Mexico City’s cultural scene is flourishing amid the national strife
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.”
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.
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.
THE ZONA MACO art fair, one of the most important in Latin America, includes exhibitors like the esteemed Kurimanzutto, above.
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.