In the recent history of Mexico, 1994 was a seminal year. On January 1 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified, and the same year the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZNL) declared its nonviolent and defensive war against the Mexican state and the military, paramilitary and corporate incursions into Chiapas. During this period of political instability the Mexican art scene started a process of change and adaptation. Over the past two decades since these initial experiments began, art in Mexico has addressed issues like poverty, labor conditions, violence, globalization and war. Miguel Ventura’s Civic Songs (2008) presented at MUAC or Teresa Margolles’s What else could we talk about? (2009) at the Venice Biennale are just two examples. The dynamism of alternative spaces in the ’90s and their institutionalization and consequential inclusion in the major art system have internationalized the Mexican art scene, going beyond the solitary leadership of artist Gabriel Orozco.1
According to Cuauhtémoc Medina, the foundation of this new structure has had three pillars: the role of the independent curator; the growth of alternative spaces and artist initiatives 2; and “the desire for independence,” a mission that has been pursued through the “openness generated by the interaction of local artists with global artistic networks.” 3
This global network was reinforced by a group of foreign artists — such as Francis Alÿs from Belgium, Melanie Smith from the UK, Thomas Glassford from the US and Santiago Sierra from Spain — who moved to Mexico City.4 Alÿs’s ambulatory and poetic actions transformed Mexico City into “a fable within a fable.” In The Collector (1991), the artist documented his action of pulling a magnetic object with the shape of a wheeled four-footed animal through the street, collecting all kinds of abandoned metal objects. The space in which things happened — the context — became fundamental, whether it was public or private, outdoor or indoor. In 1997, Santiago Sierra was invited to create a project for the re-opening of a new section of Galería Art Deposit in Mexico City. His response, Gallery Burned with Gasoline (1997), was a site-specific installation where, with the help of torches and blowpipes, he literally burned the entire space floor to ceiling, a direct attack to the institution and to the notion of propriety and law, which was then celebrated in his infamous project for the Spanish Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where only Spanish citizens were allowed to access the pavilion and see what was shown.
Furthermore, the professionalization of the art system in Mexico became more evident in the late ’90s with the first ExpoArte and the Foro Internacional de Teoría del Arte Contemporáneo in Guadalajara in 1992, and especially when Patricia Martín started to work with Eugenio López on the establishment of the Jumex Collection — the largest collection of contemporary art in Mexico. These developments were accompanied by the birth of Kurimanzutto,5 the Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo14, the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory (SITAC) and the Oficina Para Proyectos de Arte (OPA) in Guadalajara.6
After many years of indolence, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) decided to develop a contemporary art collection, and in 2006 the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte (MUCA) hosted the historical exhibition “The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997” curated by Olivier Debroise and Medina. The interest in contemporary art brought structural transformations 7 within the museum landscape, which is mostly managed by the state: in 2008 the UNAM became a major player with the creation of the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC). This in turn forced the government to increase its participation, which caused the extension and remodeling of the Tamayo Museum that opened in 2012.
From the private sector, beside Kurimanzutto, galleries like Labor, Gaga Arte Contemporáneo and Proyectos Monclova — which represents artists like Mario García Torres and Eduardo Sarabia, who have a strong presence in Europe and the US — have embraced the so-called “international conceptualism” and presented a new generation of Mexican artists who have gained attention for their critical and radical irreverence. Within this context we see artists like Stefan Brüggemann — whose sarcastic works and texts, realized in vinyl or neon and recycling material from fashion magazines, art catalogues and philosophy books — as one of the most interesting examples of Mexican contemporary art.
In 2009 the New Museum presented “Younger than Jesus,” the inauguration of its new triennial. Adriana Lara, part of the collective Perros Negros together with Agustina Ferreira and the founder of Gaga Arte Contemporáneo Fernando Mesta, presented Banana Peel (2008). Invoking the most basic slapstick, this work — which required constant security — symbolizes a specific attitude of this new generation of Mexican artists, which stands in clear contraposition to the multiculturalism of Alÿs and Orozco and has nothing in common with the strong political engagement of Margolles or Sierra.
Thanks to these different attitudes, the contemporary art scene in Mexico is solidifying more and more. Even galleries like Jan Mot and Peter Kilchmann — who represents Alÿs, Smith, Margolles and the collective Tercerunquinto — have made incursions into the adventurous Mexican landscape.8
Ximena Apisdorf Soto is an independent curator based in Mexico City.
1. In 2012, former Tate associate curator of Latin American Art Cuauhtémoc Medina organized the European biennial Manifesta and won the 2012 Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, while Margolles was awarded the fifth Artes Mundi prize.
2. “The General Workshop” (1987-1991), original called “Friday Workshop,” was initiated by Gabriel Orozco and involved younger artists Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damián Ortega, Dr. Lakra, Gabriel Kuri and his brother and future dealer José Kuri. Continuing the legacy of this initiative was “Temístocles 44”(1993-1995), a more active place for discussion in which proposals were adopted following a more closed, consensus-reaching basis until the group — which included Cruzvillegas, Ortega and Daniel Guzmán among others — broke up and some of its members were invited by Miguel Calderón and Yoshua Okón to be part of La Panadería (1994-2002), where the conversation was less dogmatic and more festive.
3. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “The Critical State of Inclemency,” in The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997, exhibition catalogue, UNAM, Mexico City, 2007, p. 382.
4. “They discovered raw materials for their exotic productions in the colorful, vernacular culture of street markets and stores in the downtown are where they lived. Their creative processes developed independently, however, and the one thing that bound them together, besides being foreigners, was a penchant for partying.” Abraham Cruzvillegas, “G.O. Untitled Workshop,” in Gabriel Orozco exhibition catalogue, MOCA, Los Angeles / Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City / The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, 2000, p. 185.
5. When Mónica Manzutto and José Kuri opened Kurimanzutto in 1999 it was not a commercial gallery but rather the site for promotion and exchange between artists. The gallery didn’t have a permanent space until 2008, although they have participated in Art | Basel since 2005.
6. A non-profit association founded in 2000 by a group of art professionals who saw the need to established a fund to support independent contemporary art projects. One of its founders, artist Gonzalo Lebrija, said: “We are artists and we prefer the production and promotion of the artwork to the commercialization of it.”
7. “There has been a complete change in the class inscription of art in Mexico. For the first time since the beginning of the twentieth century, the upper classes are interested in contemporary art and are backing the development of artists even if their work is critical of the social system. This is a completely new situation that is not uncommon in other parts of the world; there has been an extension of the interests of a new elite that sees in contemporary art a space for intervention, expression and a site of prestige.” Mariana Aguirre, “Interview with Critic, Curator and Art Historian Cuauhtémoc Medina, Part 1” in Blog Art 21, 2012.
8. “Here in Mexico City you can produce with less money, rents are more accessible and if you sell in one show and not in the other, you can juggle and stretch things around. You have the leeway to make mistakes and take risks. There is a great freedom here, one that allows you generosity and flexibility; that is what’s incredible about working here. In that sense I am interested in my context, also taking that the market is to a certain extent global.” Magnolia De La Garza, “Gaga Arte Contemporáneo: Interview with Fernando Mesta,” in Peeping Tom’s Digest #02 – Mexico, Peeping Tom, Paris, 2011, p. 93.