Mexico City is a city of full mouth kissing, dirty air, hundreds of book stores, endless cups of espresso, heavy eye make-up, hair gel, guitarists, businessmen, and indigenous women selling embroidered shirts in the Zócalo. I went to see the Zona Maco art fair and stayed in a hotel across town in the Centro Histórico whose colonial buildings are dense with shops selling cheap, plastic Hindu gods and Indian incense, shoe stores, lingerie and perfume shops, cheap jewelry made in China, fancy department stores, and vendors hidden in doorways selling tacos, tamales, and fruit juice. There was a major protest in the Zócalo by teachers demanding educational reform, and the immense police presence alongside street performers dressed as super heroes (Spiderman, Batman, La Muerte, and Superman posing with happy children) was as surreal as it was sobering. Mexico City is a city of excess and there were many related art venues in the Centro Histórico that took days to explore.
My first stop was the Museo Nacional de la Estampa (Museum of Graphic Arts) where outside its Beaux-Arts façade were several life-size, papier måché muertos and venders relaxing in the shade. 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the death of the great Mexican artist José Posada, and the museum was celebrating his work with a show of his prints and printing presses. Posada worked as an illustrator for several newspapers and he typically covered stories like earthquakes, floods, murders, spiritualism, and the devils and monsters that drive us. I particularly liked his prints of the “Purgatorio Artistico” featuring the skeletons of artists and artisans in their own special hell. Posada and the great muralists Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco have continued to nurture the leftist leanings of Mexico’s artists whose work is fueled by humor, humanity, preoccupation with mortality, popular art, and, often, the grotesque. Contemporary Mexican art is still socially-minded, it is nostalgic for disappearing things such as typewriters, books, printing, and handmade items and at the same time ardently interested in combining them with new technologies. Mexican artists value the old while inviting the new; understand the new by relating it to the past, and then making something completely contemporary.
On the other side of the Alameda Central is the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, which is housed in a former convent built in 1591 and is now dedicated to art, science, and technology. Its current show is Tania Candiani’s “Cinco Variaciones de Circunstancias Fónicas y una Pausa” (loosely translated: “Five Variations on Phonic Circumstances and a Pause”). She collaborates with computer engineers, fabricators, and musicians to create site-specific pieces and describes these works as “interventions” that include, for instance, the audience playing an electronic organ with a typewriter, and confessions whispered into microphones that are mechanically embroidered in indecipherable script onto long rolls of cloth. Her interventions are nostalgic for the obsolete, and the church’s architectural space drives the content of this piece. (Many of the artists and curators described their work as interventions, and it’s a term I like a lot: it sounds kind of brainy, philosophical, and modest at the same time.)
Another morning, I went to the Centro Cultural de España en México, an old mansion rebuilt in 1997 by the government of Spain and given to Mexico as a cultural center. The underground level is dedicated to prehispanic art found during the renovation of the building, and the upper floors feature contemporary work. “Penélopes Mexicanas”, a series of large portraits by photographer Héctor Mediavilla, showed ordinary women waiting in their villages for their men who are traveling, working abroad, in jail, or possibly missing. Like Penelope in The Odyssey, the women’s lives are consumed by waiting, waiting sometimes for years and, more often than not, waiting in vain for their husband or lovers to return. “Esto No es Un Museum”. “Artefactos Mōviles al Acecho” or This Is Not a Museum. Portable and Lurking documented art groups working with portable art carts, edible art cookies, nomadic museums, artists dressed as birds and riding bicycles to track Mexico City’s bird migrations, traveling science labs, and floating museums from Oakland to Argentina. (This included Oakland: “Walking the Invisible City” by Oakland artists Sue Mark and Bruce Douglas.) The roof of the building had a bar and restaurant where you could look out over the city and take refuge from the heat and the noise.
Nearby is the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, a former Jesuit college founded in 1749. Inside, the X Bienal Monterrey FEMSA is juxtaposed against powerful murals by Orozco and Rivera. The Colección FEMSA is one of the largest and most important contemporary art collections in Latin America and sponsors the Bienal Monterrey. (In 2017 the FEMSA collection will be part of “Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A.” and will offer an in-depth exploration of the artistic connections between Los Angeles and Latin America.) Accompanying the show is guest curator José Roca’s “Sextanisqatsi: desorden habitable”, a selection of eleven guest artists from Latin America. Roca is interested in how people survive without strong government and in the face of disorder. For example, “Torre de David” is an installation based on an unfinished skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, home to over 2,000 squatters.
Another day, I wandered farther afield to Chapultepec Park. After riding the crowded but efficient metro, I arrived at the terrific Rufino Tamayo Museum that had several interesting shows: “Tamayo/Trayectos; Olinka, Where Movement Is Created”, (“Ollin” is Náhuatl and means “movement”); Juan Downey’s “A Communication Utopia”; and “Germinal” by Carlos Amorales. The small, tidy Tamayo show featured works painted in his 80s and show his wit, generosity, and humanity shining though his beautiful colors. Olinka is based on an idea from Dr. Atl, a pseudonym for the 1940s Mexican artist Gerald Murillo, and refers to an imaginary utopia, a “pueblo mágico” of art and culture. The show also features some of the work by his muse, the infamous Nahui Olin (Carmen Mondragon). By combining their work with works from different eras, curator Adam Szymczyk suggests that history is inherently unstable and changing. In one room, the exhibit featured a nice mix of contemporary paintings by Vivian Suter and Thea Djordjadze’s minimalist foam and metal sculptures. Downey’s “A Communication Utopia” featured videos, drawings, and projects by this visionary Chilean artist. He was trained as an architect and his visual investigations were influenced by his life in New York City in the 1970s, his journeys through the Americas (featured in his piece “Video Trans America”), and the videos he made with the Yanomami Indians in Venezuela. Downey works in many different mediums and examines European art, the Americas, our relationship to technology and our relationship to art itself. He is looking for a system of communication that is energetic, politically engaged, fearless, and meditative in order to find what he calls the “invisible architecture,” by which I think he means the structure of relationships within our families and community. On the top floor was a show of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales whose sculptures, installations, and animation are based on his Liquid Archive, a digital database containing hundreds of drawings generated by the artist. There were several animated videos, some abstract and some with Krazy Kat-like characters and a wall of images composed on a photocopier over a text. A room of Calderesque mobiles (you could hit them with mallets and make music) was located next to a wall installation of graphite drawing and steel rulers soldered to look like lightning bolts and represent the measurement and cracks of the 1985 earthquake. The title piece “Germinal” shows drawings he made on the sheets of anarchist newspapers that appeared after the 1985 earthquake.
On day number four, after an expensive cab ride in a traffic jam, I finally made it to Centro Banamex and Zona Maco. This mid-sized fair is one of the most important contemporary art fairs in Latin America, and there were about 200 galleries, with very strong work, the majority of them from Mexico City whose dynamic art scene thrives on the affordable rents for gallery and studio spaces. Zona Maco, like most art fairs, clusters around the constellation of parties, openings, and dinners. Some of the interesting Mexican galleries were OMR, Proyectos Monclova, and Galleria kurimanzutto, the FIFI Projects, Marso Gallerie, and Labor, most of which are located in upscale neighborhoods such as Polanco, San Miguel Chapultepec, and Condesa, and there were also several galleries from Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Los Angeles and New York City. The work at Zona Maco ranged from master Mexican artists like Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo to Dr Lakra’s found images embellished with tattoo-style designs, and material-based abstraction to conceptual work about climate change, extinction, and homelessness. Zona Maco offers three curated sections organized around the central gallery booths. Zona Maco Sur, given to solo projects, was a study in contrasts since this year’s curator, Juan Andrés Gaitán, focused on works with a “historical consciousness.” For example, LA Central had British artist Carolina Caycedo’s politically-charged interventions around recent dam projects in Colombia. Nora Roesler Gallery showed the Brazilian conceptual artist Paulo Bruscky and featured photos of his brave, Fluxus-style political performances from the 1970s where he faced arrest. LABOR had Pedro Reyes’ intriguing and whimsical interactive mechanical musical instruments made from decommissioned weapons.
An art fair is where you can talk to people, buy, sell, and sample a little bit of everything beautiful, silly, clever, frivolous, and profound (like the worm in a bottle of mescal); it is a place where you can see the morbid beauty of flattened foreheads, decorated bodies, blood sacrifices, and piercings depicted in prehispanic art mirrored in fashions of contemporary street culture. An art fair in Mexico City, a city of extremes… wealth and sophistication… violence in the street… smoke from Popocatépetl , an active volcano… creates a world of surprise, ingenuity, and a bracing vertical creative plunge.
-Contributed by Lani Asher