Report from Mexico City
Marso Galería Arte Contemporáneo, La Quiñonera
Towards the end of March I traveled to Mexico City for the first time. I was there for the publication launch of a new literary arts magazine, diSONARE, as well as to seek out the vibrant art scene I had heard so much of over the course of the past few years. Upon landing I was immediately overwhelmed by the ecstatic colors, sounds, and foreign smells of the sprawling metropolis, which presented themselves as an unrelenting assault on the senses. During my four-day immersion I made it a point to experience as much of the city as possible: its various districts, pueblo towns, urban centers, and lustrous parks. In quaint enclaves of three of these areas, often separated by a 15-25 minute cab ride (the only truly viable way of getting around), I found what I was searching for: a combination of high-brow, institutionally vetted art, as well as the work of local artists and collectives who, while not (yet) household names on the contemporary art scene, were exploring themes that equally attended to social mores, resident politics, and global conceptual trends, all while remaining deeply rooted in their own community. For the sake of brevity, the following focuses on three spaces in particular that offered this spark of recognition and risk, something other than what the large museum experience could afford.
The most established of the three spaces was Galería OMR. One of Mexico City’s more elite blue chip venues, it was here that I encountered the striking work of José Dávila and Pia Camil, both Mexican artists of the conceptualist persuasion. Their two divergent exhibitions–-Dávila’s dealt with the liminal moment between stasis and collapse, while Camil utilized the gallery as a site-specific staging area replete with hand-woven tapestries, ceramic vessels, and bright swaths of color—employed the familiar vocabulary of Western artistic production, albeit through the lens of Mexico’s complicated socio-economic climate.
Utilizing formalist tropes of Minimalist fabrication, Davila’s Estado de reposo (State of Rest) (2014), featured a series of monolithic marble slabs suspended and tethered precariously to the walls and floor by eye hooks, industrial belts, and crimson red pulleys. The resulting tension, enacted as a balance of neutralized conflicts, prompted compound readings of interruption and suspense irrefutably conjoined at the intersection of architecture, space, and art history. The heavy physicality of the objects, at times measuring as large as 11 feet in length, and coupled with their seeming instability of pitched angles, added a measure of trepidation to the encounter, an apprehension relieved by the playful slippage of Camil’s three-room installation, Between Curtains: Open, Draw, Come.
This was the artist’s first solo exhibition in Mexico, which, according to the gallery’s press release, elaborated on her 2012 series Espectaculares, where Camil “captures aspects of the urban landscape of Mexico City, taking as point of departure abandoned or cancelled billboards which often show fragments of advertising images or the agent’s contact number.” Alluding to the subaltern issues of craft, Camil employs hand-stitched and dyed canvas curtains, as well as glazed ceramic vessels to comment on the degenerative effects of capitalist production. Throughout the course of the day, the curtains and vases are moved in accordance with an accompanying script (produced as a limited edition artist book made in collaboration with Gabriela Jauregui and Sofía Broid), as a performative meditation on the conflation of mass culture and domestic space. The result was bold and intelligent, capitalizing on the ever-shifting presences made palpable by Mexico City’s uneven civic milieu.
Marso Galería Arte Contemporáneo, located in the beautiful art-nouveau style neighborhood of Juárez, held an altogether different vibe. The gallery itself, one of the few non-profits in the area, was exquisite to behold. Its intricately designed metalwork and baroque moldings shimmered gloriously, though they were ostensibly out of place with the rest of the city’s chimeric textures. Acerca de lo que puede no ser (On what there might not be), the exhibition then on view, contained many of the same thematic undercurrents as those seen at OMR and other institutional venues, ideas that focused on the phenomenology of seeing, urban habitation, and a coming to terms with contemporary reality. Here, sculptures by Jakob Mattner and kinetic work by Zilvinas Kempinas, as well as an early piece by Andy Warhol, were shown as part of the exhibition, along with emblematic works by Mexico City veterans, Francis Alÿs and Luis Felipe Ortega. These iconic pieces were thoughtfully displayed in dialogue with the work of younger international-based artists such as Adrien Missika (France, 1981), Virginia Colwell (USA 1981), Tony Orrico (United States, 1979), Jong Oh (Korea, 1981), Daniela Libertad (Mexico, 1983) and Arturo Hernández Alcázar (Mexico, 1978). All of the work spoke to the ephemeral nature of experience—“nothingness,” the void—their often simple forms and actions haunting the parlors of Marso’s 19th century halls with the juxtaposition of artwork designed to capture the fleeting in a space that (to quote a Grateful Dead song) was “built to last.”
Marso was also the site of the diSONARE publication launch, where I had the opportunity to speak with a number of artists, writers, poets, and musicians either native to or recently relocated to the city. As we sipped mezcal and discussed art and politics, an air of possibility filled the courtyard. I listened intently to stories about the city’s lawlessness, its corrupt political infrastructure and what that meant for the arts. Thankfully, this mix of apathetic oversight seemed to translate to a lack of boundaries in determining what and whom might shape the emerging culture, leaving things (thankfully) to those who should be entrusted with its development—the artists, gallerists and writers who, for better or for worse, at least understand the broadening needs of the community. It was also there that I met Nestor Quiñones, a figurehead in the Mexican art scene and founder of the city’s longest running arts and cultural site, La Quiñonera.
Located on the outskirts of Coyoacán (famous for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home, Casa Azul), Quiñones’ family home has served for almost 30 years as an unofficial gathering place for artists, writers, and various other creative types. It was in 1986 that Quiñones, whose work earned him widespread international recognition in the earlier part of that decade, abruptly decided to withdraw from the contemporary art market in search of a way for his work to better serve humanity. This decision was largely made in response to Mexico’s then political climate, whose fiercely conservative and socially devastating effects were readily visible throughout the country, most prominently, amidst its youth culture. La Quiñonera was the result of this decision, developing first out of social necessity and later, as an alternative project for creative pursuits. Its role was to question accepted paradigms of oppression with Quiñones positioning the space as a “link between two eras: before and after the entry of the North American Free Trade Agreement.” (NAFTA) In 2010, along with the assistance of the space’s first fulltime coordinator, Ileana Peña Cid, La Quiñonera officially registered with the state and has since staged countless exhibitions, talks, and other forms of arts programming. One theme in particular defines La Quiñonera’s mission—how art can serve the world—and is embodied in a single exhibition per year dedicated to this theme. ¿Un Mundo Posible? was the most recent of these endeavors, bringing together 17 artists and collectives from the surrounding community to ponder the concept of a reimagined future, without limitation, one that transcended the dystopic visions that define our current moment.
These ideas undeniably spill over into Quiñones’s own work, the most impressive of which is his ongoing series Similia, which I had the opportunity to see in a group exhibition organized by the non-profit arts group, Estudio 71. Housed in a historical synagogue near the Centro quarter of the city, Quiñones displayed an array of digital projections compiled from the visual output of individual questionnaire responses to a program the artist created in collaboration with computer engineers over the last several years. The results appeared on the ceiling of the space as projected constellations in white line, the images overlapping and rotating in space against a pitch black “sky.”
The effect was astral in reference, connecting the theories of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Samuel Hahnemann’s miasmas, and Vladimir Vernadsky and Teilhard de Chardin’s concepts of the noosphere, with the physical plane of contemporary art. This holistic belief in art’s capacity to heal is mirrored in Quiñones’s statements on the work: “Contemporary art can be seen as a distillation of obsessions and desires, of pains and aspirations, that scrutinized under homeopathic logic, confers the possibility of being the very antidote for its own maladies.”
Such contemplative investigations into vision, comprehension, and community left me with a renewed faith in art’s potential purpose and its ability to serve those who still worship at the altars of aesthetic delight. Here, in this effervescent metropolis, with its discrepant light, smells and history, was a siren’s call for the future of contemporary art. As Diego Gerard so eloquently states in his editorial note for diSONARE, “Art and culture should find value in nooks considered empty and void. There should be a true motivation to discover what lies in between the obviously apparent (whether it is in a written word, a canvas, or the vital spaces we inhabit.)” For really, if our creative investigations are no longer driven by the desire for knowledge, if the work we produce fails to probe the interstitial polarities that define existence, thoughtfully, powerfully, why bother making anything at all? At least for the moment in Mexico City, they seem to be pondering this question.
Galería OMR: Plaza Río de Janeiro 54, Roma, 06700 Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, Tel +52 55 5511 1179
Galería Marso: Berlín 37, Col. Juárez, 06600 Mexico City, Tel +52 55 6276 2275
La Quiñonera: Santa Cruz 111, Pueblo de la Candelaria, Coyoacán 04380 Mexico City, Mexico Tel +52 55 1517 1592
* To subscribe to diSONARE: www.disonare.com/english/disonare2/subscribe_eng.php
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.