Featured in
Issue 136

Mexico City Report

From new museums to project spaces and pop-up music events, nothing stands still in one of the largest cities in the Americas

BY Gabriela Jauregui in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 11

Gabriela Jauregui
A writer, critic and editor. She is the author of Controlled Decay (Akashic, 2008). She lives and works in Mexico City.

I am sitting on the floor of one of downtown Mexico City’s tallest buildings, watching the sun set whilst two young members of the city’s art world play stumblingly teenage, romantic post-punk against a backdrop of thousands of houses, buildings, people and pyramids. I reflect that this could be the perfect setting for a film. The concert is part of artist Pia Camil’s open studio. She wears a 23-metre-long red cape that hangs out of the window, visible for several blocks, and on which reads the slogan ‘Pia Camil For Sale’. On the umpteenth floor, the studio is filled with small drawings and large-scale hand-dyed paintings that break up the space and let the fading light come through in various colours. It is also filled with many of the city’s gallerists and artists, along with family and friends. The tectonic layering of such an event is exemplary of the city’s cosmopolitanism, history and mestizaje (indigenous and European mix): the tower was built next to the space that once housed Emperor Moctezuma II’s house for animals and, later, the Spanish colonial convent of Saint Francis.

This intense layering of grit and glitter, past and present, high and low is what makes Mexico City the complex and repulsively attractive megalopolis it is. For at least the past decade its art scene has been portrayed in numerous publications as hot, trendy and, above all, up-and-coming. Always and forever up-and-coming. Yet a quick survey of the institutions, galleries and artist-run spaces in one of the world’s most populous cities proves that its art scene not only arrived some time ago, it has travelled the world and back and is here to stay. This is demonstrated not only by small-scale events such as Camil’s open studio, but also by the ongoing push by large-scale collections to build museums, such as Museo Jumex (designed by David Chipperfield) which will house more than 2,000 works in an ex-industrial district next to the affluent Polanco neighbourhood, or its neighbour, the Museo Soumaya, designed by Fernando Romero and funded by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man. These two privately funded museums are slated to open in 2012 and 2011 respectively, part of what is purported to become a ‘cultural corridor’ which also includes Galería Luis Adelantado Mexico. Others will surely follow.

The central courtyard of Museo Experimental El Eco - also the site for Postopolis - with 'Pabellon Eco' (Building Echo) designed by architect Frida Escobedo, 2010. Photograph: Ramiro Chavez.

In Polanco, the Museo Tamayo has recently re-sharpened the focus of its mission under the directorship of Sofía Hernández and curator Magalí Arriola, not only by showcasing international artists in Mexico – its mission since 1981, when it was founded by Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo – but also by specifically curating within a precise context or topic (such as ‘microhistories’ and ‘macroworlds’) and also through the ‘Approaches to the Collection’ series, which invites artists/curators (most recently including Raimundas Malasauskas, Jorge Méndez Blake and Magnolia de la Garza) to explore the history of its collection from a contemporary perspective. They publish an online journal, rufino.mx, where you can watch studio visits and conversations with local and visiting contemporary artists. It proposes many answers to the question ‘What is contemporary?’ by including profiles of actors in the local cultural scene and a rotating group of writers-in-residence. (Other blogs and publications of substance in Mexico City include intersections.com, where young author and journalist Daniel Hernández deftly combines politics, local youth culture and contemporary art, and tomo.mx, an art, architecture and design blog and magazine supplement to local newspaper Excelsior.)

In downtown Mexico City is the Museo Experimental El Eco, a small jewel of a museum designed by architect, painter and sculptor Mathias Goeritz and currently directed by Tobias Ostrander. As its name implies, the institution emphasizes process, interdisciplinarity and experimentation. In 1953, Goeritz wrote the ‘Emotional Architecture Manifesto’ in which he specifically stated that the space should link spirituality, emotion and creativity. Today, El Eco, which was restored to its original function by the National University after having been a nightclub and a restaurant amongst other things, brings together a unique combination of performance, dance, art talks and events such as Postópolis, held in June 2010, which expanded the museum into other disciplines and art forms.

Much further south, overlooking the circular pyramids of Cuicuilco and the volcanic ‘espacio escultórico’ (sculpture park), in the world’s largest university, unam (which has 315,000 students and more than 30,000 faculty members), is the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), one of Mexico City’s brightest additions. In addition to large-scale exhibitions, the museum – which opened in 2008 – hosts an art-book exchange on the last Thursday of every month designed to activate the circulation of knowledge, as well as free guided reading sessions (including most recently, for example, on Jacques Lacan’s long-running seminar series).

Mexico is teeming with non-institutional resources for art. Since the public art schools often suffer from a lack of financial support, many other platforms have filled the gap, from the educational resources offered by museums to reading groups and other activities sponsored by the cities major galleries, to sitac, the contemporary art theory symposium which organizes talks with pre-eminent local and international critics and artists (participants have included Ute Meta Bauer, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Chantal Akerman and Gabriela Rangel). If the methodologies of relational aesthetics, deconstruction, Marxist criticism and post-colonial theory and feminism have permeated many of the talks and outreach programmes that local institutions have to offer, perhaps the publication that condenses them most effectively in print is Espectro Rojo (Red Spectre). It is a new ’zine that ‘interpolates and contests the logic of the art market’ through texts, reviews and projects.

Two artist-run projects, soma and alias, are also important in this regard. In the spirit of non-institutional art schools such as The Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles, soma is one of the city’s most interesting pedagogical centres, designed, in the words of its founders (Eduardo Abaroa, Yoshua Okón, Artemio and Joaquín Segura, and Laureana Toledo) as a ‘counterpoint’ to the local art-world dynamics and as a continuation of the vibrant artist-run spaces of the 1990s such as Temistocles 44 and La Panadería. Founded by local artist Damián Ortega, alias is an independent publishing house initiated out of a need for texts by contemporary artists in Spanish. A group of local artists decided to translate the first book in the collection: Marcel Duchamp’s Dialogues with Pierre Cabane (1971). Now, with a growing readership and 12 affordable, beautifully and simply designed titles by artists such as Dan Graham, Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica and John Cage, amongst others, alias has redefined what art books can be.

Navigating the cultural landscape of this megalopolis in a few words is an exercise in condensation and layering akin to the tectonics of the city itself. There are dozens of commercial galleries not to mention artist-run projects and spaces. But to my mind it is essential to note the groundbreaking work that kurimanzutto, co-founded by José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto, has done in terms of giving international visibility to a generation of local artists and to an entire scene. Now housed in a beautifully restored workshop, the gallery continues to exhibit artists such as Dr. Lakra, Gabriel Orozco and Miguel Calderón in tandem with foreign artists such as Allora & Calzadilla, Jimmie Durham and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Kurimanzutto is based in the colonial neighbourhood San Miguel Chapultepec; nearby is Petra, a curatorial project by Montserrat Albores and Pablo Sigg that hosts exhibitions, concerts, film-screenings and discussions.

An intense layering of grit and glitter, past and present, high and low is what makes Mexico City the complex and repulsively attractive megalopolis it is. 

In Roma – the 19th-century neighbourhood that attempted to liken Mexico City to Paris – is a significant new gallery, Labor. Founded by Pamela Echeverría last year, and opening with a concert by Gang Gang Dance and a group show of several of its artists (who include Teresa Margolles, Pedro Reyes and Hector Zamora) this space has established its presence not only through solo exhibitions but also reading groups, screenings and an open library (hammocks included!). Also in Roma is the small but independently-minded House of Gaga (no relation to the pop star, thank you very much) founded by Fernando Mestes, formerly of Perros Negros, which successfully blends esoteric mysticism, theory and contemporary art and represents local young artists such as Adriana Lara.

The best measure of the health of any city’s contemporary art scene is its small galleries and artist-run spaces. As with Gaga or Proyectos Monclova (directed by José Garcia), smaller galleries do the essential work of showcasing local artists but also bring young artists from abroad to show their work in Mexico City. Opened in 2008 by Brett Schultz and Daniela Elbahara, Yautepec has blended commerce and experimentation in an exemplary way, finding that paying the rent in a traditional white cube is perhaps less important than showcasing Mexico City’s young talent including artists such as Joaquín Segura, Marion Sosa or Mallinali Rubalcaba. Noteworthy are artist-run initiatives such as the nomadic Galería de Comercio (co-founded by artists Abraham Cruzvillegas, Nuria Montiel, Jimena Mendoza and José Luis Cortés), which seeks to promote public art on the streets and rethink the streets as public art. And there are the spaces that young artists are appropriating, from street vendor trucks to your mother’s refrigerator, as in the case of Centro Cultural Gati, founded by Michel Hadad and Txema Novelo, housed in their apartment in the Del Valle neighbourhood and linked to one of the city’s new young record labels, Vale Vergas Discos.

In a city where earthquakes crack open concrete floors to reveal tarantulas or Aztec figurines, where Modernist buildings sit next to Mexica temples, and where dancers with plumed headdresses wear fluorescent kicks, contradictions can be found daily. Such contradicting forces have fertilized the city’s contemporary art scene: it is brimming with biodiversity, to say the least.

House of Gaga, Josef Strau, 'The Why Does This Happen To Me Experience', 2010. Installation view. Photograph: Diego Berruecos. 

Jace Clayton
A writer and musician based in Brooklyn, USA. He can be found online at watermelonbullets.com.

I bang my fist against the sheet-metal grate. I’m in Mexico City’s historic Centro neighbourhood, a grid of beautiful, busy streets whose structural regularity is pushed into chaos by dense flows of automobiles, people, sounds, smells, all compressed and vivid and hyperkinetic by day, often unnervingly empty at night. Another knock. No answer. I open the dusty metal door.

We spill into the Bósforo, an undecorated clandestine bar specializing in high-proof homebrew spirits. Tonight El Nicho, a ‘virtual space with physical manifestations’ that imports experimental music, has staged its monthly pop-up. It’s not a dance party, but rather a listening area where the curious can gather, talk and possibly purchase a clutch of meticulously curated music and sound art. This symbiotic instance exemplifies what I find so vital about this city right now: one space becoming another, small flexible collectives, possibilities afloat within a sea of desmadre (literally, motherlessness; applied in Mexico City it suggests uncontained disaster with undertones of ‘hot mess’).

On a previous visit, friends took me to a performance in the centre of town. Two artists have transformed the penthouse apartment of a residential building into Galeria Interferencial – it’s now ‘dedicated to ephemeral art’. Whatever had happened had ended well before we arrived. Yet it felt like a beginning. Small groups lingered in a barebones room, spiked with residual energy. The fact of a fragile diy art space in a residential building superceded the art that we missed. Many cities have unusual exhibition spaces, but Interferencial, like El Bósforo/El Nicho, seemed like an idealistic, handmade take on the improvisatory hustle that animates this city of millions – 19 million? Or is it 22? – the largest in the Americas.

A Jarocho musician sweeps the pavement outside of La Tenampa, a bar in Plaza Garibaldi, 2008. Photograph: Adam Wiseman

We drift down to street level, the crowd of friends has grown. On the best of nights here, events and people simply pile up – causal links aren’t required. Around the corner from Interferencial lies El Patio De Mi Casa, a bar that hosts DJ parties. Tonight one of the city’s few dubstep crews are spinning. The music is blog-fresh but – unlike a walk down nearly any street in this over-stimulating megalopolis – doesn’t communicate the unique sensations of life in D.F. (short for ‘Distrito Federal’ – the common Spanish-language term for Mexico City). The city’s shops blast reggaeton, love ballads, global pop. ‘Oaxacan tamales’ intones the woman selling them by the subway, all day; her worn voice has disintegrated over the years like a tape-loop, her affectless phrases made musical through repetition. A weathered Catholic church keeps its doors open – the sanctuary fills with audio from CDs of American oldies being sold outside. D.F. is noisy, and nobody seems to mind. ‘Silence is not to be trusted because in Mexico City silence is insincere,’ writes Daniel Hernandez in his brilliant new book Down & Delirious in Mexico City (2011). ‘The city never wants to be quiet.’

Iconic mariachi bands hustle work in Plaza Garibaldi. Savvy cumbia- and salsa-loving sonideros soundtrack street dances in the rough-and-tumble market barrio of Tepito. Hi-NRG techno has a decades-long home at infamous club Patrick Miller. Non-stop gigs scatter metal, indie pop, dance acts, jazz, and everything else you might expect in a world-class party capital. The most recent homegrown sound to emerge from D.F., though now migrated to Monterrey, is tribal guarachero – a combination of electro-house and folkloric samples from regional Mexican music, pioneered by teens and early 20-somethings.

The city’s sizeable reggae community enjoys a number of haunts, among them Salón Calavera. It occupies a gorgeous colonial building in the old centre. You enter through a shop-front selling carpets and lottery tickets. An intimate ground level dancefloor opens up to various lofty rooms above, culminating in a quiet rooftop balcony. Music provides reason to gather, but Calavera’s open architecture invites us to do as we please. In London, Los Angeles or Buenos Aires, a venue this central, this spacious would occasion exclusivity. Fashionable neighbourhoods Roma and Condesa have priced out many of the locals, but everybody passes through the Centro, and its best spaces reflect this. While the musical selections of the self-described ‘Rasta brotherhood’ who run Calavera may not catch the attention of corporate sponsors or foreign reggae aficionados, the environment they create offers a nonjudgmental mixing ground. Musical research/production groups like El Proyecto Sonidero actively collaborate across class lines, important work in a place where economic segregation generates unusually tight social circles.

Mexico City doesn't feel alive so much as impossibly animated, scary in a way that you want to interact with rather than shy away from.

Mexico City doesn’t feel alive so much as impossibly animated, scary in a way that you want to interact with rather than shy away from. D.F. is as much its bricks and mortar infrastructure and fantastically variegated architecture as the myriad ways people have of negotiating it. A hole-in-the-wall becomes a bar becomes an experimental music store, for a few hours once a month, or a penthouse gets repurposed as an ephemeral gallery.

People hack through the massive city with incredible tenacious creativity, but the infrastructure is itself unstable. Mexico City’s relatively new buildings, uncleared ruins, and oddly spaced lacunae of un-redeveloped lots all serve as reminders of 1985’s deadly earthquake. From the Aztecs and Cortés to nafta and narco, much has been said about Mexico’s legacy of violence (twice I’ve had to run from taxis with too many men in cars slowing beside me).

I first set foot in Mexico last year and have been fortunate enough to return five times since. Each visit leaves me with the sense that the communities being formed around these moments are the true creation, flip side to the standard media story. And it’s true: times aren’t easy. Mexico faces the strains of America’s self-serving gravity, internal corruption and classism, President Felipe Calderón’s disastrous ‘war on drugs’, and more. But the Mexico City I hear being voiced in each of these random-seeming cultural moments gathers into a chorus whose harmony is not flattening and whose dissonance accommodates multiple ways of listening.