Mexico City

An Other Art World in Mexico

Contemporary art in Mexico operates within a very specific social and economic climate. Since 2006, Mexico has experienced ever-escalating levels of criminal and state violence. Suspicion of collusion between organized crime and the government is common. The case of the presumed torture and murder of the forty-three normalistas directly shows the extent of cooperation between criminal groups and local, regional, and federal authorities. Police officers, soldiers, and civic leaders have all been charged in connection with the disappearances. In addition, waves of political repression have swept through most of the country’s towns and cities. In and around Mexico City, where I live, community activists, artists, journalists, and students have faced beating, abduction, torture, rape, and murder.

Poster calling for the return of the disappeared normalistas. Photo: Jorge Gomez del Campo

Poster calling for the return of the disappeared normalistas. Photo: Jorge Gomez del Campo.

According to some critics, neoliberal reforms account for much of this violence. The chapter on Ciudad Juarez in Ed Vulliamy’s book Amexica is a particularly good example; it situates the epidemic of femicides in that city in the context of the structural changes brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Furthermore, Vulliamy asserts that the particularly brutal character of narco/state violence in Mexico results from the drug war’s neoliberal form.

The question of how art responds to, or ignores, this climate is of utmost importance. Recently, the College of Art and Design of the National Autonomous University of Mexico organized a conference, XI Simposio Internacional del Posgrado en Artes y Diseño, on management and professionalism in design, documentary film, and the visual arts. Peppered throughout the talks given by important and august museum directors, curators, art-investment bankers, copyright lawyers, and gallerists were many dissident voices calling for and describing another, more socially conscious art world. The presentation by curator and artist Carlos-Blas Galindo Mendoza, in conjunction with the roundtable he moderated, revealed the contradiction implicit in staging a conference about professionalism and management in the context of the social, political, and humanitarian crises facing contemporary Mexico.

In his talk, “Inserción de Productos Artísticos Visuales en Circuitos Establecidos de Distribución y Consumo, así Como en Redes Independientes,” Galindo ironically explained how to “make it” in the art world: The number-one rule is to never make anything that poses a real threat to neoliberal capitalism. He went on to describe the extant art world as globalized and generic; art objects have to be like a pair of jeans, equally sellable in China, Europe, or Thailand; curators and critics are thinkers-for-hire, justifying what the market values. This art, according to Galindo, is masculinist and authoritarian.

Santiago Ortega Hernández, speaking at the roundtable moderated by Galindo, further indicted the art world. In his thoroughly researched talk, “La Sartén por el Mango. El Coleccionismo Empresarial en el Mercado del Arte,” the artist and academic traced the links between big business, investment banks, and art. This link between art and capital is a matter of record; at one point, however, Ortega Hernández suggested that anyone who participates in these markets and institutions tacitly supports the human-rights abuses carried out by some of the businesses and banks heavily invested in art.

Galindo challenged the audience to develop a solution to these ethical, moral, and aesthetic questions. He called for the development of a new kind of art, a postcolonial art that is feminine, militant, solidary, irreverent, and diverse. This new art would be tied to a particular place and time, it would interrogate power and capital, and it would act with a communitarian—and even revolutionary—spirit. Fortunately, at least to some extent, this art already exists in the work of dozens of local artists and collectives operating within and on the periphery of the art world.

Ambra Polidori. Recuerdo de Ciudad Juarez, 2011; postcards and display rack; 200cm x 30cm x 30cm. Courtesy of the artist and the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico D.F. Photo: Jorge Gomez del Campo.

Ambra Polidori. Recuerdo de Ciudad Juarez, 2011; postcards and display rack; 200 x 30 x 30 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico D.F. Photo: Jorge Gomez del Campo.

Internationally recognized artists like Teresa Margolles directly confront the worst results of neoliberal reforms in Mexico. Her work at the Venice Biennale, ¿De Qué Otra Cosa Podríamos Hablar? (2009), and En el Aire (2003) at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), are examples of how art speaks to power from within the institution. In one work, someone mops the floor with water impregnated with crime-scene remains; in the other, the artist mixes these remains with soap bubbles that float around the viewer. The suggestion is clear; these rarefied art spaces have some relationship to the violence that exists outside of their hermetic walls. Ambra Polidori exhibited a piece in the MUAC that powerfully addressed the ideological and economic realities of femicides in Ciudad Juarez. Recuerdo de Ciudad Juarez (2011) consisted of a rack filled with postcards of crime-scene photographs of femicides with the text Recuerdo de Ciudad Juarez (“Souvenir of Ciudad Juarez”) in playful, colorful script. This piece still resonates as one of the most powerful and complex denouncements of violence by a contemporary Mexican artist.

Photo: Casa Gomorra

Casa Gomorra. Photo: Gustavo Ruíz

There are many other works coming from important Mexico City museums and commercial galleries that address this reality, but Galindo’s talk suggests that these works might not meet the criteria of the new art he calls for. Why, he asks, do we include some of this work in the material and ideological institutions of the art world and not others? It seems that for Galindo, any art included in the field is complicit with the politics and conventions of the gallery and museum; nonetheless, countless artists and collectives, which meet most, if not all, of the criteria set forth by Galindo, operate within, and on the periphery, of the art scene in Mexico City. Some important collectives facilitate the production of dissident culture and cultural artifacts. For example, Casa Gomorra is a home and cultural center dedicated to post-porn, trans-feminist, and queer/cuir projects, shows, workshops, performances, and parties. Tepetongo Balneario Crítico works at the boundary between art projects, political activism, and academic research.

Photo: Tepetongo Balneario Crítico

Photo: Tepetongo Balneario Crítico.

Rexiste is an informal association of individuals and artists dedicating themselves to arts-based political action. They helped organize two key events this last year: the action commemorating the assassination of a young graffiti artist by police, and the “occupation” (the building was used with the permission of sympathetic administrators) of the Palacio de Bellas Artes as the center of a weekend of art and protest. Cráter Invertido, a collective with anarchist leanings, is one of the most active groups in the contemporary art scene. They are one of the few groups to operate simultaneously on the periphery and in the center of the art world (they were invited to participate in the most recent Venice Biennale). They have been active for a few years and routinely have shows, workshops, free communitarian meals, and performances informed by anarchist aesthetics. There are many more of these groups in Mexico City, and countless more throughout the country. Mexico is full of art whose themes and structures actively work against the worst results of neoliberal policies in the country.

The story of one artist and activist in particular is indicative of this reality. At Casa Gomorra, Denise (last name withheld to respect her privacy) recounted her experiences organizing resistance to narco/state violence in Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon in the north of Mexico. She told us about strategies that mostly centered on reclaiming public space from violence. For instance, if a cartel hung bodies from a bridge, they’d organize a queer/cuir bike ride across it. Or, when violence shut down all the bars and parks of the historic downtown, artists and activists rented apartments and studios, and opened cafes and galleries as artistic and political actions.

This kind of praxis is remarkable and brave on its own; however, Denise continues to work even after being harmed by the worst of narco/state violence. She was one of two women on a bus that was stopped on the highway by what she believes were government paramilitaries. The paramilitaries separated the women. They lined up all the men and executed them. They then kidnapped the two women, beat, tortured, and gang-raped them, and left them for dead on the side of the road.

The women managed to flag down a passing bus. The driver let them travel to the nearest town in the luggage compartment. When Denise arrived at the town, she made her way to a local hospital. The doctors concluded that there had not been a rape; her vagina had lubricated. This horrifying experience has not impeded Denise’s ability to resist, to organize, to write, and to make art. Mexico is filled with stories like this—of people who will not give up hope that their lives will continue, that their loved ones will be found alive, or that the perpetrators of violence will be brought to justice.

Artists and artists’ collectives have been key in building community, maintaining awareness, and pressuring the state for justice and accountability. Galindo is absolutely right in calling for a new art. I hope that sympathetic people within the most important government and private art institutions listen. This new art already exists; it simply needs more of the material and social support the art world could provide.