BY Ruby Brunton in Opinion | 23 JAN 19

Looking Back 2018: a Year of Remembrance and Political Unrest in Mexico

Standout performances and site-specific installations studded a year characterised by turbulent politics

BY Ruby Brunton in Opinion | 23 JAN 19

2018 was a year of remembrance in Mexico City: it marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protest movement, and one year since the 2017 Puebla Earthquake, which reached a magnitude of 7.1 and left many throughout the city without homes. It was the year of the migrant caravan, which made its way from Central America through Mexico to be met with unconscionable cruelty at the US border. And it was the year Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the general election against the conservative PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), who had been in power since 2012, and Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo was elected Mexico City’s first female mayor.

The year, for me, was defined by standout performances and site-specific installations in the capital and throughout central Mexico. In March, artist-run gallery Los14 opened at Gabino Barreda 19, across the road from the home where surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington once lived. As part of the gallery’s inaugural programme, dance workshops were held regularly at Entresuelos, an adjoining performance space, led by members of various companies including Motos Ninja and MO+. The former, comprised of Ricardo R. Rojas, Ana G Zambreno and Nicolas Poggi, use humour to explore the ways bodies become objects in performance. For their work What Is Unseen (2018), performed as part of the exhibition ‘Exchange of Narratives’ at Instituto Alumnos, three black-clad dancers ran through a routine – palpitating vigorously, shifting their poses and palpitating again – until two dancers broke away to discuss the choreography and direct the third dancer, deconstructing potential moves and their reception to laughs from the assembled audience.

I witnessed MO+ perform the final stage of their residency with the German Stregreif Orchester at the Centro de las Artes in San Luis Potosí. Under the choreographic direction of Melva Olives and musical direction of Viola Schmitzer, the group of ten performers presented Between Madness and Idyll (2018), an interdisciplinary exploration of body and sound, where the dancers became musicians and the musicians, in turn, danced. To introduce the show, a dancer paired off with each musician and used their body to evoke the sound emitted from their corresponding instrument.

Danh Vo, Garden with Pigeons in Flight, installation view, Casa Luis Barragán (Main Bedroom), Mexico City, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Estancia FEMSA - Casa Luis Barragán; photograph: Ramiro Chaves. 

A sensitivity to the body and its perceptions is evident in the work of architect Luis Barragán, whose iconic home in San Miguel de Chapultepec was partly redecorated for Danh Vo’s installation Garden with Pigeons in Flight (2018). Carpets were removed to reveal years of sun-bleaching on the floorboards and furnishings were rearranged to allow for greater functionality. Vo also placed beeswax candles made by artisans in Oaxaca, dyed a shade of bubblegum Barragan pink, in reflective vases throughout the house. The effect was a subtle reflection on the idea of a house museum: how can a place so lived in, and yet so carefully preserved, be both hallowed and intimately accessible at the same time?

In October, at Teatro de la Danza, renowned Japanese Butoh choreographer Yukio Suzuki and Mexico City-based dance company Sociedad Carne y Hueso mounted Contagios (2018). Dancers inhabited various forms – human, animal puppet, machine – as their movements faded in and out of synchronization. In the final act, they held mirrors up to theatre lights which reflected back onto the audience, before arranging the mirrors into an onstage installation. The interplay between live sound, the dancers’ voices, their unexpected movements, and the addition of live installation were reflective of the company and Suzuki’s project to push the limits of what dance can be. How the dancers slipped between complete coordination and a freedom of gesture that still felt controlled made me feel in the midst of an exciting experiment I haven’t witnessed the like of before.

The Norwegian Sami artist Marita Isobel Solberg gave a talk at Huerto Roma Verde in November on how she reinvigorates Sami traditions and language – once banned by the Norwegian government – to create a new artistic identity. The following night, she performed at Casa Viva, an independent performance space founded by mother and son Maria Eugenia Chellet and Alejandro Chellet. In a long white dress, Solberg conducted a fire-building ritual; her haunting, sensual singing voice still rings in my ears.

On 2 October, hundreds of performers gathered at Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City. Standing in rows, one by one the performers began to drop to the ground, where they remained. The commemorative performance was conceived of by Evoé Sotelo, director of Danza UNAM, on the exact anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, in which 300 student protestors were killed by the police. It was a fitting symbol for a year of great political unrest, both within and outside of Mexico; a gesture that encapsulated the country’s efforts to contend with the traumas of the past while facing an uncertain future. In the midst of all this, artists working across disciplines, cultures and languages continue to set an example of inclusivity and exchange. I can think of none better to follow.

Main image: Danh Vo, Garden with Pigeons in Flight, installation view, Casa Luis Barragán (Studio), Mexico City, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Estancia FEMSA - Casa Luis Barragán; photograph: Ramiro Chaves. 

Ruby Brunton is a writer based between Brooklyn, USA and Mexico City, Mexico. She is a contributing editor of Mask Magazine.