text by NICOLAS BOURRIAUD
artwork by GABRIEL OROZCO
translated by CHARLES PENWARDEN
all artwork courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, mexico city / new york
For anyone who had the bad fortune not to be born Mexican, there remains an imaginary Mexico. A place we can all conjure up in a few mental images. This country is a brilliant example of the fact that nations exist primarily in the form of fragments, shards, bits of code that intersect with a geography, which may or may not crystallize and enter the global consciousness. If Mexico conveys powerful ideas, it is, above all, a source of inspiration for the future. On a more personal level, it’s an integral part of my culture. And I will explain how in the same way — that is, in fragments.
For a start, there are several Mexicos. The first is immemorial and ends with the fall of Moctezuma’s Aztec kingdom, destroyed in a matter of months by Hernán Cortés’s military commando. This victorious raid by the Spaniard, outnumbered one to a hundred, not only brought down a whole civilization, but also marked the true beginning of the colonial era — that’s to say, exploitation of the planet’s human masses and mineral wealth, coupled with an implacable process of industrialization. The Capitalocene really did begin in Mexico in 1519, rather than when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. And the first act in the uniformization of the world was iconic: it was the destruction of sculptures representing Maya divinities — near today’s Veracruz, where Spanish ships had dropped anchor — and their replacement with wooden crosses.
Not much is known about Malintzin, aka “La Malinche,” the Nahua Indian who in a few months became the interpreter, adviser, and, finally, mistress of Cortés. Without her help, what could the conquistadors have done? Even today, historians still debate whether she betrayed her people or, on the contrary, attenuated the massacre. What enabled that handful of soldiers to take over the Aztec empire was the latter’s abiding faith in divination: shortly before Cortés appeared, there had been prophecies concerning the imminent arrival of a god by the sea. Long before social media, unfounded rumor was already extremely powerful.
Very soon, the Spanish colonists began training local artists, tlacuilos, who quickly assimilated the codes and iconography of Western painting. In Europe, the Renacimiento [Renaissance] was in full flow, but the engraved images circulating in the new colony came from both the north and south of Europe: Gothic, Florentine, Spanish, they covered the entire empire of Charles V. Commissioned to decorate monasteries, these tlacuilos resurrected the Aztec gods, even in Benedictine refectories. They used as their visual Trojan horses the minor figures and forms of European art, notably the then very fashionable ornamental style known as grottesca [grotesque]. In the monasteries of the northeast are scenes purportedly representing “the battle of faith,” the struggle of the Catholics against the Muslims, which was still fresh in Castilian memories at the time, but what most strikes the eye are the barefoot, decapitated warriors wandering in the green and fuchsia jungles, surrounded by animals typical of Aztec mythology. Into their images of the Madonna and child or ascensions, the tlacuilos had smuggled the pantheon of their ancestors and their iconographic tradition.
During Zonamaco Art Week, held last April in most of Mexico City’s art galleries, which had reopened at last after the lockdowns, it was difficult to miss the figures and forms derived from Aztec and Maya cultures. Even today, artists’ studios are haunted by cultures from before the conquest, as if contemporary and pre-Columbian were consonant. So, while Westerners tried to eradicate ancient cultures, they can now be seen growing back all over the place, out of the remains. These “civilizations from before” are to be found in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, on preserved archaeological sites and ruins, and in the actions and legends that have somehow lived on. The colonial era now looks like a rift whose edges are closing as the centuries advance. The ecofeminism taken up by artists, rituals, astrological knowledge, permaculture, and “forgotten” vegetables and the lost recipes included in their menus by contemporary chefs — all these magnificent survivals are taking us back to the time before the formation of the industrial-colonial complex. And because those times have remained particularly vital in Mexico, this country seems, in what is only a superficial paradox, to be ahead of the new planetary cultures now taking shape before our eyes.
A young artist, María Sosa, is exhuming images of the Nahuatl civilization, exploring the buried forms of pre-Hispanic knowledge and the effects of the collision between Europeans and indigenous peoples. She is looking for a new historical narrative and for an ecological relation to knowledge: how can we get back to a world that existed before extractivism? What can we do to create relations to the world that are not based on exploitation? Another, Karla Leyva, sets up a parallel between the cosmetics industry and the legend of the “golden skin” worn in ancient ceremonies.
You get my drift: it would seem that in this part of North America, everything is a potential revenant. The Mexican Day of the Dead is a festival that celebrates a monstrous return: the insurrection of corpses. What is dead comes back any old how. As a mask, maybe, or confectionery. The Zapatista insurrection of the 1910s also rose from the dead, eventually, in 1994, with the features of Subcomandante Marcos who, 20 years later, announced that he had “ceased to exist” and has not been heard of since. “The fourth world war has begun,” he declared at the outset of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. At its center, he explained, was the planetary extension of finance, the concentration of wealth, and extractivism, leading to the globalization of human exploitation. Zapatismo has become another name for planetary political struggle. It is also a resurrection.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile and died in Barcelona, but he became a Mexican writer. In his final interview, he said: “My only country is my two children and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces, or books that are in me.” Two of his works, The Savage Detectives and 2666, are, for me, two of the most significant novels of the turn of our century. The first tells the story of some young writers and members of the Visceral Realism movement who are looking for a woman poet, Cesárea Tinajero, who lives in the desert. Its first part is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” As for the second, a posthumous novel, its central subject is the enigma, still unsolved, of a series of murders of women that took place in Ciudad Juárez. Remember that Roberto Bolaño was himself a founding member of Infrarealismo in the 1970s. What an intuition! There is something about Mexican culture that is infrarealist. Which is to say that reality is like a simple film covering the things that are really alive, just as sugar coats skeletons on the Day of the Dead.
In 1993, when I was invited to Moscow for the opening of an international exhibition, I met a young artist, Gabriel Orozco, who was still at the beginning of his career. In fact, my relation to Mexico started in Moscow, as was the case with Trotsky, who came here and got himself assassinated. When I met him, Orozco had already started photographing the streets of Mexico City, where he came to live at the age of six. Was that also Infrarealismo? In that first series of works made by Orozco, we see a puddle on a sidewalk, trash, a warped bicycle wheel, tin cans, etc. They are not really objects any more, but they’re not yet waste, either. Orozco focuses on the traces of actions, imprints, a mist. All are signs of the dissolution of humanity in a world where it seems omnipresent but not really alive, having become a simple substance that seeps into things, like oil into fabric.
The human now exists in the world like a material in its own right. As the critic Benjamin Buchloh wrote, this is about “the tragic destruction of the experience of the object” within a “system of technocratic control.” Over 20 years ago, Orozco was already confronting artisanal know-how with computing, and his own terracotta pieces with the images of Samurai Trees. That was one of the great themes in the art of the 2010s.
It was in Yucatán that Robert Smithson took a turning point that was just as important for the art of the 20th century with Hotel Palenque (1969–72), a slide projection in which the American artist surveys the “ruins in reverse” that he saw in the structures of our industrial civilization. Smithson substituted archaeology and the idea of an entropic future for the modernist myth of progress, which was very much alive and kicking at the time. When Orozco exhibited the skeleton of a whale that had been washed up on a beach, covering it with graphite drawings, the Mexican artist was confronting his own body with that of another species threatened with extinction. When he duplicated it with a cast in calcium carbonate, the substance produced by coral animals, he was translating that experience into the language of vegetable growth, corrected by the machine. We have come full circle.
On my first trip to Mexico, the gallerist Hilario Galguera, his fingers bejeweled with skull rings, introduced me to Jannis Kounellis. We were in Aguascalientes, in northern Mexico, and I had just been invited to organize an exhibition there the following year, in 2016, on the site where Kounellis was opening his show: an old locomotive factory. In that huge space, I wanted to produce an exhibition in the form of a mutant desert landscape, giving a hallucinatory image of the Mexican desert. A landscape-format exhibition in which all the different kingdoms would come together in a kind of spectacular or, rather, psychedelic version of the Taipei Biennial that, two years earlier, had been my first statement about the Anthropocene. The title, “Wirikuta,” referred to the sacred place that, for the Huichol people, was where the world was created. Today, it is a pilgrimage site for ceremonies in which peyote is taken. Its subtitle, “Mexican Time-Slip,” was taken from Philip K. Dick, whose short story “Martian Time-Slip” evokes the existence of worlds parallel to our own. The invitation featured a close-up of a peyote flower. I have no idea what the governor of the state of Aguascalientes, who commissioned the event, made of all this.
Entering the exhibition, one saw a seemingly limitless expanse of giant mushrooms, a black metal canyon, trees with buds in multicolored plastic, a mountain of fluorescent green powder, iridescent puddles of oil, and bright red meteorites. Which were, in order, works by Carsten Höller, Peter Buggenhout, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Pamela Rosenkranz, Marlie Mul, and Bosco Sodi. In two rooms off to the side, two giant screens showed videos by Laure Prouvost and Philippe Parreno. Prouvost’s dreamlike, Matissian film, Swallow, evoked a kind of golden age to the rhythm of the artist’s whispering voice. In contrast, Parreno’s showed an immensely dark artificial landscape. Back in France, I made the second part of this exhibition, “Retour sur Mulholland Drive,” for La Panacée in Montpellier. It was conceived as a filmic space, a “film without a camera,” to borrow an expression once used by Parreno. For me, that could be the take-home from Mexico: a film without a camera.
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