Mid-career museum retrospectives can be deeply awkward occasions, a mid-life crisis of sorts. Abraham Cruzvillegas’s first major museum presentation in his home country was certainly aware of the pitfalls: the catalogue was scrappy rather than tome-like; the explanatory wall texts not overly obsequious; and the work had an excitingly ad-hoc, anti-monumental appearance. This exhibition was nevertheless a mixed affair, with the most exciting social and political aspects of Cruzvillegas’s work bubbling far below the surface.
Surveying a decade of sculptures, installations and other projects, the show included work made by Cruzvillegas under the banner of autoconstrucción (‘self-construction’). The neologism is rooted in Cruzvillegas’s upbringing in the district of Ajusco, in the south of Mexico City, which was built by poor immigrants from the surrounding countryside (his own parents included), who arrived there in the 1960s. More than a practice of re-purposing found urban detritus (scrap wood, metal, plastic) for home-building, autoconstrucción also invokes an ethics of mutual assistance and cooperation, of alternative economies. As an artist, Cruzvillegas has explored this ethical approach to materials within a global context, making sculptural works in London, Oxford, Paris and Gwangju that tap into local senses of place and identity.
Here lay a paradox. For while the rhetoric of autoconstrucción speaks of local or communal ecologies, this survey was nevertheless very much part of powerful art world systems. Part-sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, it was curated by Clara Kim, Senior Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and was on tour from the Walker Art Center and Haus der Kunst, Munich. It landed in Mexico at the Museo Jumex – a private space funded by a fruit juice manufacturer – with a smaller splinter show at the Amparo Museum in Puebla (which I did not visit). The Jumex and Amparo exhibitions included works borrowed from major collections in the US, Europe and Mexico; the Amparo show also featured an installation of found materials and concrete made with students from the local art college (Reconstruction of the portrait of my Cholulteca twin …, 2014). (Puebla was not on my itinerary during my trip to Mexico, and is not covered in this review.)
At the Jumex, the gallery space was dominated by a cacophony of sculptural installations. Atelier Autoconstrucción: The Innefficient Tinkerer’s Workshop: Free Advice Behind Cinema (2012) was realized for the 2012 Gwangju Biennial, and consists of a number of smaller sculptural works made from found materials including an old broom and a sickle (Indecent and Fragmentary, 2012), and glass bottles lined up with elegant twig spindles stuffed in their open tops (Communal and Democraticist, 2012). These sculptures were produced in parallel with workshops that Cruzvillegas staged in a house near an abandoned cinema in Gwangju, with local musicians, thinkers and activists invited to discuss the city’s history, its industrialization and the suppression of the democratic movement in the 1980s. Key words that emerged from these discussions – ‘communal’, ‘democraticist’, ‘contradictory’ – were then included in the titles of the individual pieces. These works celebrate the social potential of urban flotsam: the sense that contingent matter can become the focus for communal discourse.
Unfortunately, transported from the site of creation, these invocations of complex histories seemed deracinated. Also hard to get to grips with was Autoconstrucción Room (2009), an installation first shown at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, featuring small plinth-like units made from found wood, and items evocative of Mexico, including an agave plant and a stone pestle. The original London show rooted these clichés of Mexican imagery with a split-screen video work featuring interviews with Cruzvillegas’s parents, as well as a set of drawn musical scores that suggested a more raucous understanding of autoconstrucción; however, both of these elements were absent from the Jumex. More successful in this context was the inclusion of works made for an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford in 2011, which toyed with ethnographic clichés and opened up a more convincing space of critique: The Optimistic Failure (2011), a mobile-like sculpture that re-creates, using crude lumps of mud, the shrunken tsantsas heads displayed in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and The Simultaneous Promise (2011) a tricycle equipped with an amp and speakers, designed to rudely blurt out music by local bands as it traversed the sedate streets of Oxford.
Haussmannian Leftovers: Richard Lenoir (2007), consists of wooden fruit and vegetable boxes found at the Marché Richard Lenoir in Paris, then painted with black paint on their undersides. Mounted on the immaculate white walls of the Jumex, the work looked graphic and punchy. More structurally impressive was Autoconstrucción: à la petite ceinture (Autoconstruction: The Small Belt, 2010), a large doughnut-shaped installation of ramps and scaffold-like edifices with a few vegetables (a beetroot, a leek, a piece of ginger) balanced haphazardly on its thin beams. Also made in Paris, this work references a now mostly abandoned tramline that delineates the rich core from the poorer outskirts of the city. (As I am writing this in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the contradictions of religion, geopolitics and violence resonate powerfully in my memory of the installation).
Clearly, Cruzvillegas’s work thrives when it is created in direct response to an exhibition’s site, its local economies, people and histories. This retrospective chose instead a more conventional collection-based display of anti-monumental objects whose air of preciousness seemed at odds with the ethos of autoconstrucción as a shared social activity (the exception was the sculpture made with students at Puebla and exhibited in the Amparo Museum). This exhibition can also been seen as marking the end of the autoconstrucción project, which Cruzvillegas has moved away from in the past few years in order to focus on what he calls autodestrucción (‘self-destruction’): the creative potential of negation, the need to destroy in order to rebuild (recent shows have explored anti-establishment subcultures such as punk, Zazou and Zoot Suits). While this exhibition featured only the more positive autoconstrucción works, the radical potential of autodestrucción opens a path for Cruzvillegas beyond the accumulated stuff of a mid-career retrospective.