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.

Some ‘casas’ in Mexico City

Monday, March 10th, 2008

I flew direct from Buenos Aires to Mexico City on Friday, and spent a busy weekend attending family commitments and social events. Of course, there were other activities, too: on Saturday, visits to Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky and La Casa Azul of Frida Khalo, both house-museums in Coyoacan. On Sunday, the afternoon was devoted to exhibitions. At the Museo Rufino Tamayo, most of the museum was dedicated to a solo exhibition of Wolfgang Tilmans, guest-curated and organized by Domenic Molon and Douglas Fogle. There was also an exhibition of a new installation of Thomas Hirschhorn; one of the museum curators, Tatiana Cuevas, organized this project. I was also tempted to visit the formerly-sleepy Museum of Modern Art (MAM), across the street from the Tamayo, as it is now directed by Osvaldo Sanchez, former artistic director of inSITE. There were numerous exhibitions at the MAM, two particularly memorable. One of them was a small but beautiful exhibition of Spanish-born painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963). Varo emigrated to Mexico in 1941 as a political exile and lived there for most of her life. Her exhibition included a series of beautifully illustrated drawings and paintings, filled with ghosts, doubles and other fantasmagorical references of the otherworldly. The works were collected by Varo’s late husband, Walter Gruen, who donated them to MAM. The other excellent exhibition was of the MAM’s collection guest-curated by the art historian James Oles. His curatorial address privileged “realism,” and the selection of works emphasized the cultural concern and ultimately paradigm of shaping modern Mexico, with the protagonist many times representing a community, the worker, and the common man and woman. While it was a collection exhibition, it was complemented by artworks on loan from other collections.

In the evening, I attended Anselm Franke’s program for unitednationsplaza, “an exhibition as school” that originated in Berlin and is sited for a month at Casa Refugio in Mexico City. unitednationsplaza is created by Anton Vidokle, and this new, month-long iteration of the project in Mexico is organized by the Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo (PAC). (Concurrently, Night School, a year-long version of unitednationsplaza, is taking place at the New Museum in New York.) Franke’s seminar was titled From Animism to Animation: Moving Image in Modern Culture, and focused on the work of Sergie Eisenstein. The evening was briefly introduced by Franke, followed by a lecture by Oksana Bulgakowa. As part of her presentation, Bulgakowa screened excerpts of a biopic on Eisenstein that she co-directed with Dietmar Hochmuth. The documentary was informative and provided much biographical depth on Eisenstein, from his family background to his incursions in theatre and eventually cinema. Sadly, the DVD jammed during the run and little did we get to learn about the makings of Eisenstein’s unfinished film Qué Viva Mexico!

Esentstein’s Qué Viva Mexico! has been the subject of numerous research-based works in Mexico. So much that even at James Oles’ exhibition, La colección: el peso del realismo at MAM, for example, an excerpt of the Eisenstein’s footage was included in the exhibition. Mexico City-based curator Olivier Debroise wrote and directed Un banquete en Tetlapayac (2000). A kind of film reenactment to address historical aspects of the original, Olivier’s film was staged at Tetlapayac, the hacienda that served as location of Eisenstein’s film. (Art historian James Oles was an actor in Debrois’ film, as were curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, and artists Andrea Fraser and Silvia Gruner, among others active in the art field today.)

Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola, Dia at the Hispanic Society

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

I had visited The Hispanic Society of America Museum and Library in New York City several times before, but never to see a contemporary art exhibition. It was a wonderful surprise to learn that this fall Dia Art Foundation is collaborating with the Hispanic Society to present the exhibition Fabiola, an ongoing, collection-based art project by Francis Alÿs, curated by Lynne Cooke. This exhibition inaugurates the first of a three-year collaboration between Dia and the Hispanic Society.

The Hispanic Society opened its doors to public in 1908 in a Beaux-Arts style building complex in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and originally housed Archer Milton Huntington’s collection of art and artifacts from Spain, Portugal and Latin America, varying from textiles and paintings to incunabulum and prints; since its opening, the collection has grown. The place is known as Audubon Terrace after famed painter and naturalist John James Audubon, whose farmland was partly sited on that block. Today the site of three educational and cultural institutions, this building complex is a neighborhood gem, and the Hispanic Society a notable, yet overlooked, cultural institution in New York City.

Currently, the Dia is presenting an exhibition of almost 300 portraits depicting the Christian Roman Saint Fabiola in one of the Hispanic Society’s galleries traditionally devoted to its collection of nineteenth century paintings. According to Cooke, the portraits are rendered after one 1885 portrait attributed to the French academic painter Jean-Jacques Henner. Paintings on canvas or wood, small embroideries and other types of portraiture, all these Fabiolas have been collected by Alÿs since the early 1990s in flea markets and shops throughout the world, and, most recently, through informal bequests by his colleagues and friends. Fabiola, a collecting and installation project by Alÿs had been exhibited before, but never at this scale. The first time was in 1994 in an exhibition curated by Cuauhtemoc Medina at a now defunct independent art gallery in Mexico City called Curare Espacio Crítico para las Artes, a space affiliated with the still-published art journal of the same name. While Medina had written once before about Alÿs’ work, the 1994 exhibition was their first together — today he is arguably Alÿs’ closest collaborator.

Fabiola is not the first time that Alÿs works with a collection, nor is this the first time that the artist proposes, in New York, a site other than the white cube for his work. In an earlier project in New York City, Alÿs proposed taking the art into the streets with his performance The Modern Procession (2002), commissioned by the Public Art Fund in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I wanted to put art in motion. … to get away from the unavoidable hygienic, safe conditioning which the ‘white cube’ provides.” (Alÿs cited by Roselee Goldberg in Francis Alys: Marking Time in The Modern Procession, New York: Public Art Fund, 102).

Fabiola at the Hispanic Society is the second instance that Dia presents the work of Alÿs; the first time was in 1999, when it commissioned the web project The Thief. Both Fabiola and The Thief are conceptual art projects intrinsically associated to the history of painting, raising questions about source and interpretation, the original and the double, as well as about collecting, framing (as a formal and theoretical device) and display. Cooke cites a remarkable anecdote about copies and thieves, and all these other issues, in a discrete footnote in the exhibition pamphlet Fabiola published by Dia:

[…] Alÿs sent some sixty Fabiolas to an exhibition [the 2nd Biennial of Saarema] in Saaarema, Estonia, in 1997. When the works were shipped back to him, he discovered that almost thirty had been replaced with substitutes, crude versions made to simulate his “originals,” which had mysteriously disappeared en route. Wishing to conceal rather than acknowledge that they had lost or otherwise appropriates his works, the Estonian organizers seemingly hoped to fool him into believing that the substitutes—the copies they commissioned of his copies—were not fakes but works he himself had collected.

Francis Alÿs’ Fabiola will be on view at the Hispanic Society from September 20, 2007 to April 6, 2008.