It is impossible to do a survey of modern Mexican artists, says curator Andrea Karnes. It’s too broad; it would be like trying to do a survey of American art in 60 pieces. It can’t be done.
Still, she wanted to do something. Some kind of exhibit that would offer a glimpse of the tremendous talent that has been percolating in Mexico City since a catastrophic earthquake in 1985.
When the ground shook, it rattled Mexican artists into a frenzy of art making. They began to record not only the physical collapse, but also the destructive forces above ground that were causing the collapse of civility. Violence, corruption, the widening division of wealth and poverty, and insidious rule-changing were rocking the foundations of society.
Artists who embraced the moment of dynamic and brutal change for their narratives and those who soon followed found themselves on an international stage. They bypassed the intermediate venues of regional museums and landed on some of the world’s largest art stages such as the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
While many of these artists are worthy of a museum show of their own, they were gracious about submitting work to what participating artist Artemio calls “a guacamole show” — one that is assembled under the flag of Mexico when really all these artists are addressing more global and universal issues.
Karnes and assistant curator Alison Hearst chose artists whose work fell into three themes: building contemporary monuments, magnifying the everyday, and power structures and the violence of negotiating them.
The artists had never been shown in North Texas until Karnes persuaded almost two dozen of them to send their work to Fort Worth for the exhibit, “México Inside Out: Themes in Art Since 1990,” which opens Sunday.
The show is seriously fierce — both challenging and captivating.
The exhibit is subtly presented from the first moment one enters the Modern and sees the portable broken obelisk — a pink nylon and plastic version of Barnett Newman’s iconic steel sculpture, Portable, that is easily moved and suitable for parties. The pirated art, made on the cheap, reflects many of Mexico’s chief industries.
Through the glass walls of the lobby one can see across the pond six large lounge chairs. They look quite spalike, placed so that the sitter would have a nice view of the Modern’s tranquil pond. They are the work of Teresa Margolles, and she has cast them from concrete made with body fluids washed from murder victims. Obviously people have tried them out, as the ghostly outlines of body shapes have been formed from the oils of heads and hands. One suspects the card bearing the information about their creation was not read first.
Margolles, who was a forensic scientist before turning to art making, is also responsible for the cement block wall on the second floor. Muro Baleado/Shot Wall (Culiacán) was the backdrop for a shootout between police and a drug gang. Two officers died, and although the blood and bodies are no longer present, the bullet holes are. Little explanation is needed for this monument that magnifies the commonplace and the reality of the drug wars.
There are more lighthearted encounters, such as Gustavo Artigas’ 11-minute video The Rules of the Game/Las reglas del juego. Two basketball teams and two soccer teams play a match on an indoor basketball court at the same time. One soccer ball, one basketball, two tennis balls, 10 diagrams and one trophy all make appearances, and no one was injured in the making of the film.
With a nod to “audience participation,” Artigas is volunteering to demolish one of what he has deemed Fort Worth’s most undesirable buildings, based on the outcome of a vote by the public. He has chosen Bass Towers, the AT&T Building, the Fort Worth Convention Center, the Texas and Pacific Warehouse, the Tandy Center, and Westchester Plaza as a six-pack of our most egregious eyesores. Until Oct. 15, votes can be cast at one of several voting booths around town — Hulen Mall, TCU’s art building, the AIA office and Fred’s Texas Cafe. There will also be a voting booth in the museum, and votes can be cast online. After the votes are tabulated, he will make a digital demolition of the offending edifice in Vote for Demolition. Karnes says there is hope that the vote will begin a dialogue with the city. And even if it doesn’t, the entire exercise is cathartic.
A long line of 10 framed receipts hangs on one gallery wall. It looks like the annual haul of tax junk one drags to the accountants. They are the result of artist Miguel Monroy taking 1,000 pesos and changing it into dollars, back into pesos, again to dollars, back to pesos, each time at a different money changer so that the receipts are different but the result is familiar; at the end, there is nothing left. Government fees and taxes are the only profit-makers in this kind of transaction.
Rarely do we consider ourselves part of the larger Americas, but seeing Scrooge McDuck wallowing in a pile of gold coins while behind him stands an Aztec effigy, in a mural titled America, by Minerva Cuevas, brings that one home in a hurry. America is all of South, Central and North.
The most head-turning moment comes in the final gallery, when the visitor steps in Yoshua Okón’s four-projection video gallery. Here Pulpo/Octopus is running on four walls. It is a re-enactment of the Guatemalan civil war, demonstrated by former Guatemalan soldiers who are now undocumented workers trying to find work as day laborers in Los Angeles. All the action takes place in a Home Depot parking lot on a glorious sunny day.
The men ride on flatbed dollies with their arms outstretched, as if holding guns. They wheel each other around in ubiquitous orange shopping carts, pretending to be looking for the enemy with their hands to their eyes, as if holding binoculars. They crawl on their bellies under vehicles, pull themselves across the parking lot on their elbows and die slow deaths in front of the portable shed displays as shoppers casually wheel by, their carts loaded with spring flowers.
The shoppers never give the fallen bodies a second glance. Gleaming SUVs bounce over the speed humps and never pause as the simulated action unfolds in front of their bumpers. On one is the bumper sticker “Vote for a new foreign policy” — a fortuitous accident that Okón says he never noticed until he was editing the film. War is such a distant reality that even when it is simulated right in front of us, we tend not to recognize it.
Artists are sometimes considered the canaries in the mine of time, chirping alerts and dying abruptly if the oxygen levels dissipate. The artists from Mexico are trilling at such a decibel level that it is impossible not to notice, reflect and sincerely appreciate their efforts.
Hopefully they will always find the oxygen needed to sustain their work and it won’t come at the expense of their countrymen.