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Made in Mexico at the ICA

Twenty Mexican and International Artists

By: Charles Giuliano - 09/21/2013

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A work by Gabriel Orozco.
A work by Gabriel Orozco.
Catalogue of the exhibition.
Catalogue of the exhibition.

Made in Mexico
January 21 through May 9, 2004
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Curated by Gilbert Vicario
Artists in the exhibition include: Eduardo Abaroa, Francis Alys, Claudia Fernandez, Andrea Fraser, Thomas Glassford, Erik Gongrich, Terence Gower, Andreas Gursky, Mona Hatoum, Sharon Lockhart, Teresa Margolles, Yasumasa Morimura, Gabriel Orozco, Damian Ortega, Pedro Reyes, Sebastian Romo, Daniella Rossell, Santiago Sierra, Melanie Smith, and Anton Vidokle.
Reposted from Maverick Arts Magazine.

Entering the galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston we are immediately confronted by a large tondo of the ever exotic Frida Kahlo. Her enigmatic grin gazes out at us from within an elaborate kitschy frame of embossed vegetation. But, hold it, that is not the iconic image of the Mexican artist and martyr, no not the beloved, Frida, but rather, the Japanese artist, Yasumasa Morimura, once again in drag.

This initiating experience informs us that what you see is not what you get in the provocative, insightful and often confounding exhibition “Made in Mexico” organized by the Mexican born, ICA, curator, Gilbert Vicario. Indeed, only seven of the 20 artists represented in this exhibition are of Mexican heritage. The majority have spent time of varying length, from brief visits to permanent residences, South of the Border.

But none of the artists in this show were commissioned to produce work for this specific exhibition. During a morning press tour Vicario told me that this would be false and violate his ground rules for organizing exhibitions.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to decipher just what his operating concepts were for inclusion in this exhibition which seems more a deconstruction than a thematic treatment of Mexican art and culture. We come to his experience rather obliquely. Often pondering just what is Mexican about this or that photograph, video, sculpture or painting. Nothing in this show, with the exception of the ersatz Frida, is direct and obvious.

If there is any clear message from this daunting exhibition it is that Mexico has been a fertile and diverse source of inspiration for both native born and international artists. Several of the artists on hand for the occasion were clear in stating that Mexico is affordable as well as welcoming to artists. It is a viable setting in which to live and make work.

As is often the case with ICA installations, the first floor gallery, just the other side of the short wall with “Frida” proves to have the more accessible work. The second floor has more oblique and difficult pieces.

The ground floor gallery has three pieces by the well known artist, Mona Hatoum. We learned that she made two visits to Mexico in durations of roughly one month. The resultant sculptures are both reflective of her other work as well as providing a special Mexican twist. On the floor is a large circle configured from a locally created hemp rope. The center is arranged in a grid reflecting the ground plan of ancient Mexico City. From this grid the ropes involved meander out into a circle with its ends in round pom poms. This is an analogy to the sprawl out from the inner city. She also displays a brightly colored, enormous bird cage. This mimics the small one with a trained canary featured in an accompanying video.

The visit of the German photographer, Andreas Gursky, resulted in a single large image, the only photograph he took. It is an example of remarkable restraint. But all the more powerful as this defining image, meant to convey his response to an entire people and nation, is summarized by a view of the infamous Mexico City dump. He has shot it from a distance so the clutter of junk seems almost like the pigment drips in a Pollock painting. In the center of the composition is a group of shacks of inhabitants who survive be picking through the trash.

In contrast to the notion of such utter poverty and misery is a selection of large format, color photographs, by Daniela Rossell, of very rich women seated in their ornate, Baroque homes or another setting of their choice reflective of their power and decadence. The concept is readily familiar so the resultant photographs are well made but hardly original.

More satisfying are several large photographs by Sharon Lockhart, familiar from a past Whitney Biennial, and now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. She photographed a worker replacing floor tile in the National Museum of Anthropology. The vitrines display works of the Aztec culture before Columbus. The worker has features that mirror that heritage. But now reduced to care taker. It is a subtle and provocative juxtaposition.

A small, free standing sculpture of a mastodon with Hostess cupcakes embedded in its body, by Eduardo Abaroa, is a bit hard to decipher. It plays on kitsch as well as notions of the past, an extinct animal, as well as the present exemplified by junk food. Upstairs he is represented by several table top sculptures in odd shapes configured by slivers of plastic drinking straws. These are comments on popular culture that are provocative but do not tend to hold our attention beyond the initial impact.
A curator colleague commented that he was pleased and impressed that the ICA secured the loan of an icon by Mexico’s most celebrated contemporary artist, Gabriel Orozco. In a vitrine there is the painted scull with a checkerboard pattern, Black Kites, 1997. This often reproduced image continues to puzzle me beyond the reference to Duchamp and Chess, as well as an oblique discussion of the meaning of the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. Yeah. But so? I continue to struggle in comprehending the work of this artist which shows up frequently as a signifier of all things Mexican in post modern surveys.

This friends, was the “accessible” component of the exhibition. The degree of difficult seemed to soar as we mounted the stairs to the upper stratosphere physically and intellectually of this exhibition.

Here we confronted an array of takes on the notion of “modernism” in architecture as well as some aspects of “modernist” painting and sculpture. Really.

In the center of this space was a low stand with an array of architectonic words configured like models of high rise buildings. The words, evoked to describe Mexico from an array of friends and acquaintances of the artist, Sebastian Romo, evoke a sense of a cityscape. This is apparently consistent with his past work. But the text and its spatial arrangement was too oblique to derive direct inspiration. It seemed a step removed from impact and communication.

The Canadian painter, Terence Gower, combines a large blowup of Bauhaus inspired modernist architecture in Mexico City, with several companion panels in monochrome. These paintings lean against the wall. This seems to be the accepted form of installing paintings as there were works by another artist, Melanie Smith, installed in this manner. Her stripe paintings are layered and leaning on a base of two by fours. Next to them are two TV monitors with videos of men in an upholstery shop as well as men installing a horizontal colored string piece. She is a British artist who now lives and works in Mexico.

At first, the two large colored photo grids by Claudia Fernandez just seem patterned and playful. Closer examination reveals that they are the elaborate gates of homes that lock in the middle and upper class Mexicans from possible intruders. It is an interesting comment on the reality of everyday life and crime.

The German artist, Erik Gongrich, has created a large wall drawing with tilting, out of perspective views of aspects of Mexican modernist architecture. His installation also entails a sitting area with some bound images and a slide projector. One is invited to ponder this material.

Part of the upper gallery has been given over to two rooms with video installations. After all, how can one have a contemporary exhibition without video. But here, one work, a split screen piece by the tongue in chic Andrea Fraser makes sense, while the piece by Anton Vidolke just squanders valuable gallery space.

Fraser is known for witty send ups of museum docents and their inane prattle. Here she renders the theme of revolution with characters portraying famous Mexican artists and Marxists. There is the recurring theme of the artist riding through the landscape bearing a fluttering red flag. Vidokle’s crudely made video documents the painting of a decaying modernist building. The accompanying materials describe it as a comment on the Mexican muralists. The video might have been presented on a standard monitor. Blowing it up in a room of its own only underscored its crude lack of quality. Here the concept, which has merit, was undermined by poor technical execution.

There were large clusters of lights, Asters, by Thomas Glassford hanging in the stairwell. What they have to do with Mexico is beyond me.

In the lower gallery, soft bubbles floated down the tall vertical space from several machines mounted high above. This installation by Teresa Margolles seemed quite innocent and playful. Until reading a wall text revealed that the water used to make the bubbles was recycled (and sterilized) from cleaning corpses in the morgue of Mexico City. It made one recoil in horror. But it was also a simple and powerful metaphor of the death and violence of the culture. It reminded me of the “snow” covering the hood of the car in “Schindler’s List.” The snow was the falling ash that Spielberg used to convey the crematoria of the death camps. This was a disturbing parting thought as we come to grips with a difficult but powerful museum visit. Viva.

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