From the Archives
While nation-states elect or appoint internationally recognized power brokers, real politics emerge on the ground in the lived experiences of our communities, in the polis. In the face of shifting national and international politics, local communities must commit to uphold human rights. In that spirit, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently dismissed threats of funding cuts by the President-elect and affirmed the city’s commitment to human rights. Beyond this important resolution, artists will continue to shape civic resistance to inhumane policies. In one such example, La Polis Imagi-nada, a group show at El Quinto Piso in Mexico City, interrogated power structures shaping the city and showcased artistic resistances to those structures. This article was originally published on December 9, 2015.
What is a city? How can it be conceptualized? How does one create oneself within that geographic and symbolic space? These questions frame the most recent show at El Quinto Piso, La Polis Imagi-nada. The curatorial statement talks about the polis and civic participation in theoretical terms, but the exhibit situates these concepts firmly within the symbolic and geographic realities of Mexico City. El Quinto Piso is a vast gallery space located on the top floor of a parking structure in the historic downtown. It is raw and unfinished, with exposed wires and very little light. It feels impermanent, as if it could be closed down at any moment, and many of the works in this show feel improvisational, perhaps even unfinished. But this is an appropriate response to the social and political concerns of contemporary life in Mexico City.
Several of the works address the current climate of political and structural violence. Cecilia Barreto’s painting, http//www.möbius.10 (2015), shows the city as a mediated battleground. The painting is composed of dozens of black silhouettes of activists, riot police, and police dogs against a mostly red background. Texts and icons, like a prominent Facebook thumbs-up, situate these scenes on social media. All of this is rendered with painterly marks on a medium-size canvas.
Simulacro (2015) by David Camargo also situates political violence as a mediated spectacle. However, in this case the artist creates a video-game caricature. Onto a geometrically simple 3D model of a soldier’s head, the artist video-maps scenes of fire, computer glitches, and a skull. The work suggests a relationship between the commonplace political violence in Mexico City and virtual realities. If Barreto’s work emphasizes political struggle as Facebook activism, Camargo places it firmly in the world of the video game.
Yutsil Cruz’s Crónicas Marcianas (2015) looks at structural violence in the context of popular culture. The artist juxtaposes images of 20th-century violence, barbed-wire border walls, and migrants and refugees alongside clips from contemporary and vintage UFO movies. She uses a lot of split screens and quick cuts that are reminiscent of early music videos. Once again the work displaces something as materially real as violence; Crónicas Marcianas is violence framed as late-night TV spectacle.
Not all of the work engages with the political in the same way. In Liz Misterio’s piece, El Regreso de Ana Suromal (2015), the artist uses her body as a feminist counterpunch to the realities of institutional and bureaucratic authority in the capital city. A series of still images projected on the wall documents Misterio exposing her genitals in front of symbols of state power: the National Cathedral, the National Palace, the Monument to the Revolution, and others. These post-porn images borrow the aesthetic of “outdoor” pornography in order to question where, and with whom, power resides. In addition, the piece is irreverent; the artist shows off her ample pubic hair and unapologetically fat body with glee. The stark contrast between Misterio’s playful genitals and the heavy, square lines of monumental architecture suggest an interesting tension between the Modernist binaries of order/chaos, masculine/feminine, town/country, and civilization/barbarity that are key to understanding this exhibition.
These binaries are apparent in Sonidos de Resistencia: Semáforos Sonoros (2015) by Félix Blume, one of the most successful works in the show. The artist and several collaborators document a work in which the artist hacks a crosswalk signal to produce the sound of a donkey braying. The documentation includes photos of puzzled commuters and pedestrians, as well as the apparatus the artist used in the hack. The work appears to have momentarily made daily life strange enough to cause viewers to see their surroundings differently, and perhaps consider the deep sonorous and symbolic difference between city life and country life.
Other noteworthy works in the show play with this same tension. In Cuchillos para el Olvido, Daniel Godínez Nivón presents several handcrafted knives in a glass-and-wood display case. A text explains that each knife represents the way in which a particular congregation in the town of Cieneguilla, Guanajuato, confronts oblivion. It’s a powerful reminder of the social and economic forces—neoliberal reforms, resource exploitation, and organized crime, among many others—that are dramatically changing rural Mexican life.
A large-format drawing, El Estacionamiento Público (2015) by Apolo Cacho, answers the questions posed by this show directly and pessimistically. Obsessive lines create rich textures that suggest a passage from harmony to frenzy, and architectural forms are stacked on top of one another and push up against organic forms. The artist’s marks sometimes reinforce this tension and sometimes contradict it. The scale of the work and the thousands of short, expressive lines combine to produce a deep awareness of the artist’s hand. The drawing makes no other reference to a human being, suggesting a hostile city that is both a monument to consumption and excess as well as to humiliation and deprivation.
The image of Mexico City presented by this show is vast, complex, contradictory, and improvised—a juxtaposition of styles, time periods, unimaginable wealth, and terrible poverty. Escalating violence lives alongside mega developments that are built on garbage dumps and slums. This exhibition suggests that the city is a barely organized mash-up of lofty dreams and hard realities, and that these contradictions have collapsed the modernist binaries that the artworks address; opposites become indistinguishable from one another. In La Polis Imagi-nada, civilization is barbarity, and violence is a game.
La Polis Imagi-nada was on view at El Quinto Piso through December 12, 2015.