Traveling Because

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

It’s not just a technicality that film is referred as the moving image. Films transport. Fittingly, among the latest I’ve seen is one of the kind that are considered road movies: Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You). Released in 2009, it is directed by Karim Ainouz and Marcelo Gomes, two leading figures in what’s become a lively experimental film scene in the Northeast of Brazil. I’ve watched this film more than a dozen times since last year, first in the big screen, as part of a program organized by Cine Esquema Novo in Porto Alegre; thereafter in Youtube, where it was posted in its entirety by a fan—and which, for some reason, I can no longer find on that website nor in my networks.

Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo is made-up of location shots gathered and archived for years by Ainouz and Gomes, materials they’ve given a newfound end through their montage. The film mostly comprises of establishing shots or landscapes taped from a moving vehicle, all of which are evidently taken with a disinterest in attaining high-quality photography. Place is what matters, and their placement next to each other what’s meaningful. Their sequence is given sense by the film’s protagonist, whose semblance is only made known through a diaristic voice-over. He’s a young geologist, we learn from the start, who takes us through a months-long field-trip research in an un-tropical Brazil, and who we accompany as he abandons the planned itinerary of his road trip. He’s suddenly decided to explore different routes. Let’s call these possibilities.

The digressions experienced are initially prompted by boredom and memories; eventually by encounters with people our geologist meets throughout the journey. For these latter sequences, we see primarily still-shots, portraits of individuals, couples or groups (friends among them, circus people, prostitutes), passers-by and families, characters he introduces us with names and locations. Through them, he contemplates as much on commonness as he does on the extraordinary. And, as much as our geologist is able to understand tectonic movements by observing a rock’s shape and land fissures, he is able to comprehend other kinds of moving experiences through the skins and eyes of these individuals. In the process, less scientific than intuitive, he questions notions of belonging and happiness, doing so with a more speculative than poetic intent. The geologist’s delivery of this all is voiced less as a journal of his exploration, than a kept epistolary account drafted during a road trip, of which addressee is a never appearing correspondent—a Dear Love or, innately, a Dear Diary, Dear You, Dear Double.

The film’s narrative and syntax has various surprising turns albeit an absence of peripety or much plot. One of these beautiful surprises is the location and factura of the film’s ending. Composed of jump cuts, primarily presented in slow motion, the images are blue- and orange-hued color-saturated shots of La Quebrada in Acapulco, Mexico. La Quebrada is a ravine famous for its divers, who jump into the sea from natural ledges that are as high as 80 feet, and who must intuitively calculate the right time, instinctively identify the appropriate wave, to make their dive and avoid catastrophe. It is a daily spectacle in Acapulco. Has been so for decades. But in this film it is a unique, intimate event. Suicide, death, mortality all crossed my mind—as the points stressed at the end of the film, that is. But it was actually living, living differently to be precise, the idea that eventually, insistently settled. That when courage is missing, finding encouragement is a start. Immersing in the moment, just the beginning.

Pictured above, El Valle de Mexicali, as seen from the peeks of La Rumorosa, Baja California, México

El día del ojo

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Especially conceived for the Museo Tamayo, El día del ojo is a new work by Pierre Huyghe entailing research, travel and chance encounters across Mexico. It will be inaugurated next week, as part of the re-opening of this newly expanded and renovated museum. Pierre and I started discussions and work on this project in 2009, during my tenure as director of Museo Tamayo, and it’s a pleasure that it’s finally come into fruition.

The artist’s work consists of a water-filled pool inhabited by live, blind-cave fish and by floating volcanic rocks. It’s built in the museum’s indoor sculpture patio. Within that quasi-natural, quasi-artificial environment underground, these species are left on their own, without any other being bearing witness to them. This work, which is made invisible or visible at the museum according to rituals defined by the artist, will be uncovered by opening the floor… and will remain so until future yet undefined protocols create its disappearance.

To create this work, the artist sited natural phenomena and cultural manifestations that exist, but that are invisible or likely go unseen. Aside from this being insinuated formally through the work, this is also implicated in its title: El día del ojo. If the exhibition title was literally translated to the English, it would refer to a designated day for the warranted observance of the eye or simply of observing; if the translation was more openly interpreted, it would suggest, possibly, looking at the predicaments arising with eye witnessing.

Presented along with this live-sculpture by Huyghe are a number of artifacts and sculptures, all made of minerals and drawn from the collections of the Museo Tamayo and the Museo de Arte Prehispánico in Oaxaca City, both institutions founded by the artist Rufino Tamayo. The placement of these objects in the sculpture patio is determined by the sunlight radiating through the building skylights and cast on its grounds at specific hours. And, their presentation calls on the display that Huyghe experienced on his first visit to Museo Tamayo in 1987. However, it is far from a reconstruction of the exhibition that Huyghe witnessed at that time, and that he captured others seeing with this own film camera twenty-five years ago. Instead, it is an attempt to reverse the condition of encounter: from exhibiting something to being exposed to something.

One more component in a multiple set of operations that constitute El día del ojo is a publication on Huyghe’s journeys and encounters in Mexico. Neither a visual essay nor a travelogue, it includes a text that I penned preceded by images of the Museo Tamayo’s 1987 exhibition drawn from the artist’s personal film-reels; pictures from his journey to the Naica Caves in northern Chihuahua, and; several other points of interest that were unearthed from caves to archives in the process of creating this work.

Huyghe’s El día del ojo—the work and its opening rituals, the presentation determined by a sun-clock, and the accompanying publication—attempts to either expand or constrict the sense of time between what exists in itself and what appears to the eye. In doing so, it is an invitation to reconsider the spaces of interpretation that reminiscences and oblivion create as the place of the unknown. In between all that, the figure of the witness is observed.

Pierre Huyghe’s El día del ojo opens to the public on August 26, 2012 at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. El día del ojo is commissioned by Museo Tamayo; Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, curator; Daniela Pérez, project coordinator; Melissa Dubbin, producer; key collaborators include the biologist Víctor Hugo Reynoso and architect Juan Carlos Garduño.

Taking The Take

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

This summer, I contributed to the Guggenheim’s Museum The Take, a blog launched in conjunction to the online and multi-sited venue exhibition YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video (October 22-24, 2010). The exhibition’s related blog featured entries by guest writers considered experts in film, video, and Internet culture. My contribution, “The New Video-Maker: Art Museums,” focused on video content produced by art institutions.

Image: Museo Tamayo’s new online magazine, launched in the spring.

Visual Arts Facsimile

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

In 1973, the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City launched the magazine Artes Visuales. The magazine was one of the museum projects of the ever-dynamic Fernando Gamboa, MAM’s director from 1972 to 1981. During his lifetime, and through and beyond his work at MAM, Gamboa became a leading exhibition designer and organizer, museums director, arts promoter, as well as prominent figure in all matters relating to cultural politics in this country. His work is recognized for its attempts to present a “modern” Mexico to the world.

This year, MAM published an anthology of Artes Visuales compiling selected pages in facsimile of each of its issues, and including a forward by Josefa Ortega and an essay by Carla Stellweg, collaborator of Gamboa and co-founder end editor of the magazine. The book is released in conjunction to MAM’s current exhibition Fernando Gamboa: La utopía moderna. Curated by Ana Elena Mallet, the exhibition explores Gamboa’s work as exhibition maker, cultural politician and arts institution builder at large.

In the book’s Documenting the Undocumented, Carla Stellweg narrates the story of Artes Visuales. I take particular interest in her text, for beyond being a personal essay that describes the inspirations and history of the magazine, it takes the writing style of storytelling to anecdotally account a particular arts scene in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s, and a little written-about, even seldom discussed, cultural institutional history of the time. Stellweg cites influential projects to the making and emergence of Artes Visuales, including The Counter Biennial (1971), a book of Museo de Independencia Cultural Latinoamericana, known as the project MICLA; the New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalog Information (1970); and Mexico’s Taller de la Grafica Popular (founded 1937).

Stellweg openly states in her essay how Artes Visuales was tied to a political ideology beyond (and, perhaps, also through) the curatorial program of the state-run and publicly funded MAM. It was discursively part of larger cultural project of Mexico’s 1970-1976 President, Luis Echeverria, which she describes as being rooted in “a return to the democratic ideals of basic human rights and freedom of expression…” and a call to “intellectuals who had left Mexico in 1968 to return and be part of a reconstruction process.” Echeverria was recently prosecuted for the Tlatelolclo massacre of 1968, and other similar events and insurrections that led to killings while he served in the cabinet of the presidency before him and during his own. Notwithstanding, Stellweg acknowledges this, and that relating Artes Visuales with his governance is a tricky subject to address, yet, I should add, necessary for mapping public projects and their structures.

The image above is part of Vicente Rojo’s contribution for issue six of Artes Visuales (June 1975), guest-edited by Salvador Elizondo, and reprinted as facsimile in the new anthology of the same title published in 2010 by Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. This issue was project-based, and approached the use of image, text and typeface in concrete poetry and contemporary art of that time. The visual artist Vicente Rojo collaborated as graphic designer of Artes Visuales.

Only the truth —contemporary opera and the making of legends

Monday, March 15th, 2010

After years of conceptualization and production, visual artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres and his sister, the music composer Gabriela Ortiz, premiered their opera, Únicamente la verdad (Only the truth), last Thursday in Mexico City’s Teatro Julio Castillo. This new opera is an interpretation of the many myths and stories about a character, Camelia la Tejana, with a plot unfolding in contemporary times in the border region of Mexico and the United States. Starting with addressing the very question of where she is from, the opera’s overture is powerful, and it is accompanied by a rapid, tense performance of illegal border crossing.

The opera unfolds in a simple, elegant stage set: around the perimeter of the theater is a square, wooden platform as wide as a common sidewalk. Its edges are connected through the center by a mechanical bridge. This perimeter stage is elevated about three meters from the ground, and underneath, partially visible, plays the orchestra. The bridge is the only stage element that is mobile—at once curved, it is uncurled and raised depending on the scene. But this does not lessen the stage from being dynamic, as it is constantly being redefined with each act’s choreography. Different videos play in the background, as well as in the left- and right-hand walls of the stage, at times showing photography of landscapes, and at other times with more abstract, text-based or figurative animations that complement, or even question, the narratives sung.

The “Tejana” in Camelia’s name tells she is from Texas, one of the first truths questioned in the opera. According to most legends, though, she became known after assassinating her lover, Emilio Varela, due to an unexplained betrayal involving marijuana trafficking. After Varela’s death, Camelia la Tejana was increasingly implicated in other deaths, one of which was Eleazar Pacheco Moreno’s train-track suicide in the crime-ridden city of Ciudad Juarez. In Únicamente la verdad men who claim to have known her, sing about her life, often with contradictory stories.

Contrabando y traicion” (Contraband and Betrayal), a 1970s popular song by the music band Los Tigres del Norte, made Camelia la Tejana legendary. The band’s piece also popularized corridos —a narrative song characteristic of northern Mexican music tradition often about famed criminals, small-town heroes and emigration— and, more poignantly, narcocorridos— ballads with themes about narcotics, drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

While Camelia la Tejana is largely considered a fictional character, Alarma, the sensationalist newspaper covering the story of the man’s suicide in Ciudad Juarez, claims she exists in real life –and many people believe this, too. A photograph illustrating the scene of the crime attributes a weeping woman next to the mutilated body of Pacheco Moreno. As mass media takes over the story, different impersonators of Camelia la Tejana have begun to appear, claiming the infamous identity of this woman and developing more and more fables about her. We also hear from these Camelias in the opera.

Combining the folkloric corrido with orchestral interpretations of classic and pop music, mixing recorded soundtracks (by Gabriela) with digital videos (by Rubén), and interpreting a common-person fable in the high-form of opera, Únicamente la verdad knits one and a dozen different stories of Camelia la Tejana. The multiple perspectives and narratives given to a single character and event, like the assassination of Varela at one point, and the suicide of Pacheco Moreno at another, bring to mind structural aspects previously worked in film, such as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. With some likely reference to Peter Watkins’s Paris Commune, the opera Únicamente la verdad also incorporates —in a creative off-stage live performance that’s doubled with live closed-circuit video— mass media’s role in popularizing, aggrandizing, even distorting a story.

Únicamente la verdad is a major production for the Ortiz’s, a wonderful contemporary opera, and quite worthily opens the citywide Festival de México, taking place from March 11-28, 2010 in Mexico City.

Intellectually Inauspicious Environments

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Over a year ago, while Yishai Jusidman was preparing for a major survey exhibition of his work, which is currently on view at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City, I had an extended email exchange with the artist about his artistic process and practice. At some point, our correspondence was contemplated as a dialogue piece that could be included in that exhibition catalogue. But both Yishai and I had disagreements—of the good kind.

At the heart of our quarrel was how to interpret his work. In our exchange, we discussed art theory and art schools, aesthetics and semantics, the use of reference and the self-referential in contemporary art. While I pressed on social context to approach his painting, his insistence was on aesthetics. After a couple of months and over five thousand words exchanged, we parted ways. It was only until some weeks ago, that we informally chatted and reconsidered the dialogue again, this time not with the purpose to expand it, but simply to publish.

I believe this dialogue with Yishai is interesting for several reasons. On the one hand, the piece is quite personal without being coded in private language, and as such allows for a more intimate view of his work. On the other hand, the dialogue is grounded in contemporary debates about methodology, as it informally unpacks different yet synchronic approaches to making and interpreting art today.


After a walk along Reforma

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

This afternoon, my sister and I were given an architectural tour in Mexico City by Fabianita and J.P. Banks from Antidomingo. The tour focused on architect Teodoro González de León. His architecture is characterized for its monumentality. Most of his commissioned projects are public buildings, cultural centers and large business complexes. His staple architectural elements are wide angular murals, ample plazas, and ‘cemento martelinado’. The latter is a technique that involves repeated stomping on wall and floor surfaces made from a combination of cement, pebbled-gravel and sand. The Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, where I began working a couple of weeks ago, was designed in this style by Abraham Zabludovsky with González de León. These textured cement facades—which some come in gray, as in the museum; sandy pink as in their Auditorio Nacional, or white, as in the new Reforma 222—are without doubt a signature of these two mexican architects.

Zabludovsky and González de León collaborated in a number of public buildings during the 1970s and 80s, including designing the offices of Delegación Cuauhtémoc and INFONAVIT, a Banamex franchise in Mexico City’s historic center, and a large building complex including the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, Colegio de México, and the headquarters of the Fondo de Cultura Económica. (The last of these was designed and built in the 1990s, and by González de León alone.) Their most-known collaboration, however, is the 1992 refurbishing of the Auditorio Nacional, located in Paseo de la Reforma, a historic avenue commissioned by Maximilian I, emperor in Mexico from 1863 to 1867. Also along that avenue is Reforma 222, a new high-structure designed by González de León including a hotel tower, shopping mall and business center.

We didn’t make it today to González de León’s recently opened Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo at UNAM, since I had paid a visit last weekend, nor to the commercial center El Conjunto Arcos Bosque, known as “El Pantalon,” which he designed with J. Francisco Serrano. But we did visit the Centro Nacional de las Artes, consisting of a complex of ten buildings designed by different architects of renown including Ricardo Legorreta, Enrique Norten and Luis Vicente Flores. In this monumental building complex devoted to the study and practice of fine arts, theatre, cinema, dance and music is González de León’s Conservatorio Nacional de Musica.

The site-visits to Teodoro González de León’s buildings in Mexico City comprise one of several tours on modern and contemporary architects in Mexico that I’m doing this summer. Images of today’s tour can be found in Flickr.

Silent Light, Noisy Times

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

The year of our visit must have been 1983. Maybe ‘86. At some eight years of age, the sight of the Mennonites was simply incomprehensible. Our arrival to their settlement in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua was preceded by a longer trip that had taken us to colonial towns and cities in central Mexico. The northern part of Mexico, however, is pretty vast and desolate, and the drive to Cuauhtémoc had been a calm visual experience of arid deserts, somewhat later fertile flatlands with impending mountain regions as the backdrop. It was a cloudy day when we visited. The sky was gray and the few trees and wide grass sparkled against that and its shaded humid soil. Had we crossed a sea to arrive at a different country or made a trip to a century of yore?

Memories of my first travels within Mexico still linger. These were weeks-long family road trips on winter and summer vacations to discover the landscape and culture of our nation. The journeys were organized according to regions, and involved stopping at historic sites, natural reservoirs, museums of all types and any other weird place that had been for one reason or another important to the history of Mexico. It was the eighties, with a widespread sense of rescue and melancholy in both high and popular culture. I take that we were unknowingly experiencing the new appreciation of regionalisms and micro-histories welcomed by postmodernism. During these travels, it wasn’t hard to notice that from state to state the landscape was so radically distinct and varied; the architecture of buildings and physiognomy of people none the least. Ahh, difference, always triggering moments of culture shock, and only sometimes in subtle ways. One significant at that time was our encounter with the Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.

The first group of Mennonites had settled in Cuauhtémoc during the 1920s. It was a group of a couple thousands coming primarily from Canada, where most families had spent less than a century after having emigrated from Russia in the late-1800s, and Prussia beforehand. Since their settlement in Mexico and up until the 1970s, Cuauhtémoc and its population was a time capsule. The Mennonites had chosen to base their communities on the teachings of religion, and their economy on the principles of a strong work ethic and a self-sustainable agricultural model. There was a resistance to adapt languages other than its own (now considered a German dialect) or use basic technology like electricity. The closure of the community led to the perpetuation of a single race, as well as the use of traditional if common dress. The look: white skinned, blue-eyed and blonde haired; men wearing overalls and woman long-dresses. Things have been slowly changing since the 1970s, when the interpretation of the original concession of the Mennonites in Mexico was legally questioned and amended. What had seemed to be a state within a state began opening and transforming.

Since our trip to Chihuahua, I had not encountered Mennonites until some weeks ago when I saw Silent Light (2007) a new film written and directed by Mexican Carlos Reygadas. His films are unique in Mexico’s contemporary movie industry for his inclusion of non-actors and the quality of his contemplative and paused images. Even when there is much action, still frame or slow zooms dominate in his scenes, setting a tension between admiration and voyeaurism, invisibility and intrusion. Silent Light takes these characteristics to extremes. The film is written in the language practiced by Mennonites, a German dialect known as Plautdietsch, and shot in Chihuahua, Mexico. It deals with the difficult subject of tolerance and hopes surrounding the story of an extra-marital love affair in a Mennonite family, and addresses the despair there is in the belief and pursuit of purity. With a key citational reference to a resurrection Silent Light elegantly rubs on magic realism, but keeps it away from the genre and concerned with contemporary narrative structures by cinematically reenacting a scene of Ordet (1955) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Uncannily passionate, awkwardly quiet and yet filled with emotion, Silent Light is beautiful.

Image above from the film Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas.

Foreign Correspondents

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Organized by Creative Time, Democracy in America is a national-based project investigating democratic tradition in the United States. This year-long umbrella project, curated by Nato Thompson, has several components, among them, a series of national art commissions, some of which were co-coordinated with host institutions, and a New York City convergence center and exhibition. At the invitation of Nato, I curated an international chapter for “Convergence Center” (September 21-27), the project’s umbrella exhibition, which takes place The Park Avenue Armory in New York.

This so-called chapter, Foreign Correspondents, approaches the notion of democracy in America from abroad. It includes artworks by four artists: Erick Beltran (Mexico City/Barcelona), Chu Yun (Beijing), Luca Frei (Malmo), and Magdalena Jitrik (Buenos Aires). The artists contribute works about positions associated to democratic ideals, struggles or sensibilities that have been ultimately put into question. With an emphasis on succinct text-based works, and how these work as image or create an environment, the selected artworks also bring into consideration the relationship between art and propaganda.

Using the space of a banner and leaflet associated to protest as well as promotion, artists Beltran and Jitrik use these forms to re-inscribe a haunting sense of history and present. Beltran prints a blue leaflet in a run of more than 100,000 copies that read “Fear,” which will be dispersed throughout the entire exhibition, carpeting the floors of the venue. More than a word a feeling that is tactically generated to the current state of exception in the US, which not coincidently begins again taking force after the events of September 11, 2001. Jitrik paints a monumental banner featuring a group portrait of the nineteenth century Native American leader Red Cloud with his peers. I posted an image of the work-in-progress, and briefly wrote about it here some days ago.

In different ways, artists Frei and Chu make use of source text now turned historical reference. Frei cites a line drawn from the published letters of the anarchist Nicola Sacco to his son, “In the play of happiness, don’t you use it all for yourself only” (pictured above). Sacco, an Italian who immigrated to the US as a teenager, was tried and executed in Massachusetts in the 1920s. Chu recites a mandatory speech in school about the life story of a heroic Chinese soldier. The recording is originally from 1984, when the artist was a child, and is appropriated by the artist as if were a readymade. Named after the year of its original recording, Chu calls attention to George Orwell’s novel of the same title about an imaginary totalitarian regime.

I will be posting images of these artworks and installation views of the exhibition. If you are in New York during that week, please visit the exhibition. Your comments, much appreciated.

An influence that will live on

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Independent curator Olivier Debroise passed away last week, unexpectedly, and the news has given me great sadness. I scroll through these pages, and find that even the first entry shows a picture of him and Cuauhtémoc working away. Scrolling a bit more here and there, other entries, my library, some notes, and again is Olivier’s name, his influence.

In his blog For the Record, Mexican artist Rubén Ortiz Torres published a beautiful entry about his relationship to Olivier, and about Olivier’s last lecture in Los Angeles—where Rubén lives since the 1990s and where Olivier had recently been as a research fellow at the Getty Center. And today, e-flux distributed a brief eulogy by Cuauhtémoc Medina, a long time and close collaborator, colleague and dear friend of Olivier. There are many more published, and surely more to come.

Olivier’s portrait, above, is from December 29, 2006 in Mexico City. That morning, he had taken my family and friends on a guided walk through Mexico City’s Centro Historico. I had met him ten years earlier, and we had taken a similar walk through history. That time, he was introducing me to the field of contemporary art.