There is a certain demographic in Mexico that can be identified only by a concealed pendant. The icon in question is of Jesús Malverde, a folk hero allegedly shot by the authorities in 1909, who has since become a kind of Robin Hood figure, venerated as a saint with a shrine in Culiacán. What is of note here is the way in which an outlaw – replete with Christian iconography – has been appropriated by a given subgroup. It is this realm of extra legalities, desires and the politics of subject creation in which the thought-provoking exhibition ‘A Place Out of History’, curated by Magalí Arriola in collaboration with Magnolia de la Garza, dwells.
Included is Christ With the Adulteress (1930–44) by Han van Meegeren, a critically and at first commercially unsuccessful painter seen as a mere copyist of the Dutch Golden Age who, possibly out of spite for his critics, began to forge and sell a series ‘masterpieces’. Van Meegeren realized that several scholars maintained that Johannes Vermeer studied in Italy, possibly with Caravaggio, and that there must be a ‘missing’ period of religious paintings from this time, so he simply filled the gap with a series of forgeries. Once vetted, Van Meegeren began to sell these for great sums. Following the end of the war, Christ With the Adulteress surfaced as part of Hermann Göring’s collection. Curious as to how the work ended up in the hands of the Reichsmarschall, Dutch authorities traced the provenance. In 1947 the trail led to Van Meegeren, who was then put on trial for collaboration, a capital offence. Faced with possible execution, he revealed that the painting was a fake, arguing that he should only be charged for fraud; known as the artist who duped the Third Reich, Van Meegeren quickly became a folk hero. (Indeed, his Delft-style work is now on display in Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and sold today for large sums, under his signature – which itself now has problems with forgeries.)
These interfaces between authentication and collaboration run throughout the exhibition in works such as the Museum of American Art’s Dorothy Miller, American Painting, 2058 (2010). This group-cum-faux-institution, based in Berlin, exhibits ‘memories’ of New York’s Museum of Modern Art which are assembled by the ‘curator’, into various pseudo-archival projects. On display here is a collection of quasi-documentary black and white paintings, and various exhibition models, books, etc, based on actual MoMA shows from the Rockefeller-funded International Program of Circulating Exhibitions, curated by Dorothy Miller during the 1950s. The piece’s inclusion here is probably intended to amplify not only MoMA’s role in codifying the ‘official’ story of midcentury Modernism, but to focus on this history’s relation to Cold War cultural politics – in particular, the CIA’s promotion of Abstract Expressionism as a purely ‘subjective’ and thus, anti-communist art ideology.
‘A Place Out of History’ explores other dealings, from excerpts from Jill Magid’s Becoming Tarden (2004–ongoing) – a project that the American artist has been producing as part of a governmental commission to ‘put a human face’ on the Dutch secret service (AIVD) – to a 2007 video in which Nedko Solakov reads from Top Secret (1989–90), an archive-as-confessional with index cards detailing the artist’s own collaboration with the Bulgarian police. Although all of these narratives, and many others in the exhibition, seem like something from a spy novel, the curatorial agenda to show them together, at this juncture in Mexican history, belies its own dark subtext.
What I didn’t mention is by whom the image of Malverde is worn. Although sometimes referred to as a saint of the poor, he is more often referred to as the ‘narco-saint’, particularly by drug-traffickers. These very same traffickers, whose numbers may run into the hundreds of thousands and accounts for up to US$50 billion in black-market revenue, are currently engaged in a massive and bloody drug war, which since 2007 has claimed in the region of 28,000 deaths – far more than the total US fatalities in the Iraq War. These fatalities are a direct result of current Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s declared ‘war’ against the narcos. Upon election in 2007, Calderón sent more than 45,000 troops to fight the cartels and has been escalating these efforts ever since. Yet, like all wars, this one is rampant with corruption; police collusion with the drug cartels aids and abets the trafficking. As such, the question of who is and who is not ‘above the law’ has resulted in a bleak philosophical outlook where there is widespread discontent with the government, the church and other institutions. Traces of this unease are evident in the overt deployment of paramilitary forces around Mexico City, particularly surrounding the central street Reforma, where the Museo Tamayo sits. Instead of following the direct lines of reproach of, say, Teresa Margolles, who has commented unblinkingly at these ‘troubles’, the curators of ‘A Place Out of History’ have composed an elegant and oblique frame, wherein each art work fills in a story-within-a story, each opening a door on one political ‘state of exception’ or another. These overtones, matched with the country’s turbulent political situation, lead one to ask if the curators themselves are suggesting that Mexico today is ‘a place out of history’.