BY Magalí Arriola in Opinion | 01 JUN 16
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Issue 180

New Voices

How the work of a younger generation of artists reflects Mexico’s social problems

BY Magalí Arriola in Opinion | 01 JUN 16

Last year, the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City – an arts space established by artist and architect Mathias Goeritz in 1953 – closed its 2015 programme of exhibitions with ‘Manifiesto’ by Terence Gower. A Canadian artist formerly based in Mexico City, whose work at that time formed a critical survey of the local assimilation of modernism, Gower invited musician Will Orzo to compose a gospel song based on Goeritz’s writings, in which the architect argues for emotion being an essential constituent of architectural design. The resulting song – featuring New York gospel singer Rachel Sharples, whose powerful voice resounded both inside and beyond El Eco’s walls – mixed Goeritz’s idiosyncratic take on spirituality and architecture with a dose of contemporary scepticism. Could Gower’s piece be read as a negotiation between the political and the emotional realms in today’s Mexican art landscape? 

Theo Michael, Scorpion House, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Galería OMR, Mexico City

As the country approaches what is hopefully the end of a 20-year period of escalating violence and economic decline, it is clear that the political debates addressed by older generations of artists have now moved into a symbolic realm. Retrospectively, Francis Alÿs’s urban walks, Minerva Cuevas’s anti-capitalist gift economy, Teresa Margolles’s tributes to crime victims and Santiago Sierra’s copycat performances of underpaid exploited labour all appear to have been early indicators of the economic and political undercurrents that led to the Mexican government’s so-called ‘war on drugs’, which could be read as the silencing of a neglected part of the population that found jobs in the drug-dealing business.

A younger group of artists has bypassed the confrontational position of the preceding generation, attempting instead to reconstruct the fast-deteriorating social fabric from a more personal perspective, finding alternative ways to address social problems. In recent years, these have included Edgardo Aragón’s drug-related family stories turned into social fables; Jorge Satorre’s approach to archaeology as a space for political inscription; Theo Michael’s apocalyptic landscapes and imaginary urban ruins; and Rometti Costales’s fictional territories and speculative misunderstandings. All these artists strive to counteract the political barbarism and social violence that has infiltrated the Mexican cultural imaginary. Today, in contrast to 20 years ago, when there were fewer voices to support the practice of Mexican artists, a group of galleries – including Gaga, José García, Labor and Proyecto Paralelo – has emerged to promote them. Independent initiatives, as well as a new breed of art magazines, have also flourished with different artistic profiles and political agendas, including Bikini Wax, Cooperativa Cráter Invertido and Lulu.

In a country where historical narratives were, for a long time, monopolized by the state, curators and gallerists are now revisiting the work of artists whose practices didn’t fit the official nationalist project, such as Ulises Carrión, Goeritz and Juan José Gurrola. Among the major institutions devoted to contemporary art, MUAC (under curator Cuauhtémoc Medina) has committed part of its programme to revisiting the careers of local practitioners from the 1970s and ’80s, such as feminists Mónica Mayer and Sarah Minter, and those of politicized artist collectives such as Proceso Pentágono. Museo Jumex has also researched and promoted the work of historical figures whose practice resonated with local culture: Guy de Cointet’s plays partly inspired by Mexican soap operas, for example, and (in a forthcoming exhibition) Carrión’s text-based conceptualism and linguistic gestures that breathe new life into art historical narratives. The Museo Tamayo – under its newly appointed director, Juan A. Gaitán – recently started developing an international programme of exhibitions of mid-career artists and solo projects that includes work by local practitioners whose art has not been shown much in Mexico to date.

This process, characteristic of a culture fighting its political demons and attempting to fill its historical lacunae, probably explains the mixed reception of ‘XYLAÑYNU: Taller de los viernes’ (Friday Workshop), an exhibition recently organized at kurimanzutto. The show was a celebration of the informal gatherings that occurred during the late 1980s at Gabriel Orozco’s house, and which have now been consecrated as a key moment for Mexican contemporary art in the writings of those who attended them. The memory of this time wouldn’t be relevant if it hadn’t been symptomatically revived by a new generation of critics and curators reacting to the self-congratulatory historicization of the Orozco generation, which has partially ignored the cultural context in which its work was embedded. This not only indicates that the local art scene is gaining a different kind of leverage, it also shows that if an emerging art scene which dealt with a less conspicuous social and political decay once attracted international attention, its more consolidated version is entering a new phase. This is a phase in which ignoring the voices that are resonating beyond its borders – like Sharples’s voice did at El Eco – will never be as easy as it used to be.

Magalí Arriola is an art critic and independent curator based in Mexico City, Mexico. She is a contributing editor of frieze.