Hola, Mexico City! Once notorious for its traffic and pollution—and more recently for its drug violence and lack of security—this city of about twenty million inhabitants is one of the three biggest metropolitan areas in the world, and for the past twenty years has been busy cleaning up its act and generally reinventing itself. Within this shifting context, a revolution has also been taking place within the local contemporary art scene, which has matured from small, independent beginnings into a structured movement with resonance in everyday life and a place in Mexican society’s wider dialogue. Shown here is Reforma Avenue, the city’s main drag, which reflects many of the changes happening within the city, as old buildings are replaced by high-rise crystal business towers, apartment buildings, and hotels.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!” The phrase is attributed to late 19th-century Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled the country for about three decades. The reference is to the influence of Mexico’s neighbor to the north, which has only heightened since the 1994 signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A spirit of resistance, coupled with an ongoing search for the essence of Mexican cultural identity, continues to make its presence felt here. While many Mexicans look toward the desired north and forget their neighbors to the south, it is artists and institutions within the Mexican art scene that have been at the forefront of changing this relationship and creating new cultural networks with artists and institutions throughout the continent. For many Latin American artists and organizations, Mexico has become an example and a point of reference. Pictured here is a march in celebration of indigenous Native American cultures.
The Aztec city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan was built on a lake and surrounded by water—an ecosystem destroyed by the Spanish invasion of 1521. The new Mexico City was built on top of its conquered predecessor. In the same way, the contemporary version of Mexico City is continuously being built over previous historical layers, with the old and the new, the built and the ruined coexisting in a kind of urban cacophony. As part of this layering, Mexico City contains not only the physical remains, but also the human descendants of the conquered indigenous cultures. Here, a model in a square next to the cathedral shows how the city looked before the arrival of the Spanish.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes was built with marble from Carrara, and was slated for completion in time for the centenary of Mexico’s independence in 1910. Construction started in 1904, but the building wasn’t finished until 1934, as work stopped during the Mexican Revolution. Here, a spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois heralds an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Bellas Artes Museum. The spider has been very successful with the Mexican public, who photograph themselves next to it; many assume it announces a Spider-man exhibition.
Inside the Bellas Artes is Diego Rivera’s 1934 mural Man, Controller of the Universe, a version of his disappeared mural Man at the Crossroads, which was originally commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the lobby of Rockefeller Center in New York. The earlier work was censored and destroyed because it was considered anti-capitalist, incorporating as it did an image of Vladimir Lenin.
Built in Aztec-brutalist style in 1981, the Museo Rufino Tamayo was recently refurbished and expanded by Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, who, together with Abraham Zabludovsky, was the building’s original architect. The Tamayo has run an international exhibition program since it opened, also presenting home-curated exhibitions of local and international artists. Together with MUAC, the contemporary art museum of the National University that opened in 2008 in University City, and which is also a Gonzalez de Leon design, the Tamayo has raised the local and international visibility of art production in Mexico and contributed to its consolidation.
Like other institutions in Mexico, Museo Tamayo places a strong emphasis on exhibiting artists from Latin America. One example is its recent retrospective of the work of Chilean artist Juan Downey (1940–93), a pioneering video artist who lived in New York, which was curated by Julieta Gonzalez, a Venezuelan curator living in Mexico. Pictured is his installation Video Trans Americas (1973–75). As part of this project, Downey took several road trips within the American continents, filming and screening anthropological videos in each location he visited and thereby spreading mutual awareness. In Downey’s own words, “Many of America’s cultures exist today in total isolation, unaware of their overall variety and of commonly shared myths. This automobile trip is designed to develop a holistic perspective among the various populations inhabiting the American continents.”
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The Museo Jumex, which opened last November in a new location in Polanco, and which houses Eugenio Lopez’s collection of international contemporary art, one of the most important in Latin America. The discreet and elegant modernist building, designed by David Chipperfield, winks at both Le Corbusier and Juan O’Gorman, a Mexican modernist architect from the 1930s and ’40s who designed Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s studios in San Angel. La Fundacion Jumex has changed the relation of Mexicans to contemporary art, also providing economic support for art projects, research, and publications, and providing grants for artists and curators to pursue graduate study abroad.
A Place in two Dimensions: A Selection from Colección Jumex + Fred Sandback, curated by Museo Jumex Director Patrick Charpenel. In the foreground is Gabriel Orozco’s Carambole with a Pendulum (1996), a seminal work that sparked the “Orozco Effect,” a shift towards conceptually aligned contemporary art in Latin America and a shift in the direction of art-world cultural relationships toward north-south.
In front of the Museo Jumex is the Soumaya Museum. Inaugurated in 2011, it contains Carlos Slim’s eclectic collection of art and objects from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries. The building was designed by Fernando Romero’s FR-EE office, which also designed the master plan for the entire ex-industrial area, now transformed into a cultural hub.
While new museums bring new life to the city, spaces related to the legacy of modernist artists have been revitalized through dialogue with contemporary art. The Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros, El Eco, and Anahuacalli continue to keep alive the ideas of the artists that conceived them—David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mathias Goeritz, and Diego Rivera.
Located in the late David Alfaro Siqueiros’s former house and studio, the Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros reactivates the muralist’s political legacy, also lending it new layers that were unthinkable in the macho, misogynist art scene of his era. Pictured here an intervention, a pink triangle painted on the building’s facade by New York-based Colombian artist Carlos Motta. The Shape of Freedom investigates the past, present, and future of sexual activism in Mexico and Latin America. Motta’s work was on view from April 9–June 30, 2013.
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Another recent project at SAPS, curated by Tatiana Cuevas, was an exhibition of work by Peruvian conceptual artist Teresa Burga. Perfil de la Mujer Peruana (Profile of the Peruvian Woman) was a piece of artistic- sociological research carried out by Burga between 1980 and ’81 that involved an analysis of the status of women from affective, psychological, sexual, social, educational, cultural, linguistic, religious, professional, economic, political, and legal perspectives, and which was part of a second wave of feminism in Latin America during the 1980s that followed Peru’s military dictatorship of 1968–80.
Originally from Cuba, SAPS director Tayana Pimentel has revitalized the Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros and La Tallera, the artist’s studio in Cuernavaca, which now functions as an exhibition and residency space.
Built in 1952 by Mexico-based German exiled artist Mathias Goeritz and commissioned by business entrepreneur Daniel Mont, the Museo Experimental El Eco was conceived as a space for experience and experimentation—a radical museum, art gallery, theater, dance space, and restaurant-bar. During its single year of existence, Henry Moore performed his take on Mexican muralism by doing what he called a “Mooral,” Goeritz created a black zigzag iron sculpture called The Serpent, and Luis Buñuel choreographed a contemporary ballet around it. In September 2005, after five decades of neglect, El Eco was bought and renovated by the National University, and has since then been devoted to experimental contemporary art forms.
Our House is a Camping Ground, Mexican artist Diego Perez’s exhibition on Museo El Eco’s patio, featured a communal clay cooking and eating table inspired by the communal cooking fires of Afro-Mexican communities on the Pacific coast.
The Anahuacalli Museum, designed to house Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection, was designed in Aztec style by Juan O’Gorman and built of volcanic rock between 1953 and 1964. In the past few years it has been reactivated through a series of contemporary exhibitions. Shown here are two giant granite sculptures, part of Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition Naturaleza Humana, organized by Mexican curator, Patricia Martín.
Ugo Rondinone’s rock sculptures with Diego Rivera’s sketches for murals in the interior of the Anahuacalli
The success of the Mexican art scene is due in large part to the support of art galleries for artists. Historical galleries like Galeria de Arte Mexicano and OMR have been joined by others including Kurimanzutto, Proyectos Monclova, Labor, and House of Gaga, and together they sustain an art economy. Another major contributing factor in this has been annual fair Zona Maco, which has made Mexico City an international meeting point every Spring for the past 11 years, prompting galleries, museums, and other institutions to mount their best exhibitions.
In an effort to encourage dialogue around contemporary art, Zona Maco features a series of talks focusing on such topics as the role of architecture in the presentation of contemporary art. This was the theme of the recent Zona Maco conference in which I took part along with curators Naomi Beckwith (USA), Juan A. Gaitán (Colombia/Canada), Nikolaus Hirsch (Germany), and Franklin Sirmans (USA).
Kurimanzutto Gallery, founded by Jose Kuri and wife Monica Manzutto. The gallery originally lacked a permanent space, and instead produced exhibitions in different spaces according to each artist’s needs. Their first exhibition, Economia de Mercado, opened in August 1999, and was sited in a stall in the Medellin fruit and vegetable market. Ten years later, the gallery opened its exhibition space in an old wood shop refurbished by architect Alberto Kalach. Originally supporting Mexican artists, the gallery has since expanded its scope to include artists from other geographies while retaining a strong emphasis on Latin America.
Argentinean artist Adrian Villa Rojas’s exhibition Los Teatros de Saturno at Kurimanzutto saw the gallery covered with earth and transformed into a ruin or cemetery—or perhaps a field in which combination watermelon-sneaker-concrete sculptures grow. The work seemed to contain memories and premonitions of the artist’s past and possible future works.
During the past few months I have also visited different artists’ studios in Mexico, including the following:
Artist and architect Eduardo Terrazas, who explored abstraction and folk art during the 1960s and ’70s, and who was recently “rediscovered,” stands next to his assemblage paintings at Proyectos Monclova in Colonia Roma.
At Colonia Juarez, I visited the studio of Carlos Amorales, who for the past decade has been investigating graphic language, popular culture, and music, inserting popular culture into galleries and art institutions and “artistic” products into popular culture and the mass market.
Mario Garcia Torres on the rooftop of his studio in San Miguel Chapultepec. Garcia Torres uses a conceptual methodology to research various histories—including those of Alighiero Boetti in Afghanistan, Martin Kippenberger in Syros, On Kawara in Mexico City, Robert Smithson in Texas, Rafael Ferrer in New York, and Daniel Buren in the U.S. Virgin Islands—that might shed new light on the present.
Adriana Lara, whose work uses philosophy to question artistic production, in her apartment in the Juarez neighborhood.
Ecuadorian-Belarusian Victor Costales and Julia Rometti from France, who work as a nomadic artistic duo, and whose work mines the tensions between nature, geology, geography, and politics, pictured in their apartment studio in Colonia Condesa. Like artistic migrants of the 1990s such as Francis Alÿs, Melanie Smith, Thomas Glassford, and Santago Sierra, all of whom contributed to the internationalization of the Mexican art scene, Costales and Rometti are part of the new global artistic migration towards Mexico City, which because of its energy, quality of life, and cheaper rents, is referred to by some as the new Berlin.
In the back of this house in the Colonia Roma is Lulu, an exhibition space founded by North American curator Chris Sharp and artist Martin Soto Climent, who returned to Mexico after some years in Switzerland. Lulu is part of a new wave of independent spaces that has flourished recently in Mexico City, and which adds critical content to the city’s art scene.
Say hi to Martin Soto Climent, seen here with a mural painted by Allison Katz and Camilla Wills using the traditional technique of mixing pigment with a cactus base. The work was part of their exhibition at Lulu, Perra Perdida (Lost Dog).
Founded in 2009, SOMA, in the San Pedro de los Pinos neighborhood, is an independent art education program that supports emerging talent on the understanding that encouraging a new generation will keep the Mexican art scene alive. SOMA, which also hosts a residency, a summer school, and a series of talks, was founded by artists Yoshua Okon and Eduardo Abaroa, both of whom ran independent art spaces (La Panaderia and Temistocles 44, respectively) in the 1990s. SOMA is one example of artists from the 1990 and 2000s reinvesting in an independent cultural infrastructure, thereby helping to establish that which their generation lacked. Other examples include Damian Ortega’s editorial project Alias, which produces Spanish editions of seminal art books from other contexts, including collections of the writings of Robert Smithson and Hélio Oiticica.
Finally, SOMA’s logo, designed by Mario Garcia Torres, was inspired by the font used in the logo of the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (Ministry of Education) from the 1970s.
All photos: Pablo León de la Barra, except Anahuacalli (Patricia Martin) and Carlos Motta at SAPS (Carlos Motta)