Mex­ico City’s cul­tural scene is flour­ish­ing amid the na­tional strife

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - carolina.mi­randa@la­ Twit­ter: @cmon­stah

BY CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA >>> MEX­ICO CITY — On a warm Fri­day evening, as the sky turns a shade of orange sher­bet, sev­eral dozen peo­ple decked out in trim suits and stylish dresses train their cell­phones on a mound of garbage be­hind the Cen­tro Citibanamex on the west­ern flanks of the Mex­i­can cap­i­tal. ¶ In­side the sprawl­ing convention cen­ter is the Zona Maco art fair, fea­tur­ing art and de­sign from more than 160 in­ter­na­tional ex­hibitors. But here at the load­ing area, the crowd of artists, cu­ra­tors, col­lec­tors and mu­seum di­rec­tors are watch­ing a per­for­mance by Regina José Galindo, the Guatemalan artist known for vis­ceral ac­tions that grap­ple with is­sues of im­punity and vi­o­lence. (She once carved the word “perra” (bitch) on her leg, in a per­for­mance protest­ing vi­o­lence against women.) ¶ In­side a garbage bag is Galindo her­self. ¶ A garbage truck pulls up and the crowd falls silent. A pair of

san­i­ta­tion work­ers jump out and place the bags, in­clud­ing the one con­tain­ing the artist, into the truck’s rear loader. A mur­mur of con­cern rolls through the crowd.

“Are they go­ing to turn on the com­pactor?” a man asks. “That thing could kill her.”

The san­i­ta­tion work­ers climb back into the truck, and, with the grind­ing of gears, set out. A small cam­era af­fixed to the loader trans­mits a live feed of the garbage to a meet­ing room in­side Zona Maco. There, a hand­ful of the fair’s at­ten­dees watch Galindo’s twitch­ing body, shrouded in black plas­tic, on its jour­ney through Mex­ico City.

The per­for­mance, or­ga­nized by L.A.’s Getty Foun­da­tion, evokes the name­less bod­ies that all too reg­u­larly turn up in Mex­i­can garbage dumps. And it per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the mo­ment that Mex­ico City is liv­ing — a great cul­tural apogee amid great po­lit­i­cal and so­cial strife.

Even as vi­o­lence has sat­u­rated the coun­try — fed­eral sta­tis­tics show that homi­cides in 2016 in­creased 22% from 2015 and jumped 35% from 2014 — the Mex­i­can cap­i­tal, some of its neigh­bor­hoods in­su­lated by money and pri­vate se­cu­rity, has grown as an in­ter­na­tional cul­tural mag­net. It’s now a reg­u­lar pit stop for the art-world jet set.

“Galleries have mul­ti­plied as have ex­hi­bi­tions and in­de­pen­dent art spa­ces as well as fairs,” says Sol He­naro, a cu­ra­tor at the Museo Univer­si­tario Arte Con­tem­porá­neo, more uni­ver­sally known as MUAC. “So the ex­ter­nal gaze on Mex­ico City has surged.”

MUAC, now al­most 10 years old, with a fo­cus on con­tem­po­rary art, is one of an as­sort­ment of new mu­se­ums that have landed in the city over the last decade. The Soumaya, a torqued, glit­tery pod that opened in 2011, fea­tures the per­sonal col­lec­tion of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions mogul Car­los Slim: a jum­ble of styles, re­gions and his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods.

And de­but­ing in 2013 was the con­tem­po­rary art-fo­cused Museo Jumex, es­tab­lished in part by Mex­i­can juice mag­nate Eu­ge­nio Lopez Alonso. Lopez is also a board mem­ber on the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Los An­ge­les, mark­ing one of the on­go­ing con­nec­tion points be­tween Mex­ico City and L.A.

A rise in in­ter­na­tion­ally vis­i­ble galleries in­cludes the long-run­ning Galería OMR as well as Proyec­tos Mon­clova and Ku­ri­manzutto, which be­gan in a pair of stalls at a Mex­ico City veg­etable mar­ket in sum­mer 1999 and to­day rep­re­sents glob­ally rec­og­nized fig­ures such as Gabriel Orozco, Abra­ham Cruzvil­le­gas and Jim­mie Durham.

Then there are art fairs — the young and scrappy Ma­te­rial Art Fair and the tonier Zona Maco— that turn the hum­ming Mex­i­can art scene into a rag­ing art party ev­ery Fe­bru­ary.

Zona Maco, with this year’s record 60,000 vis­i­tors, is one of the most im­por­tant Latin Amer­i­can art fairs — and in terms of at­ten­dance puts it within shout­ing dis­tance of the glitzy, me­dia-sat­u­rated Art Basel Mi­ami Beach, which drew 77,000 peo­ple to its lat­est it­er­a­tion in De­cem­ber.

“[The writer] Car­los Monsivais once said that who­ever was bored in Mex­ico City was bored of liv­ing,” says Ku­ri­manzutto co-founder José Kuri, as he stands be­fore a wall in­stal­la­tion by Cruzvil­le­gas at Zona Maco. “The art in­fra­struc­ture, the ecol­ogy, has be­come re­ally de­vel­oped. Galleries, artists, mu­se­ums — ev­ery­one — is re­spond­ing to the new re­al­ity.”

The in­ten­sity of the cur­rent scene has re­sulted in a lot of breathy me­dia dis­patches that liken the city to “the new Ber­lin” or “the next Paris.” One Bri­tish travel dispatch help­fully noted, “the days of Mex­i­can art mean­ing ex­plic­itly Mex­i­can sub­ject mat­ter (such as cacti or som­breros) seem over.”

Overlooked is the city’s cen­tury-long history as an in­flu­en­tial cul­tural and me­dia cap­i­tal.

“Mex­ico City has al­ways been on the map,” says Juli­eta Gon­za­lez, the chief cu­ra­tor and act­ing di­rec­tor at Museo Jumex. “It has a long tra­di­tion of con­nec­tions with in­tel­lec­tu­als around the world since the ’20s. Maybe some mil­len­ni­als are dis­cov­er­ing it now.”

Seis­mic awak­en­ing

Through­out the 20th cen­tury, the city has been at the heart of key move­ments that have shifted artis­tic land­scapes.

This in­cludes mu­ral­ism in the 1920s, which launched painters such as Diego Rivera, José Cle­mente Orozco (no re­la­tion to Gabriel) and David Al­faro Siqueiros; the Gen­eración de la Rup­tura (Break­away Gen­er­a­tion), which fo­cused on ab­strac­tion and pro­duced es­teemed painters such as Fran­cisco Toledo and Lilia Car­rillo in the wake of World II; and the artists of the 1980s Mex­i­can­ismo move­ment, who toyed with sym­bols of Mex­i­can iden­tity and pop­u­lar cul­ture.

There are a lot of mis­con­cep­tions about Mex­ico,” says Yoshua Okón, an artist who runs SOMA, an arts non­profit that also func­tions as a free art school. “Many peo­ple don’t even know that Mod­ernism hap­pened in Mex­ico. And Mex­ico’s Mod­ernism was as vi­brant as any in the U.S. or Brazil. A lot of the Euro­pean avant-garde also went to Mex­ico.”

Mex­ico, af­ter all, was home to Mod­ernist ar­chi­tects such as Luis Bar­ragán and the Ger­man-born Mathías Goeritz.

As with all artis­tic mo­ments, the cur­rent boom was hardly born yes­ter­day. In fact, Mex­ico City’s flour­ish­ing scene is rooted in a chain of events that, in some ways, reach back to the ’60s.

In fall 1968, in an in­ci­dent that still haunts the coun­try, the mil­i­tary mas­sa­cred an un­told num­ber of stu­dents who were protest­ing Mex­ico’s then-up­com­ing Sum­mer Olympics.

A pe­riod of re­pres­sion and cul­tural iso­la­tion fol­lowed. In the name of pre­serv­ing “na­tional cul­ture,” for ex­am­ple, rock mu­sic was es­sen­tially banned un­der the pres­i­dency of Luis Echev­er­ría.

“Peo­ple called it la dic­tadura per­fecta — the per­fect dic­ta­tor­ship,” Okón says.

But the Mex­ico City earth­quake of 1985 shook the coun­try awake. The mag­ni­tude 8.1 tem­blor lev­eled por­tions of the cap­i­tal and left an es­ti­mated 10,000 peo­ple dead. Govern­ment re­sponse was so in­ept, cit­i­zens banded to­gether to dig them­selves out of the wreck­age.

These po­lit­i­cal events in­fused the art scene with an in­ter­est in the out­side world.

“Artists like Yoshua Okón and Miguel Calderón, they started to go do their grad­u­ate stud­ies at places like UCLA and other schools — they be­gan to de­velop other con­tacts and ref­er­ences,” says He­naro of the MUAC. “And you had cu­ra­tors like Cuauhté­moc Medina [now the in­flu­en­tial chief cu­ra­tor at MUAC], who was do­ing his PhD in Eng­land and later be­came a cu­ra­tor at the Tate for Latin Amer­i­can art. So there are a se­ries of fac­tors that lead peo­ple to be­gin to turn their at­ten­tion to­wards Mex­ico.”

The earth­quake also in­fused the artists of the ’90s with a keen DIY at­ti­tude. Paint­ing, par­tic­u­larly ab­stract paint­ing in­fused by Mex­i­can history, dom­i­nated in in­sti­tu­tional set­tings. A surge of artist-run spa­ces rose to en­gage art forms be­yond that: avant-garde video, ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic, per­for­mance and con­cep­tual art.

“The spirit was that if the govern­ment can­not ful­fill our needs, we will take mat­ters into our hands,” re­mem­bers Okón, one of the founders of La Panadería, which ran from 1994 to 2002 in an old bak­ery in Mex­ico City’s Con­desa neigh­bor­hood. .

For one show, Calderón printed out his artis­tic ré­sumé as a mas­sive car­pet, which a maid then con­tin­u­ously vac­u­umed — a com­ment on artis­tic ego. In an­other, Teresa Mar­golles (who has since had her work fea­tured at the Venice Bi­en­nale) poured fresh ce­ment made with wa­ter used to wash corpses all over the gallery floor.

“One of the agen­das be­hind La Panadería was to build a bridge with the out­side,” Okón says. “We started invit­ing artists, writ­ers from abroad. In turn, we started also get­ting in­vi­ta­tions.”

Spa­ces such as La Panadería and the also-de­funct Mel’s Café and Temís­to­cles 44 brought to­gether artists and cu­ra­tors from Mex­ico and the world. In turn, Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions be­gan to rec­og­nize the work of Mex­i­can artists — in­clud­ing that of Con­cep­tu­al­ist Gabriel Orozco, who caused a sen­sa­tion at the ’93 Venice Bi­en­nale for pre­sent­ing noth­ing more than an empty shoe box.

The spot­light was on Mex­ico City. A spot­light that has only grown big­ger since.

Says Pi­lar Tomp­kins Ri­vas, the di­rec­tor of the Vin­cent Price Art Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, who has been trav­el­ing to the city since 2005, “It ex­ploded.”

A cul­ture bub­ble

This flour­ish­ing mo­ment, how­ever, rests on top of a frag­ile po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.

Mex­ico City, with its cafes and its galleries and its rag­ing gas­tro­nomic scene, is re­moved from some of the coun­try’s en­demic vi­o­lence, much of it tied to nar­co­traf­fick­ing — with more than 93% of all crimes in 2015 go­ing un­re­ported or un­in­ves­ti­gated. Jour­nal­ists, es­pe­cially those who dare cover the drug trade or cor­rup­tion, are fre­quent tar­gets.

And there is eco­nomic uncertainty. In late Jan­uary, just as the art world was prepar­ing to de­scend on Mex­ico City for the art fairs, thou­sands of Mex­i­can cit­i­zens took to the streets to protest a dra­matic rise in gas prices that stemmed from the re­cent pri­va­ti­za­tion of the oil in­dus­try. The gasoli­nazo protests, as they are known, re­sulted in the arrests of hun­dreds and sev­eral deaths.

The coun­try also faces an un­cer­tain po­lit­i­cal elec­tion in 2018. Not to men­tion the pol­i­tics of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion with its talk of border walls and rene­go­ti­at­ing the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment.

Ma­gali Lara, an artist who lives and teaches in the city of Cuer­navaca, about 90 min­utes south of the cap­i­tal, says the wealth­ier part of Mex­ico City (where much of the arts in­fra­struc­ture is lo­cated) is one uni­verse — the rest of the coun­try an­other.

Seated at a cafe in the up­scale Roma neigh­bor­hood, she tells me, “Yes, I come here for two days and I have a great time. But in Cuer­navaca, you feel it. There is a pres­sure. You know what’s there — that there is a cer­tain schizophre­nia.”

“It’s a bub­ble,” says Mauri­cio Cadena, di­rec­tor of Mex­ico City’s Par­que Galería, a young gallery that rep­re­sents a crop of U.S. and Mex­i­can artists who of­ten re­flect a so­ciopo­lit­i­cal bent in their work (in­clud­ing Okón). “In Mex­ico City, there has been eco­nomic and cul­tural progress, to the point that we don’t al­ways no­tice what’s go­ing on in other parts of the coun­try.”

Cer­tainly, stand­ing in the mid­dle of a buzzing art fair, the vi­o­lence can feel al­most ab­stract.

“I think peo­ple are fed up,” he adds. “In art and cul­ture, our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to dia­logue about this.”

Later that day, the beep­ing garbage truck pulls up to the load­ing zone at Zona Maco and picks up Galindo in her garbage bag shroud. It’s a nod to all that is hap­pen­ing be­yond Mex­ico City’s tonier con­fines.

Ex­cept it has a hap­pier end­ing. Af­ter about 15 min­utes of tool­ing around Mex­ico City, the artist is safely re­trieved from the back of the truck. The com­pactor was never turned on.

Carolina A. Mi­randa Los An­ge­les Times

VIS­I­TORS TO Mex­ico City’s Museo Jumex, which opened in 2013, at­tend an open­ing-night party above a se­ries of pill sculp­tures by the art col­lec­tive Gen­eral Idea.

Carolina A. Mi­randa Los An­ge­les Times

THE ZONA MACO art fair, one of the most im­por­tant in Latin Amer­ica, in­cludes ex­hibitors like the es­teemed Ku­ri­manzutto, above.

Regina Jose Galindo

REGINA JOSÉ GALINDO’S per­for­mance piece at Zona Maco, “Dese­cho,” fea­tures the artist in­side a garbage bag be­ing loaded into a san­i­ta­tion truck, a nod to Mex­ico’s grim re­al­ity.

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