Mexico City

La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera: Demolición, Ocupación y Utopía [The City Is Out There: Demolition, Occupation, and Utopia]

If we googled the word “megalopolis,” it is most likely that an image of Mexico City would appear in the search. The capital of Mexico has 9 million inhabitants, and a floating population of almost 2 million people who travel every day from the adjacent suburbs to study, work, and shop. This concentration of humans turns the city into a bustling social and cultural center, as well as a thriving economic node. However, this dynamism also entails a wide variety of problems, including irreversible pollution, poor transportation policies, economic inequality, and high levels of crime. The collective exhibition La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera: Demolición, Ocupación y Utopía [The City Is Out There: Demolition, Occupation, and Utopia], currently on display at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco (CCUT), offers a critical commentary on the way this city is inhabited, shared, used, controlled, permanently reinvented, and represented.

Ishmael Randall-Weeks, Pilares [Pillars], 2014; reinforced concrete and carved books. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

Ishmael Randall-Weeks. Pilares [Pillars], 2014; reinforced concrete and carved books. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

Curated by twelve members of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Curatorial Studies Masters Program, this show, just like the city, refuses to remain static or neatly categorized. Instead, it encourages a constant confrontation of ideas around demolition, occupation, and utopia. These three axes are tightly interwoven, and can be observed simultaneously in the displayed artworks, as well as within the museum’s surroundings. The view from the main gallery’s window is of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, an emblematic square in the city, where pre-Hispanic ruins meet a colonial church—all of which is framed by the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco residential complex, an utopian architectural project developed by Mexican architect Mario Pani in the mid-’60s.

The view in the interior of the gallery also alludes directly to construction processes. Damián Ortega’s piece Mamparas. Composición Concreta (2004–2006) is composed of three concrete units. Though extremely heavy, the piece has hinges and movable panes, which might be thought of as a structural reflection of the city’s malleability. Alejandro Almanza’s neon installation Change the World or Go Home (2016) is a flashy, luminescent scaffold that emphasizes the changes and motivations for urban adjustments, always situated along a future horizon, symbolic of an unreachable promise where everything will be brighter.

Alejandro Almanza, Change the World or Go Home, 2016; neon lights, wood and iron handles. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Aaron Alcántara.

Alejandro Almanza. Change the World or Go Home, 2016; neon lights, wood and iron handles. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Aaron Alcántara.

In a direct confrontation, architects Alfonso Pallares’ and Mario Pani’s projects on modern transportation and inhabitance from the 1930s to 1970—here exhibited as reproductions extracted from their archives—collide with José Dávila’s sculptural installation Conjunto Habitacional [Residential Complex] (2000), a series of identical tiny, white ceramic buildings with a water tank on top; Onnis Luque’s photographic series Vivir Bajo el Puente [To Live Under the Bridge] (2014), which portrays the disastrous outcomes of living in the neighborhoods invaded by the construction of elevated highways; and Isaac Torres’ Proyecto para Monumento a la Involución de la Vivienda Social [Project for a Monument to the Involution of Social Housing] (2012), a piece that traces the changes of architectural layouts for low-cost housing over time. By establishing a dialogue between historic architectural projects and artworks reflective of contemporary living conditions, it becomes understood that there is no longer a place for utopia in this megalopolis—only dull, uniform models for conceiving and building housing units and public spaces.

In front: José Dávila, Conjunto habitacional [residential complex], 2000, ceramics. Back: Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anarquía arquitectónica de la Ciudad de México [Mexico City's Architectural Anarchy], ca. 1950-1953; reproduction. Center: Julian Charrière and Julius von Bismarck, Clockwork, 2015; contoured buildings' debris, concrete, bricks, asphalt, volcanic stones. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

In front: José Dávila, Conjunto Habitacional [Residential Complex], 2000, ceramics. Back: Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anarquía Arquitectónica de la Ciudad de México [Mexico City’s Architectural Anarchy], ca. 1950-1953; reproduction. Center: Julian Charrière and Julius von Bismarck, Clockwork, 2015; contoured buildings’ debris, concrete, bricks, asphalt, volcanic stones. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

An enlarged reproduction of the iconic photograph by Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anarquía Arquitectónica de la Ciudad de México [Architectural Anarchy of Mexico City] (ca. 1950–1953) occupies the center of the exhibition room. Underneath it lies Clockwork (2015), an installation by artists Julian Charrière and Julius von Bismarck. In Bravo’s piece, buildings stand tall and the avenues below them resemble flowing rivers. On the other hand, Clockwork’s debris begins to resemble rounded river stones. It is possible to read this representation as if the ancient lacustrine city has dried out, its arteries replaced by destruction and occupation in the name of “development.”

José Adrián Monroy López, Núcleo [Core], 2016; polypropylene weave. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

José Adrián Monroy López. Núcleo [Core], 2016; polypropylene weave. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

Museographic structures throughout the galleries invite visitors to occupy confined spaces where videos and audio tracks are played, and encourage them to adopt what at first may seem uncomfortable positions, but that reinforce the experience of living in a precarious situation. Adrián Monroy’s installation, Núcleo [Core] (2016), is a woven plastic cocoon that can be crawled into—an organic, safe shelter that could be seriously considered as a housing alternative.

This is, indeed, a show about the places we inhabit and the streets we walk every day, but the exhibition also highlights how communities are built via unseen relations between individuals, power structures, and with the environment (monstrous helminth worms, products of the city’s pollution, are displayed throughout the exhibition). Some artworks reflect on labor, corruption, political regimes, and the role of the citizen throughout; for instance, in Voto para Demolición [Demolition Vote] (2007–2016), artist Gustavo Artigas offers a poll for citizens to choose to be demolished one of six buildings that are mired in architectural and political scandals.

Iván Ludens, Referencias del uso de espacios urbanos que sirven como notas para el trabajo de arquitectura y urbanismo (detalle) [References of the use of public spaces that serve as notes for architectural and urban projects (detail)], 2006-2016; 232 Polaroids. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

Iván Ludens, Referencias del Uso de Espacios Urbanos que Sirven como Notas para el Trabajo de Arquitectura y Urbanismo (detalle) [References of the Use of Public Spaces that Serve as Notes for Architectural and Urban Projects (detail)], 2006-2016; 232 Polaroids. Courtesy of Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM. Photo: Tania Puente.

Referencias del Uso de Espacios Urbanos que Sirven como Notas para el Trabajo de Arquitectura y Urbanismo (2006–2016), a piece by Iván Ludens, compiles an inventory of images that archives the inability of the city ever coming to an end. As these documents attest, the city spreads and grows without ceasing; in its many spaces, a vast range of times reside, each becoming a residue on the urban palimpsest. As the exhibition title accurately claims, The City Is Out There, but this curatorial narrative certainly attains a critical comment on how we might yet best reorganize this megalopolis and its never-ending cycles.

La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera will be on view through March 26, 2017.

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