David Byrne recently wrote that he was no longer interested in seeing shows at galleries because there seemed to be too little visual art and too many “baubles”. While I understand his point, I did feel that either he was too keenly focused on New York’s Chelsea scene (his own neighbourhood) or he does not allow for the possibility of thinking of and being enchanted and shaken by art that can still be transformative and revolutionary. I speak of enchantment in its strongest sense, of the power of creation to fight commodification, which Italian Marxist theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi believes can be seen in the power of poetry and the insolvency of language: “Poetry is the language of non-exchangeability, the return of infinite hermeneutics, and the return of the sensuous body of language.”¹ Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that, when looking at some of the more interesting galleries in Mexico City in a time of crisis and social unrest, it is possible to recognise a poetic turn.
This was perhaps most surprising to see at House of Gaga, one of the more commercial of Mexico City’s galleries, which a few months ago hosted the eye-opening Todos los originales serán destruidos (“All Originals Must Be Destroyed”). The show’s title already runs against the traditional form of valuation in art (originality), while echoing Man Ray’s “Object to be Destroyed” and Duchamp’s readymades. Entering the gallery space located in the tree-mottled Condesa neighbourhood, the visitor was confronted with a variety of works which, visually, ranged from a large-scale, sphinx-shaped gumball machine featuring the face of 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (by co-curator and poet Luis Felipe Fabre) to words painstakingly and obsessively erased from years of angsty notebooks in Daniel Saldaña Paris’s No quiero saber nada de mi mismo (“I don’t want to know anything about myself”). The sphinx/gumball machine spewed poetry verse-enigmas in exchange for a coin. Its title: ¡Que dieran los saltimbancos, / a poder, por agarrarme / y llevarme, como Monstruo, / por esos andurriales / de Italia y Francia, que son / amigas de novedades / y que pagaran por ver / la Cabeza del Gigante, / diciendo: Quién ver el Fénix /quisiere, dos cuartos pague...! (“What would the mountebanks not give / to seize me and display me / taking me round like a monster / through byroads and lonely places / in Italy and France, which are / so full of novelties / where the people pay to see / the giant head, / and crying: / if the phoenix you would view, / step up and pay your two coins...!”).
Both Fabre’s and Saldaña Paris’s pieces underscore Berardi’s thoughts about poetry and the economy of language. The first work reminds us of the underlying presence of poetry on Mexican currency: the great Mexican poets (Sor Juana Inés, Octavio Paz and Nezahualcoyotl) are all represented on the country’s banknotes (on lower denominations, of course), while the work itself plays with the absurdity, or absolute absence, of poetry’s exchange value by spewing poetry in return for a coin, like a gumball machine. The expurgated notebooks of Saldaña Paris’s work, where only the crossed-out parts are left visible, reveal poetry as having the utmost economy of language, through the bodily gesture of erasure (white-out). And thus, while some of the experiments by poets working outside their usual medium in the show were more fortunate than others, what spoke volumes was the exhibition itself, which epitomised an anti-commercial feeling: pieces by non-professional artists, works which in all likelihood no one would want to exchange cold hard cash for.
Poetry was the subject of a different sort of show in the San Rafael neighbourhood, where galleries such as Yautepec, Casa Mauad and Lodos have blossomed amid old-school cantinas, offices and car-repair shops. Lodos was first founded by artist Francisco Cordero-Oceguera in an apartment in Chicago where he was at grad school, and then translated south to Mexico City when he moved back to the city with a desire to show “critically aware artists with new modes of production”. Earlier this year Lodos housed Special Features, an exhibition of five pieces (Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcava, who co-founded Biquini Wax, another similarly minded, artist-run space, calls them McGuffins) by the poetry collective oa4s (on all fours), who in the age of “uncreative writing” (thanks, Kenneth Goldsmith) have expanded the field of poetry to mean many things. Whence the tiny blue footsteps of Baby Girl (2014), which someone had to make on all fours, butt up in the air, hands dipped in blue paint, a sort of caveman poke at Yves Klein, in which feet are hands and the artist meets the world head-on and crawling. Poetry also becomes an absurd (and beautiful!) mumble of a rebus in Pee Ring Duck Liff (2014), as well as a 16-minute sound piece called Oa0s (2014), which is reminiscent of the decorative and ambient feel of a Tan Lin text, but with a dirty twist. Or perhaps poetry is epitomised by a photo of a ceramic turtle (a spoon rest entirely devoid of its use-value) lying on its belly and mock-heroically reimagined as rowing on its back in an ocean of dunes.
Next door is Cráter Invertido, a co-operative space occupied by a risograph-using, fanzine-collecting, provocative and politically plural drawing collective. The collective was originally based in a warehouse in the Obrera neighbourhood, but has since moved to this decaying 19th-century house in which even the bathroom has an artistic role to play. The 14 artists have created a truly unique space in the city: anti-capitalist, contradictory and cutting-edge, where artists of many generations, disciplines and styles may show and discuss and think about their work. It also functions as a small press, a watering hole and a place to gather: one afternoon, for example, there might be a collaborative session to come up with new slogans for a political rally in solidarity with the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, while in another room a friend barters use of the risograph machine in order to print a new artist book, and in the wooden attic-like fanzinoteca others drink beers, read and discuss a series of poems to be included in the Cráter’s magazine Cartucho.
In these exhibitions and spaces, approaches vary, but the question remains the same: what can art do and how? Here, the sensuous body of language has indeed returned to answer, through the many bodies that meet and read and remake the present together. If a few recent articles about the contemporary art scene in Mexico City have mentioned a circular or even incestuous scene, I would counter that what these two younger spaces in particular reveal is rather a growing sense of kinship (call me hopeful, call me a hippie), a feeling of familiarity where there are some members you like but don’t see that often, others you don’t like but see more of, and finally those you wished you shared a womb or a bed with, or something as intense. The art of living. And yes, sometimes there is fighting, but fighting together.
by James Wilson
At the New Museum’s 2009 Triennial, Adriana Lara had a museum guard eat a banana every day and leave the peel somewhere on the floor of the gallery. More recently, in her series Symbol Faces she daubed typographic signs – an ampersand, an exclamation mark – on different photographs of Mexican film star Lupe Velez, famous in 1930s Hollywood for her thick accent.
Born 1978 in Mexico City, Lara is a co-founder of Perros Negros, a collective “that proposes new platforms for discourse and production, for the purpose of expanding creative projects and giving them visibility”.
In Grapes / Raisins, pictured here, inflated green balloons attached to a tree branch slowly wither and sag during the course of the show. Meanwhile, Lara continues her interest in signs and symbology with a series of phrases painted on wood veneer and seasonal turf. One reads “SHIT AND FLOWERS”; another says “OKOKOKOK” over and over.