A World Apart

The provocative art of Mexico City

Teresa Margolles’ haunting Vaporización

Text by Franklin Melendez

Much like Mexico City itself, the art scene in the complex metropolis sprawls in unexpected directions, encompassing a dazzling array of media, discourses and strategies. Despite a few “crossover successes” though, this vibrant community remains largely unknown – or more accurately, its international impact is registered in limited ways, often relegated to the easily digested categories of “global” work. While not surprising, this is certainly our loss, since the practices fostered by such a radical set of circumstances – stemming from alternate histories, social structures and aesthetic antecedents – have much to offer the dominant dialogues in American art. Here, we grasp diverging logics, new models of operation that unsettle our immediate context. Thankfully, the Mexican art scene continues to thrive, if not oblivious, then somewhat indifferent to these concerns; its varied strands remain embedded in a particular lexicon, articulated through intimate idioms that do not invite translation, but instead challenge us to relinquish our position and glimpse at worlds unfolding apart from our own.

Teresa Margolles is perhaps one of the more internationally recognized figures in the contemporary Mexican art scene. Since her early collaborations with the collective ( and death metal band ) SEMEFO in the early ’90s, she has produced incendiary work that interrogates the status of death, violence and memory in the postmodern city. Trained as a morgue technician ( SEMEFO is the Spanish acronym for Forensic Medical Service ), Margolles plays with clinical detachment and bodily immediacy, producing seemingly neutral objects that invoke those many forgotten victims. Margolles consistently integrates real, often alarming traces of the dead into pieces which, like hauntings, take on multiple manifestations. For instance, “Vaporización” ( 2002 ), installed at New York’s P.S.1 gallery, consists of a curtained-off space filled with a thick, humid fog. An initial sense of claustrophobia takes on a new urgency when the viewer learns in a modest written notice that the dense substance is produced by the vaporization of water used to wash corpses. What seems like a conceptual meditation is suddenly transformed into a visceral encounter with the other side, with the physical residue of those who have been claimed, often anonymously, by the urban bustle.

Noted for her re-working of minimalist syntax, infusing stark forms with socio-political resonance ( as in 2003’s “Banca” ), Margolles is most remarkable for her brazen, visionary engagement with an aspect of culture that remains both banal and unthinkable. Like her “Secretions on a Wall” ( 2002) – which involved the application of animal fat to the walls of the Kunstwerke Museum in Berlin – she summons the dead through visible markings that prompt us to contend with the all too real persistence of the absent and disremembered.

Less morbidly, Mexico City-born Gustavo Artigas also explores the idea of coexisting worlds, coordinating installations that employ the rules and settings of sporting games or duels. These common pastimes provide allegories for the tensions between adjacent but distinct socio-geographic milieus. This is the concept behind the elaborate staging of “The Rules of the Game” ( 2000-2001). Created for inSITE 2000, the piece unfolds as two simultaneous sporting games: a soccer match in Tijuana, Mexico, and a basketball match in San Diego, California. The piece entertains the possibility of coexistence without interference, as the two separate games unfold at the same time and on matching playing fields. But this initial gesture is complicated by the second part of the project, which constructs a playing field only two meters from a U.S. border crossing. Suddenly, the stakes of the game are raised as the ball inevitably jumps the fence and rolls onto different, much more volatile territory. Through these events, Artigas documents the daily experience of border-states, both literal and figurative, mapping the unexpected intersections of parallel worlds whose consequences are, much like those of a game, constantly suspended and indeterminate.

Of course, these artists provide only brief encounters with a large, complex community supported by an elaborate infrastructure of magazines, galleries and collectives that play an integral role in shaping the Mexican vanguard. For over 15 years, the underground magazine MOHO, founded by accomplished novelist Guillermo Fadanelli, has vociferously promoted emerging talent, encouraging a productive disregard for the Mexico City mainstream. As Fadanelli notes, MOHO “is a magazine that started out as sheer insolence, but now treads unsuspected paths. Its constants are urban discourse, staunch pessimism, the body as beginning and end of pleasure, a certain skepticism towards the future, and most importantly, the need to render relative and flexible the most orthodox discourses.” This transgressive spirit was shared by one of the more influential exhibition spaces in Mexico City, La Panaderia. Converted in 1994 from a local bakery, La Panaderia hosted during its eight-year span a number of local and international artists, producing a wide range of projects. Above all else, this legendary institution paved the way for an increasingly vital underground art scene, which opened onto other trajectories in the late ’90s. This legacy is continued today by numerous projects, such as 2004’s Localismos, a residency of 20 artists in Mexico City that poses as a sole condition the production of a project using materials and craftsmanship available only in the city’s historical center. With efforts such as these, we encroach onto new configurations that are localized and singular, and yet able to obtain wide-ranging import.

Perhaps the most radical implication of this scene is the emergence of a world with permeable boundaries. This is not global utopia, but the horizon of a polymorphous space. And at this juncture, we encounter the work of Julieta Aranda – whose innovative practice evades the limitations of “globalization.” Her current project, on display at Museo Carrillo, departs from an initial interest in genetic experiments that pose the possibility of a viable art gene. Working with scientists mapping DNA donated by 30 artists, Aranda eventually developed the Real Art Project consisting of the Real Art Laboratories and Certification Board. The multimedia piece includes a nine-minute television infomercial, a live website and a diagnostic test ( courtesy of Real Art Laboratories ) that easily detects the presence of the fabled art gene. Those lucky few who meet the scientific criteria are immediately certified by the board, and even mailed an official certificate. At once humorous and profound, Aranda’s project explores the validity of scientific discourse as it encroaches onto the domain of creativity, but also prompts us to re-evaluate the persistence of authenticity in the art world. These far ranging implications are facilitated in no small part by Aranda’s practice, which actively produces and defines its own terrain. Although she admits to being inspired by her national context, the Mexican native resists the pull of “national allegory” or the “bland language of internationalism.” But instead of simply dismissing these concerns, she chooses to set them forth as flexible parameters that inflect but do not exclusively determine her work: “The terms of the negotiation are defined from project to project. I don’t have to choose or readily define what I do. Instead, I choose to present each piece like a moving target.” And indeed, this proves a fruitful strategy for the project renders flexible the multiple discourses it invokes, opening fissures and malleable connections, forging passageways onto other unforeseen destinations. To Find out more visit www.real-art.tv