman telling us how, even though “they call my veins strategic resources,” they are not here to talk about their pain. In the final section, the title song rages utopia amidst the dystopic ruins: “Sangre Pesada. Resisting Persisting.”
In the video installation Los otros días (The Other Days), Chantal Peñalosa shows us the multiple spaces that exist within absence. Filmed in the abandoned community of El Visitador, the video is a meditation on migration. Even though the state of Zacatecas has a booming mining industry, the majority of the profits and taxes do not stay in the community. Since NAFTA, and its prioritization of corporations, the local people receive few benefits from the pillaging of their land and many Zacatecans have had no choice but to leave in order to find work.
In Los otros días, as a lyrical aftermath of forced absence, Peñalosa’s starting point was to document “What happens when nothing happens?” Her camera moves through the stillness as gestures of both stealth and affection, invading and caressing a home where the inhabitants had literally just up and left one day, leaving a doll asleep in the window, clothing rumpled on dishevelled beds, a chain swinging in an unclosed door. Through the use of mass-produced porcelain figures of a bird, a dog, two ducks and a cat, Peñalosa creates paradoxical tour guides, as the capitalist system of their creation is the cause of the abandonment they are showing to us. We follow the figures over tabletops, behind curtains, along the floor, searching for the emptiness that has already been found, and discover the hauntings of the other days before, during and after this one.
Not only is the 2018 FEMSA Biennial about generating dialogues with what lays latent within the discourse of the modern, through the mandate of head-curator Willy Kautz, the project embraces the spatiality of the hybrid in terms of its density and capacity for transformation and flux. Taking its lead from the refreshing optimism of Latour, the Biennial celebrates the inevitability of the modern as both fallible and superficial, albeit a most brutalising metaphysical construct in that, the more we try and maintain separations, “underneath, hybrids continue to multiply as an effect of this separate treatment.” Indeed, as biennials begin to extricate themselves from the cloistering prioritization of the contemporary and the ego-driven grandeur of the global, the knowledge of a place can be revealed. Through such local gestures, discourses of domination are proven precarious as multiplicity has always been here, since its renunciation, beneath the surface, and is, paradoxically, nothing new. 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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