In a state of absolute uncertainty
Mexico has spawned an exceptionally successful generation of young artists who have swarmed out across the world. In Paris, an attempt is being made to sketch a picture of them and of the country they come from. Can geography still make a difference in looking at contemporary art? Or, conversely, can contemporary art make a difference in how we perceive certain places in the world? In March, the exhibition Resisting the Present: Mexico 2000-2012, a group show organized in collaboration with the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico, where it was first shown, will open at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Rather than providing a birds-eye view of current art practices in Mexico (such overviews always prevent certain stories from being told), this exhibition brings together a selection of works by Mexican artists, mostly born after 1975, that reflect on a ‘common ground’ of the Mexican present. Over the past two decades, Mexico’s economy has grown rapidly – something which is reflected in the nation’s infrastructure for art. In 2008, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) opened in a brand new building designed by Teodoro González de León. Currently it is the largest public institution for national and international contemporary art in Mexico, with work by ‘local’ stars such as Damián Ortega, Francis Alÿs and Gabriel Orozco, and international artists like Thomas Hirschhorn, Tom Friedman and others. The museum is part of Mexico City’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), which has smaller cultural venues in the city, such as the Museo Experimental El Eco (devoted to architecture and contemporary art), Casa del Lago (with a permanent project space for contemporary art) and Museo El Chopo. The Museo Rufino Tamayo, another significant institution for contemporary art, closed its doors in August 2011 for a scheduled expansion. Apart from the already established Kurimanzutto Gallery (representing, amongst others, Allora & Calzadilla, Carlos Amorales, Roman Ondák and Minerva Cuevas), young galleries such as Labor and Proyectos Monclova show the work of young and upcoming artists from Mexico and elsewhere. Mexico City boasts an annual international art fair, and in August 2011, Jan Mot opened a branch of his gallery in a building he shares with a design studio and architecture office. Mission contemporary art: consider it accomplished.
At the same time, Mexico is not your typical art hub: its social and political conditions confront its citizens with daily and far-reaching uncertainties. In Mexico, everyone is exposed to a certain level of risk, albeit for various reasons, including extreme social inequality, racism, corruption, kidnapping, or drug-related crime and violence, to name some of the nation’s most pressing issues. These problems are often interrelated and therefore difficult to comprehend. To get an impression of the effects on everyday life and work, one need only recall the diplomatic feud that took place in Paris last year. In 2011, some 350 events (exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, symposia, etc.) were planned for a one-year celebration of Mexican arts and culture in France, under the header L’Année du Mexique. Visit the program’s website today and you end up with a blank page: an empty promise for a bilateral effort to promote Mexican culture abroad. In February 2011, the Mexican government withdrew from the programme after Nicolas Sarkozy announced that all of the events would be dedicated to Florence Cassez, a French woman convicted by Mexican law and sentenced to 60 years in prison for her complicity in a number of kidnappings by the Zodiacs, a band of organized criminals. Following Mexico’s withdrawal, the Institut Francais (the organizer on behalf of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) finally decided to cancel the programme in its entirety. The result was something that resembled a bizarre conceptual art performance: art objects transported overseas only to be ‘returned to sender’ without leaving their shipping crates; ten massive statues by the Mexican artist Rivelino, aptly titled Nuestros Silencios (Our Silences), stranded in the harbour of Rotterdam; museum budgets spent on never-to-be-shown shows. The case of Florence Cassez prompted outrage in France after it emerged that her arrest in December 2005 had been staged: Cassez was detained and released on December 8 of that year, only to be arrested again the following day in a televised raid at the ranch of her boyfriend Israel Vallarta, a key member of the Zodiacs. During the raid, three hostages were released – something Cassez claims to have no knowledge of. In France, Cassez has been perceived as a victim of the Mexican criminal justice system, which has been taken as a serious insult by Mexican authorities. Apart from the diplomatic tensions this has caused, the case is also emblematic for the ambiguous and precarious reality of Mexican present-day society, where no one seems sure of what or whom to believe anymore. The exhibition Resisting the Present reflects on this national state of uncertainty through the lens of personal artistic resistance. It shows that art fulfils an exceptional role in society because it is always both a product of, and response to, its own circumstances. One could say that every artwork made under extreme social and political circumstances is political to some extent. Resisting the Present is not the first such Mexican political show abroad: in 2002, Magali Arriola organized the group show Coartadas/Alibis for the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, providing a critical perspective on the sharp economic and social contrasts in Mexico City. More recently, Hou Hanru and Guillermo Santamarina organized the show Disponible: A Kind of Mexican Show (2010/2011) at the San Francisco Art Institute, which focused on ‘social critique and witty design solutions as two mutually entangled and reinforcing strategies developed in response and resistance to the complex reality of life in modern Mexico’. Resisting the Present proposes an additional view onto the artistic strategies of young Mexican artists, by including a number of figures that have proven influential for both French and Mexican art, such as André Breton and Roger Caillois, and perhaps most notably, the filmmaker and ‘psychomagician’ Alejandro Jodorowski [also see: Metropolis M Nº4 -2011].
To me, as a writer, the greatest story of a place is to be found in the library’s records: it keeps track of the stories that are deemed important while also inevitably producing lacunae in the cultural fabric and history of a place, in its inability to literally harbour it all. In most cases, we can speak of failure; in some cases, the exclusion of stories is a wilful and violent act – as was the case with the destruction of Aztec codices by the Spanish in colonial times. Amidst the tangible ruins of pre-Columbian architecture is another, invisible ruin of literature. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many young artists today (including in Resisting the Present) also implicitly resist this heritage of a ruined literary past, by concerning themselves with the architecture of stories: the places and constructs, conceptual or real, where narratives are made, both to remember and to forget certain histories. Archives, libraries, encyclopaedias and historical reconstruction: in the work of artists included in Resisting the Present, they seem to serve as the loci and models for both personal and artistic questions concerning the fundamental uncertainty of the Mexican present. For a number of his works, the artist Edgardo Aragón asked his family members to re-enact scenes of ‘narco-violence’ from their own personal history – an act that made me think involuntarily about the re-enactment of Florence Cassez’s arrest in the presence of television cameras. At what point does an unstable reality turn into a speculative truth, or perhaps even fiction? And do history, documentation and archivization have any stabilizing function at all? In the work of Mariana Castillo Deball, the library and archive often function as a narrative mode for an artistic exploration of the systems that shape our knowledge in the present and about the past. Other artists employ archival methods in direct response to Mexico’s political situation, such as Diego Berruecos, whose work Genealogía de un partido (genealogy of a party) brings together a vast collection of photo material about the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Such an archive reveals the functioning and malfunctioning of a political party, as well as that of the archive. What could such a vast documentation of political failure possibly change about the fact that the PRI, indeed, failed tremendously – having brought Mexico to where it stands today? In Modelling Standard, an ongoing collaboration between Erick Beltrán (currently also showing a project at the Tropenmuseum) and Jorge Satorre, the artists use micro-historical methods and detective narration to create an intricate web of hints and traces, presented through a diagram of cartoon-like posters that produces seemingly unlikely connections between literary references, personal experiences, historical data, trivia and scientific facts. Whereas these artists strategically deploy discursive systems as a form of meta-commentary on the various intermediate ways in which the present makes itself ‘known’, the work of Jorge Méndez Blake could be seen as a visual embodiment of the story as architecture and architecture as story, in his use of literature as a conceptual element of his sculptural installations. For Das Kapital, the seminal work of Karl Marx becomes a building block of a monumental brick wall obstructing the space: the wall, literally weighing down on the book, turns the writing of Marx illegible, while the book activates the meaning of the wall construction. These are just a few examples of the storylines that Resisting the Present sets in motion. To me, the best story in Mexico City is laid out in the coloured mosaic tiles on the exterior of the Biblioteca Central, at the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Inaugurated in 1956, this library building was designed by Juan O’Gorman and is covered on all sides with a fragmented history based on Aztec and Spanish motifs, comprising the largest mural in the world. Harbouring more than 400,000 books, the Biblioteca Central is a truly Borgesian library: a story that contains all other stories. Taking in its rich exterior, you realize that any account of an actual place can only ever begin to be comprehensive when it deeply confuses; when it splits into fragments; and when there is simply too much – anecdotes, legends, rumours – screaming for your undivided attention. In short, when you realize that this place, this story, requires at least 400,000 books and a lifetime to take in. Moosje Goosen is a Rotterdam-based writer and researcher for the Uqbar Foundation