Abstract Possible and Crisisss, Mexico City

by Maria Elena Ortiz

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      Alfredo Zalce
      Mexico se transforma en una gran ciudad
      Etching on paper
      42.1 x 54.2 cm
      Courtesy of the National Institute of Bellas Artes, National Museum of la Estampa
      Museo de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

      View Gallery

      Stemming from a desire to create grand narratives, political artwork and abstraction are two of the problematic legacies left behind by the failed utopian projects of modernism. Since in our contemporary culture political art usually points to a situation rather than take action, it can be interpreted as conceptually empty, whereas abstraction can often be dismissed as just a systematic approach. Two recent exhibitions in Mexico City, Crisisss. América Latina, arte y confrontación 1910-2010 curated by Gerardo Mosquera at Museo de Bellas Artes and Abstract Possible: The Tamayo Take, curated by Maria Lind at the Museum Rufino Tamayo, reconsider the validity of these notions in contemporary art. With curatorial parameters that explore the impossibilities and potential of modes of categorization, both exhibitions offer ways in which to address the political and abstraction in our culture.

      Crisisss. América Latina, arte y confrontación presents an overview of Latin American art that starts with artworks produced after the Mexican Revolution by acclaimed artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and concludes with recent work from artists such as Javier Téllez and Cildo Meireles. With almost 200 pieces from 104 artists, this exhibition does not attempt to present us with an encyclopedic study of a region. Rather, it gathers works that are politically confrontational. For Mosquera, who is also one of the artists in the exhibition, politics represents a shared interest for artists in different countries in Latin America. “The political” is therefore used loosely to create an ambitious exhibition that ultimately points to the lack of aesthetic cohesion that a term such as Latin American art implies.

      One of the most notable works in Crisisss is Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s The Inverted Map (1936). This masterpiece of Latin American art shows an inverted map of the Southern America to represent the region’s struggle for recognition at an international level. A work by Cristina Lucas and Gerardo Mosquera is another play on a regional map. In Untitled (masculine sex) from 2007, each Latin American country’s name is substituted by the way in which people from each of the countries refer to male genitalia. Not all Latin Americans use the same slang word for penis. In Mexico, a penis is called the verga; in Puerto Rico the organ is referred to as a bicho (in other parts of Latin America, bicho means “little bug”). This delightful piece succeeds at exposing cultural and linguistic diversity. Other parts of the exhibition come across as more antagonistic. In one of the rooms, Cildo Meireles’ soda bottles from Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca Cola Project (1970) are juxtaposed against the documentation of El Siluetazo (1983). In Buenos Aires, this action by Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Julio Flores and Guillermo Kexel exposed the brutality of the military dictatorship in Argentina. While Meireles’ work is concerned with the struggle to be part of the circuit of the market, the difficulties faced by artists in Brazil and Argentina can hardly be described in similar terms. This comparison points to the lack of cohesion that artworks can have, even when framed under the narrative of “political.” 

      Unlike Crisisss, Abstract Possibleʼs theme is not restricted to a geographical region, but to other several modes of classification within one category. Each artwork falls into one of Lind’s three curatorial sub-themes: Economic Abstraction, Formal Abstraction and Withdrawal Strategies. One example of Economic Abstraction that falls outside the purview of Latin American art, Walid Raad’s Let´s be Honest, the Weather Helped (1998) is a picture of the recent history of war in Lebanon. This work is a set of photographs in which Raad documents sites where he found bullets. Each site has different colored dots that correspond to the amount and the place of origin of each bullet; Raad discovered that each of 17 different bullet manufacturers used different colors to mark their tips. The piece addresses contemporary dynamics of war that are characterized by speculative capital and networks meant to be untraceable. Artworks in the subcategory of Withdrawal Strategies at times lack a coherent narration or do not arrive to a conclusion. Liam Gillick and Anton Vidokle’s A Guiding Light (2010) is a video which documents well-known artists and curators (artists Boško Blagojeviç, Noah Brehmer, Nadja Frank, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, and Danna Vajda, critic Tim Griffin, and curators Anna Colin and Shama Khanna) having a discussion about an exhibition as a rehearsal. A Guiding Light seems like a sitcom that wanders between research and self-critique. In Withdrawal Strategies, Lind considers how artists abstract or complicate the very notion of contemporary art. Indeed, the use of multiple ways of cataloguing artistic practice makes this exhibition successful at creating a curatorial abstraction.

      Abstract Possible and Crisisss investigate aesthetics dependent on the construction of grand narratives to pose questions about the possibilities and difficulties of abstraction and political work. In Crisiss the vast number of works and their apparent contradictions point to the need for more research and study on the archetype of Latin American art. Abstract Possible suggests possible ways to discuss the role of abstraction not only in visual art, but also in culture popular culture. On the one hand, Crississ showcases the failure of an all-encompassing category, while on the other, Abstraction Possible plays with an overused category to make sense of contemporary debates in art.

      Maria Elena Ortiz is the Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros in Mexico City.