By KAREN MOE, June, 2018
With the Mexican federal election fast approaching on July 1st, there is not much interest in international politics in Mexico these days and even the Trump topic has pretty much gone down the proverbial toilet. The country is fiercely divided between controversial and charismatic leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the other three. The division is so strong that, even though everyone can’t stop talking about the upcoming election, they are only talking to those they agree with. Indeed, any Obrador supporters in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood definitely need to keep it to themselves.
At La Tallera in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Erick Beltrán’s installation Laocoön’s Dream runs from April 14th to July 15th 2018. La Tallera is the workshop of the revolutionary muralist David Alfaro Siqeuiros. Now a cultural education centre and gallery, La Tallera maintains the legacy of the most radical of the Mexican muralists praxis of creating experimental and political art. Laocoön’s Dream fits right in with the unrelenting ferocity of Siqueiros’ legacy; however, unlike Siqueiros’ attitude of ‘my way or the highway’ in terms of his political beliefs, Beltrán proposes a pedantic of not believing anyone, and posits this truth in the duplicity of the Trojan Horse.
Even if one doesn’t know the tale of Troy and its hoodwinking horse, its legacy is alive and kicking in such computer jargon as ‘a trojan’ to denote deceptively benign computer codes that are written to damage an operating system and steal information. Read: attack. And, the Greeks similarly attacked the Trojans with their technological prowess of the tamed horse that on the surface was all-good, but at the core was all-bad.
And so the story goes: the Trojan War had been waging for ten years. The Greeks were getting tired of this so set out to trick the Trojans with a giant wooden horse. Built on a super-natural scale, the revered technology of the horse was strategically chosen as the object for the trap. However, the Trojan priest Laocoön wasn’t falling for it. He warned the people of Troy: “Beware of Greeks with gifts!” The people ignored him and dragged their demise inside of the city gates and, as soon as the gates were closed, an army poured out of its belly. Out of a potent combination of devotion and fear, the people of Troy refused to hear any opposition to their belief system and, thus, not only were they literally conquered by the Greeks, they were openly deceived by the very power structure they were conditioned to uphold.
In our interview, Beltrán told me how he uses the symbol of the Trojan Horse in order to represent a military tank of today. He explained:
I use the Trojan Horse as a metaphor in order to talk about the contemporary situation in Mexico. Who is the tank? It could be the army, it could be the government, it could be corporations, it could be Narco but, basically, it is the structure that profits from the current situation. The tank is anything that we accept without questioning.
According to Beltrán, since the Greeks, we have re-perpetuated the same symbols of empire, conquest and monotheism. The question is, as with any system of power abuse, how to break the cycle?
Beltrán’s solution is to read, but his is not reading in the literal sense in terms of reading books. The reading proposed by the artist cum theoretician is reading reality and, primarily, the all-pervasive image. He explained to me how this must be an active reading, a reading that never accepts anything at face value. In Beltrán’s reading of the myth of Troy, Laocoön was able to see the war machine because he was able to read outside of the given in order to see what it really was. However, like the title of the installation, this is all still a dream; according to Beltrán, the majority of Mexicans continue to swallow the beguiling gift whole.
Laocoön’s Dream is composed of ten curtains between 5 and 6.5 meters high, five totems, 5 stacks of newspapers, a video and an archive. The curtains are hung as a labyrinth from the 9-meter high ceiling of La Tallera and are printed on both sides. One side is text and diagrams; the other are digital collages of the artist's reading of the Trojan War in combination with contemporary images of violence in Mexico. Despite the grand scale, however, the print style of Beltrán’s collages resemble the poor print quality of mass produced news dailies. This conflation of the epic with the disposable speaks to the incessant repetitions of images that, through their daily recycling in the media, have become naturalized and, as such, have the power to dominate the popular imagination.
In keeping with the play between the celebrity and the quotidian, Beltrán cut up a picture of the Greco-Roman sculpture, “Laocoön and his Sons” in order to manufacture his individual characters. The sculpture depicts the moment when the enraged Greek goddess Athena sent two giant sea serpents to kill the dissenting Trojan priest and his sons, Antifant and Timbreo. By chopping up and then putting back together again a monument that has represented the Trojan War for millennia, Beltrán demonstrates how a master narrative can also be vulnerable and, thereby, opens up the possibility for the impermanence of the permanent.
The diptych "Caballo" narrates the peak of the action, the moment when what the Trojan Horse really is has been let loose. However, instead of the horse carrying an army, Beltrán’s reading spews monetary riches that merge into a mash of modern day machinery. When we read the diptych from left to right, the result is shards of mutilated men, composed with the longevity of marble, and frozen in the ferocity of their warring fragmentation.
In "Laocoön 1," the body of the Trojan priest mirror's that of the wooden horse. Where the horse was filled with Greek soldiers, the artist builds Laocoön's body from the citizens of Troy. However, unlike the Trojan Horse that was built as a vehicle for subterfuge, Beltrán’s Laocoön is a construct bereft of artifice. The contents of the image are fully accessible upon first read; his body is made of the very people who wouldn't listen.
Beltrán’s Laocoön is not alone in his sacrifice: he is in the company of assassinated Mexican journalists Regina Martínez, Gregorio Jiménez, Rubén Espinosa and Anabel Flores. Laocoön is foregrounded by the police photo of one of the most revered Mexican crime reporters, Javier Valdez, his corpse covered in a sheet, right after his murder in 2017. Beltrán stated that Laocoön represents the journalists of Mexico. In the tradition of Laocoön, two months before his murder, Javier Valdez wrote, “Let them kill us all, if that is the death penalty for reporting this hell. No to silence.”
“Hijo 2” (Son 2) is Antifant’s story. Frozen for eternity in the deadly embraces of the serpents, Beltrán calls him “the one without a face.” However, Antifant does have a face in the original. In his version, though, Beltrán represents the boy face down, reminiscent of one of the many cartel assassinations found on the side of the road with their faces literally peeled off. Next to the bound and anonymous Antifant is a garbage bag wrapped in duct tape containing a corpse, a familiar sight in both the newspapers and in the reality of a culture that functions through a process of erasure. Through such acts of blatant manipulation of a well-known sculpture, the artist is not only materializing his alternative reading of the myth, but also mimicking the behavior of the Mexican government.
Enter Aeneas, the chosen one. Through the destruction of Troy, Aeneas is predestined to be the founder of empire and, through Beltrán’s reading, “make the citizens into the masses.” In the collage “Illion,” Aeneas is running heroically forward into progress, fierce in his destiny, giving up his wife and child for an oil-drilling tower with its proclamation of industry and monetary profit taking precedence over humanity. What look like Laocoön’s legs are dangling from the bottom of the tower, a symbolic dismemberment of truth for the onset of the reign of exploitation and for the underlying fear in the lives of the average Mexican that murder and mutilation may be their fate if they go against the status quo.
On the other sides of the curtains are the Cinco Sueños (The Five Dreams), what the artist calls bedtime stories that have been written to wake us up. Beltrán told me how he re-wrote stories “that address re-current problems as collective psychic warnings.” He confessed that he had to use stories to address contemporary issues that he cannot say directly. Some are pure allegory; in others, the allegory is less opaque. “Terecer Sueños” is the artist’s narration of the monsters Mexicans face daily: Narco, the Government, and the epidemic level of corruption. “Quinto Sueños” is a story that Beltrán wrote after attending a conference led by Norma Andrade, one of the founding members of the association Nuestras hijas de Regreso a Casa (Our Daughters Return Home) on the disappeared and murdered young women in Chihuahua over the last 10 years and another that was organized by Carlos Martín Beristain of the GIEI (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes) on torture and victims.
Mexico is notorious for its blatant political corruption. Everyone knows that the government, the military and the cartels all work together in a complex web that seems virtually impossible to unravel. Indeed, the Mexican government operates through such an unfathomable level of impunity that, unlike governments that actually have to be ‘somewhat’ accountable for their actions, the corruption in Mexico does not even have to be kept hidden. If the Mexican government is a Trojan Horse, it is one with all of its contents as common knowledge and, in a baffling twist that is pure Mexico, even though everyone knows what is inside, they allow themselves to be deceived nonetheless.
All of Beltrán’s work interrogates systems of power and, as such, is vulnerable to being officially censored, especially in Mexico. I asked him if he had been concerned that the political content and revolutionary intention of Laocoön’s Dream would undergo censorship. He responded:
Yes, speaking of murdered journalists in a public institution is a thorny issue!
I wanted to speak of things that are difficult to surpass an official censorship, so I used stories that seem to speak of other things, like dreams.
Ironically, the same strangle hold that maintains what has been described as Mexico’s Culture of Impunity has forced Beltrán to build his own Trojan Horse: the surface is in the guise of mythology while, in the artist’s words, “the real nightmare of Laocoön’s Dream is our contemporary society.”
Unlike first world liberal leaning countries that are not bound as tightly by ideological knots, the risk of censorship or even death, such a venture of enlightenment, critical thinking and transformation is extremely daunting in Mexico. Nevertheless, despite all that an activist artist is up against anywhere in the world, Beltrán holds firmly to the cause:
If people get it, if they are open and have a transformation, it is up to them after that, up to the transformed person to pass on their awareness. This is what happened to me. Now I pass on the awareness that I was given.
People must become de-programmed enough to see behind the subterfuge, pull back the curtains of power and, at this point in terms of transformation through reading reality differently in Mexico, like Laocoön warning the Trojans against Greeks with gifts, Beltrán cautions: “Don’t believe anyone. Not even me.”
Obrador is still ahead in the polls. In Mexico City, his signs are by far the most prominent with their romantic proclamation of “Junto Haremos Historia” (Together we will make History). The underprivileged are giddy; everybody else is either spreading the smear campaign or swallowing it that Mexico will become the new Venezuela. However, paradoxically, despite Beltrán’s leftist leanings, he can put any of the fears of Mexico falling victim to the same plight as Venezuela to rest. At the end of our interview I asked:
KM: Do you think Obrador is going to win?
EB: Nothing is going to happen. It’s going to remain the same. Even if Obrador wins, he won’t be able to fulfill any of his promises for social justice. He will become what he is against. Because it isn’t about people, it’s about systems. It’s about patterns.”
Only time will tell if Andrés Manuel López Obrador is but another Trojan horse. 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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