There and Back Again /

The Temptation of the Center

Art history exists as a set of critical relationships to what has been created in the past, and to what is currently being produced, in a dynamic relationship with the future (or at least what we can glimpse of it). Thus, art can be thought of as a way to “give form” to our present, through imagination and innovation.

The work of Mario García Torres, consisting of videos, installations and, more recently, sculptures, relates to this constitutive process. His practice mostly engages artistic practices from the second half of the twentieth century, which García Torres considers as crucial to the inherited Western concept of modernity. “Let’s Walk Together,” his current exhibition at Museo Tamayo, curated by Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, aspires to be the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work in Mexico. The curatorial proposal looks past the museum walls, venturing into various locations in the city according to a logic invented by the artist and linked to an earlier project, his Museo Arte Sacramento, an imaginary museum he mentally established on a piece of land in the Mexican state of Coahuila, where he is originally from. This labyrinthine display, which can be considered a work in itself, affirms the artist’s practice as primarily concerned with the elasticity of time, space and biography, in a problematic attempt to affirm art as a mostly intellectual activity whose relevancy isn’t ultimately linked to its physical substance. García Torres’s endeavor is a kind of ceaseless quest for ghosts, using the art world as a privileged territory to investigate past anecdotes and generative a posteriori narratives, which are in turn susceptible to added meaning from our present time.

García Torres’s work is not often exhibited in his own country as one could expect — possibly suggesting a different understanding of the work outside of US and European contexts. Deliberately mimicking archival and documentary formats, appropriating the auras of other artists’ works and using ready-made objects as validating artifacts that are often only very distantly linked to the core narratives discussed, Garcia Torres plays with the idea of authenticity. His seeming ambition to be poetic and playful could be read as naïve. The artist’s interest in the idea of the border, be it imaginary, social or physical, is often betrayed by the temptation to repatriate the possibly ambivalent figures he chooses (in the majority white, male and upper class) on the side of artistic genius. Their potential function as heroic alter egos can hardly be concealed.

If these appropriated tales can appeal to a Western audience inclined to valorize them as humanistic displays of interest in the figure of the marginal Other, one might consider, from a more “marginal” point of view, that this universalistic posture unconsciously central to Garcia Torres’s work is ultimately rooted in “the idea of ‘difference’ as pejoration.” ¹ Still, this might just a be a reminder that the Museum, the secondary character within the artist’s practice, anthropomorphic yet spectral, remains a place still to be decolonized, and that the white cube, in its most bare form, continues to be haunted by many ghosts talking out loud on behalf of many others. García Torres’s conscious denial of such matters attests to an interesting refusal to stay in the territory assigned to Latin American artists, to acknowledge his otherness, his pejorative difference. In a peculiar way not exempt of its own form of courage, he has decided to remain blind to the spectacle of decay that the world increasingly has to offer, and to use the safe place of the institution as a an endless territory to conquer — and I actually envy the nostalgic, boyish drive that makes him able to yield, again and again, to the temptation of the center.

by Dorothée Dupuis

¹ To paraphrase Rosi Braidotti’s words in The Posthuman, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013.
read more
There and Back Again /

A Letter from a Creative Carpetbagger in Mexico City

Three weeks ago, Rubén Espinosa, a young journalist who had fled Veracruz after being threaten for revealing important facts about corruption between the governor there and local narcos, was tortured and killed along with four women: Alejandra Negrete Avilés, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, Nadia Vera Pérez and Mile Virginia Martín.

The crime took place in La Narvarte, a neighborhood only two districts away from La Roma and La Condesa, two symbols of Mexico City’s bohemian lifestyle. For many, it was a shock to realize that parts of the capital, which had felt relatively safe until now, could be touched by the violence that has plagued the country for more than a decade.

I recently wrote a think piece for I-D about a certain creative class having found in Mexico City a new Berlin. The piece was labeled by detractors as a blatant example of “white privilege.” To summarize their criticism, Mexico City and Berlin’s respective political contexts were too different to be compared, especially given Mexico’s current situation. Describing the Mexican capital as a possible land of opportunity for a specific type of privileged individual was, purely and simply, obscene. Beyond the content of the article, in which I had indeed offered an oversimplified version of things by failing to clarify my position and voice within a particularly complex reality, some comments suggested that I had no right to write about the situation for the simple fact I was a white, European foreigner living in a safe part of the city. Flipping through books by the thinkers that had shaped my feminist consciousness — bell hooks, Judith Butler, Virginie Despentes, to name a few — I looked for answers that would justify my engagement and help me better locate my practice.

Alas, I found few. On the contrary, I had to again face the lingering question for us white feminists regarding the legitimacy (and more crucially perhaps, the methodology?) of our participation in contemporary post-colonial fights — as women and as members of the white community. I felt powerless when I had felt empowered. I had felt at home in Mexico City, along with an interracial crowd of creative workers from all over the world, my improving Spanish allowing me to connect more deeply with Mexican society than ever before. Had I dreamed up the arty, politically conscious alliance I thought I was building here along with everyone else? Or was the dramatic climate of terror reigning in the city slowly creeping up on us, successfully dividing us by affirming the hate of the other as the only solution?

My neighbor Susana Vargas Cervantes is a Mexican researcher whose main topic of investigation is the idea of pigmentocracy as applied to a variety of subjects in art and politics —a study informed by queer and post-feminist perspectives. She recently co-curated a show at the Museo Jumex with Mexican gallerist Fernando Mesta and Canadian artist Nicolas Ceccaldi, among others. The show seemed to intentionally acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in any collection, notably through the display of less famous works instead of the usual Latino “blockbusters.” Detractors accused the curators of mocking Jumex and the tastes of its owner, Eugenio Lopez. To me, on the contrary, the lesser-known artworks suggested an incommensurable humanity. Often depicting people, faces, bodies, the selection sought to engage with mankind, in all its vain imperfection, as the prime material for art. A new body of work by Bernadette Corporation exaggerates the “representational” aspect of the show. Ceccaldi chose to mimick a sort of Instagram horizontal scroll: artworks are crammed together on the wall, arranged by themes (birds, females faces) like an amateur photo album. Vargas Cervantes’s selection — the curators decided to simply juxtapose their respective endeavors — featured many “dancing” pieces and costume-related artworks, playfully asserting the mix between celebration and melancholy as a distinctive feature of queer aesthetics. Ethnicity was one aspect of the show, but for a once it was not openly thrown in your face as a sort of justification, but rather present in little touches, often in conjunction with markers of popular culture that acted as refreshing and open-ended attempts to posit class as crucial to any art discourse today.

Susana had been one of the harshest detractors of the Mexico-Berlin piece. And I was happy she honestly told me what she thought, and that we were able to discuss it together. Changing the world won’t happen in a day. But please, let’s try to dance together, respecting the infinite costumes each of us crafts in order to do so.

by Dorothée Dupuis

read more

Transparency Aesthetics

“You have to write your own Relational Aesthetics,” Renaud Jerez told me earlier today during a phone conversation about the realities an art practitioner faces when building a branded identity.

Renaud teases me, as he knows that I am always keen on inventing larger-than-life concepts. I am therefore thinking that I could probably conduct most of my interests under the term “Transparency Aesthetics.”

Lili Reynaud-Dewar recently told me: “More than transparency, I’d like to talk about vulnerability. Transparency seems to be a modernist ideal and also probably a very capitalist one, in all senses, and so it’s complicated to make it an ideal for me. On the other hand, an ideal of vulnerability seems like a great political project.” We were talking about her project My Epidemic (Small Modest Bad Blood Opera) (2015), which was presented at the Venice Biennial this year. “Transparency” and “vulnerability.” As opposed to “guilt” and “zero risk.” I seek an art that reveals, not conceals. Or if it does conceal, it should be with the naivety of the activist or the dreamer.

Veterano de la guerra de México cara a la pared (2008–ongoing) is a piece by Santiago Sierra that I saw at SOMA. We decided to take the subway. The corridors, the crowd, the smells, the faces, the cops, the merchandise, the flowers, the polished marble surfaces: everything was slowly turning into sculpture under the midday heat as we exited at San Pedro de Los Pinos to arrive at SOMA. We were very early, and there the veteran was, in the larger conference room painted gray, face to the wall. We were alone with him, and I thought about Tino Sehgal’s work, the one with the dancer among the minimalist sculptures, who starts stripping as soon as someone enters the room. We took a selfie that I sent to the gallerist of the artist, knowing it was too much: “Se me fue chueco el caldo de gallina!”¹ She whatsapped me back. When we left, I remembered that there was a guard in front of SOMA’s door because the school had been robbed at gunpoint at least twice in recent years.

Santiago Sierra is known for his performances involving underprivileged people engaged in polemical actions. The question of remuneration is what makes Sierra’s work so troubling. He seems to believe that the “privileged” economic system of art is able to alter or propose new forms of monetary exchange by playing with the ambiguous status of the work of art as commodity. Sierra uses symbolic value to infuse banal situations with drama or, alternately, to banalize the most shocking behavior. Most people hate him and his art because of the violent simplicity of his approach. But through his social sculptures, his ambition is to denounce the equally revolting double standards of the structures of power in their declared struggle for transparency.

At Biquini Wax, Ling Sepulveda washed in his own washing machine ten pounds of earth and a one-peso coin (cargar un peso is an untranslatable pun that conflates the act of charging one peso for something, i.e. a ridiculous price, with a metaphorical reference to the weight of Mexican identity and labor). The audience didn’t know what was being washed; meanwhile the noise was amplified by a rudimentary homemade sound system. One could only imagine the nature of the load as black water was purged from the machine during its spin cycle. On the video footage of the performance you can see this muddy stream flowing down the stairs, as well as sneakers jumping here and there to avoid it. The water infiltrated the rooms of Biquini Wax’s owners and several things were damaged, including the artist’s own backpack which, in his excitement, he had left on the floor. When he showed me his work on his computer, he told me, smiling, “the computer is slower now, but it still works ok. Anyway, I was so satisfied with the performance, it doesn’t matter.” Maybe Lili is right. Transparency is nothing but another reactionary concept if we don’t allow ourselves to be damaged, made vulnerable in our process of exposure. I suppose my Relational Aesthetics challenger will have to wait a bit longer.

by Dorothée Dupuis

¹ It made me choke with my chicken broth!

read more
There and Back Again /

Where is the Mass Grave?

The guest country at the ARCO art fair in Madrid this year was Colombia. I was happy to see many practitioners I had met the previous year during a trip to this country, as well as those I’d met in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Paris and other cities, as Colombian expats are numerous, ambitious and very mobile. All of them still bear the trauma of the terrorism that hit their country in the ’90s.

For example, curator Natalia Valencia recalls, as a kid, hearing bombs exploding in her neighborhood in the morning, and her mixed feelings about it, as it meant that she probably would skip school that day. Artist Adriana Martínez and her classmates even had a special class that taught them how to signal for help in the event of a kidnapping. Problematics of disappearance, circulation and loss therefore saturate Colombian art in multiple ways, underpinning an ambivalent relationship to the body, seen as a place of immediate materialist celebration as much as a burden due to vulnerabilities that are too easily demonstrated.

The transiency of the body as a site of ideological negotiation in post-colonial times seems to be at the heart of Iván Argote’s latest film. Argote is a Colombian artist who has lived in France since he graduated from the Beaux-Arts de Paris in 2009, where he studied after an initial experience in the film industry in Bogota. In The Messengers (2014), presented during ARCO at the independent space Nadie, Nunca, Nada, No, Argote invited two young North American “leftists” (in the artist’s own words) to play themselves during a road trip to the small towns of Mompox, Colombia, and Arco de la Frontera, Spain.

Following a deliberately loose script that leaves room for improvisation and spontaneity, the film functions as a kind of initiatory tale. Its clever editing appropriates genres such as nouvelle vague, documentary and reality television. Argote aims to expose the contradictions — and predictable failures — of contemporary intercultural dialogue through a deconstructed, ambiguous narrative in which image, dialogue and sound construct a dystopic landscape that challenges our assumptions about exoticism and post-colonial power games. The film emphasizes the pale skins of the kids amid the locals; their self-assured commentary on historical phenomena,; the alternating loudness and silence that accompanies most Latin lifestyles; and the protagonists’ general uneasiness while smoking, eating or listening to music in their surroundings — an uneasiness accentuated by the ghostly presence of Argote, who can always be felt just out of frame. The kids even address him once directly, staring at the camera and asking, playfully, “Where is the mass grave?” The film intentionally confuses the two shooting locations: the actors wear the same outfits throughout the movie, and scenes and voices overlap so as to disrupt any sense of geographic and temporal continuity. The apparent similarity between Spanish and Colombian traditions, music and architecture induces at first an unsettling feeling that soon fades in front of distinctive moments  where cultural influences mix on a non hierarchical level, and whose authenticity relies on the elasticity they seem to sustain with their environment and the people who participate in them. As violent as a Vice documentary but more poetic and less definitive in its shape and tone, the video cruelly pinpoints the latent imperialism that colors the comments of the two kids. It is a cautionary depiction of recurrent neo-colonialist schemes hidden amid the purest intentions.

Exiting the screening, we hang out in the street and I think about the pilot that intentionally crashed the plane in the French Alps. I think about the Columbine shooting; about the Breivik mass-murder of young leftists on a Norwegian island in July of 2011. I wonder about the numbness produced by the Western world’s bodily insufflation through reification and objectification — that deep entanglement of merchandising and lifestyle. A negation of the body; its commodification into pure imagery. Is the violence of the post-colonial preferable to this numbness, to the oblivion of the feeling of death that might have led Andreas Lubitz to coldly kill the 150 passengers of the plane he was in charge of? No one will know what went through his mind as he slowly descended the plane toward the gray mountains while his colleague desperately attacked the shielded door of the cockpit. So weird to think that, perhaps, it was the first time in his life that he felt deeply alive.

by Dorothée Dupuis

read more

Mexico, Reloaded

Based between Mexico and Berlin for almost ten years, Mariana Castillo Deball knows a lot about back and forth. It is an important concern in her work, the circulation of signs and meanings, this weird loop that makes history build itself constantly in the present and identities define themselves in reaction to fantasized others.

In her show “Who will measure the space, who will tell me the time?” at MACO Oaxaca that opened late January, Castillo Deball goes one step further in her longtime interest in cultural bricolage, tribal appropriation, falsification of history, questions of authenticity and power as well as the performative aspect of identity. The new body of work produced for the show seeks to engage an ontological conversation with the specific nature of sacred objects in the pre-Hispanic era, notably the possibility of being “loaded” or “unloaded” through time by symbolic and phenomenological properties. The artist designed, with a local Coatlicue pottery workshop, a series of ceramic elements drawing from existing archeological figures mixed with more contemporary patterns like gears, nuts or toys. These elements are superposed in order to build columns, each functioning as a distinct narrative that attempts to answer two questions: “How do you tell the story of the universe in a hundred years? How do you tell the story of the universe in one day?” The results, typical of Castillo Deball’s work, play off of the anachronistic confusion created by the forms that compose it, wherein the language of visual art updates and challenges the idea of tradition that still presides over most craft productions. Castillo Deball continues to see contemporary art as an effective means of generating inclusive discussions about broader issues of representation and the actualization of the project of modernity, at a time when globalization seems almost fully achieved, and when local, tribal identities seem to fade ineluctably in front of the omnipresent figure of the Westernized global consumer. The main point of Castillo Deball’s installation, then, is to fight against the essentialization of identities, whether they be indigenous or anything else.

The city of Oaxaca could seem from outside like a multicultural paradise where American tourists, white Mexicans and idealized Indians and Mestizos live in harmony and prosperity. But Oaxaca is in fact one of the poorest states of Mexico; it struggles to adapt its traditional economy to current global demands. Tourism encourages the natives to perform their own culture as representatives of disappearing ethnicities, instead of embracing a more dynamic relationship to society that could save their traditions by updating their values and assets through active citizenship. This risk of thinking of identity as a fixed essence and not as a responsive construction gained an aching accuracy with the Paris attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few weeks ago, shifting our views about the “cultural” as a rallying, friendly concept to a divisive, destructive one. The Western world discovered, horrified, that some people were ready to kill for something they thought was futile: respect. Two characters were thus created: Charlie, the secular citizen educated enough to understand satire and humor in the mockery of institutions, morals and societies; and the radicalized Muslim, tragic symbol of the failure of the European integration model. Both were ready to be instrumentalized within larger political narratives.

It was in the light of these past events and reflections that I went to see Danh Vo’s and Abraham Cruzvillegas’s shows at the Museo Jumex just before leaving Mexico for Marseille (and back again, one more time). The two artists use their identities as strong referential elements in their artistic practices, although in very different ways. Abraham Cruzvillegas draws on a 1970s approach to identity politics — making room for representations of invisible phenomena or people within the field of contemporary art, hoping that this presence will trickle down from high art into more mainstream culture. Dahn Vo’s approach, I believe, is much more contemporary but echoes in a questionable way the tendency of the Western world to essentialize the identities I mentioned above. Indeed, since the beginning of his practice, the artist has devised an ambiguous persona that voluntarily invokes the victim status of a son of migrants, but also a rebellious one whose mission is to avenge its people through a Trojan horse tactic aiming to steal from the rich and give back to the poor, almost literally, in the field of representation. But can “the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde once relevantly asked? Herein lies the equivocalness of Dahn Vo’s proposal. In this regard, if Cruzvillegas’s show might seem a bit stripped of his formally generous essence in the severe although beautiful white cube gallery of the Museo Jumex, at least it succeeds at communicating in a honest way what’s at stake in the work and especially in the context of this specific museum in Mexico City.

I expect artists to challenge mainstream representations of power, not to validate them. I moved in 2012 to Mexico City because I wanted to know what it was to work and live in a different culture. I just felt there was a possibility for a forest of signs to exist there that would be so radically different from my own that it would change my vision of art forever — and it did. I’m still tremendously affected by the local: and I take the intensity of the successive culture shocks, sometimes back, sometimes forth, as a proof of the righteously changing nature of my own humanity.

by Dorothée Dupuis

read more