For better or for worse, artists are continually asked to answer to a difficult question: “Can art be useful in affecting real change?” While there are a number of artists making socially and politically-conscious work in the hopes changing the world for the better, there too exists the commentary that the impact of art can’t reach beyond that walls of the gallery.
But in the wake of Mexico City’s September 19th earthquake, the artistic community has shown itself to be a driving force of positive change. When the earthquake hit, many Mexico City art galleries were preparing for the fifth annual Art Gallery Weekend. The 7.1 magnitude quake struck just south of Mexico City. Fifty buildings collapsed, hundreds more were damaged, and more than five hundred people were killed, with countless others injured.
On the day of the earthquake, Art Gallery Weekend immediately canceled the event. Aldo Juárez of PROGRESO Galería told Artspace that “after the earthquake, everyone was grabbing everything they could to help… tools, shovels, and medicine. All of us closed our stores and our galleries and went to the streets and tried to help in any way we could.” Some of the worst affected areas were Roma, Condesa and Juarez: three of the most important gallery zones in the city.
In direct response, galleries across the three neighborhoods converted their storefronts from exhibition spaces to crisis centers. Roma gallery PROYECTOSMONCLOVA donated its space to the NGO directrelief.org and joined in helping 20 volunteers pack aid kits. Galería Marso in Juarez opened its doors as a collection point where people could drop off donations. Director Sofia Mariscal Herrera told Artspace: “I posted on Facebook that if you don’t want to travel far to bring your aid, bring it to the gallery and I will happily take it to a bigger collection point, but the thing became massive. The gallery was full of supplies and, the day after the earthquake, there were more than two hundred people helping to organize the supplies and to load the trucks.”
Folks from the local art community were not the only people to donate their time, space, and energy to the cause, but it seems that art started taking on a new role in its community; or perhaps, a role it has always been meant to have in the first place.
Ten days after the earthquake, all of the galleries in the city got together for the first time to formally discuss what they could do as a cultural body to save the economies and spirits of their communities. Neighborhoods that were usually over-flowing with street life were empty; shrines dedicated to the dead began to accumulate in front of the collapsed buildings; and camps for the survivors were set up on the streets. The newly united group of galleries came up with a concept: Reactivate Mexico. Art Gallery Weekend was rescheduled for November 9th-12th and the group devised various fund-raising campaigns to accompany the event. Don Julio Tequila, Art Gallery Weekend’s biggest sponsor, put together a cash prize for the best exhibition, with the winner vowing to donate the prize to an aid organization of their choice. The exclusive collector’s party was cancelled and, with a gesture of communal inclusion, smaller galleries who normally wouldn’t have been able to afford to participate were invited to join the event.
Gallerist Karen Huber commented that “this time, Gallery Weekend is more about being responsible and being really in the moment of what we are living and to focus on reactivating the community and the city.” Machete was one of the twelve young galleries invited by Art Gallery Weekend to participate this year. Director Domitila Bedel expressed how “Reactivate Mexico brought us all together in a more conscious and real way. We are also very humbled by all of the assistance Mexico has received internationally. We are very happy to open our galleries and say ‘We are hurt but we are OK’ and we are going to be able to keep moving forward.”
Fast forward to this past weekend, and the diversity and dynamism of the Mexico City art world was put on full display during this year’s Art Gallery Weekend (AGW). The exhibits ranged from AGW debuts of some of Mexico City’s newest artist-run centers to established international galleries showing the reach of their influence in the national and international scene. In the historically rich colonia Santa Marìa La Riberia, SQUASH Editions set up their curatorial project in a still-active squash court. The collective constructs three short-term installations a year that interact with the athletic space, the comings and goings of players, and the rules of the game. In their inaugural AGW show, a multi-media group project curated by Dorothée Dupuis hurled a scolding rhetoric around the squash-ball-beaten walls and ceiling, opening up oscillations between emotional and behavioral binaries in order to, in Dupuis’ words, “communicate messages that we often don’t want to hear.”
Traveling a bit south onto the edge of Centro, Karen Huber Galería showcased their first exhibition of Mexican artist Ana Segovia. Her series of tragi-comic oil paintings, “A Boy named Sue,” enact an overlap between the fully masculine cowboy and the female androgynous wanna-be. Clever references from popular culture make an appearance in work, like the feminist cult classic, “I Love Dick” by Chris Kraus, while a mounted machismo aims at a dismounted man, wrapped tenderly in a Mexican blanket, but cut in half by a flacid street lamp.
Back across town to San Miguel Chapultapec, international super stars Mark Bradford, Charles Gaines, Rodney McMillian, Julie Mehretu, Kara Walker and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye unite in a group show, “Never Free to Rest,” at Kurimanzutto. The title of the exhibition is a quote by late African-American writer and activist James Baldwin and, indeed, the dynamism of the individual and combined works enact the reality that, when fighting for justice in a still very hierarchical world built upon race and gender, one is never free to rest. Using the liberatory play of abstraction, the six artists invoke re-vitalized possibilities, both in expression and perception. Rodney McMillian’s, Roses, makes a grotesquery out of the delicate romance of a rose-patterned bed sheet. Rivers of oil-slick black, neon green, rusty orange, baby blue and cream latex ooze and coddle across and beyond the fabricated ideal of white-bred femininity.
Up a bit and east over to Roma was the debut of Monterrey gallery Ge Galería’s Mexico City space. Showcasing one piece from each of their fifteen roster artists, the exhibit was an example of the scope of representation of Mexican and international artists not only in their own gallery, but also in the Mexico City art scene as a whole. Mexico City-born artist, Erika Harrsch showed the painting All Given, a fantastical adventure within a palate reminiscent of Chopin (when he was in a good mood); Mexican-American artist, Ray Smith, showed us Lirio with its unabashed surrealism that proved Mexico is still a surrealist country par excellence; Spanish artist Marina Vargas displayed one of her pretty pistols decorated with death; and, a delightfully disturbing family portrait by British artist James Rielly jumped out and said “Boo!”
Despite the limited time frame, some of the AGW exhibitions responded to the earthquake itself, whether directly or indirectly, as in the case of Nina Menocal Galería’s exhibition. Re-named “La Hora del Pueblo” (The Hour of the People) after Mexican artist Eric Pérez’s painting, the show features murals that add to the legacy of Mexico’s traditional muralists (Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros). Pérez’s images still ache and bleed with Post-Revolutionary heroism and continued struggle. The hundreds of faces that speckle his paintings are reminiscent of Rivera’s densely peopled paintings, and so too are the revolutionary sentiments proclaimed by the protest banners his subjects hold: Justicia, No Neo-Liberalismo, Manifesto, and a chilling still missing 43. Gallery director Nina Menocal explained how, even though the painting is distinctively Mexican, it “is not just about Mexico, but has to do with everything going on in the world. It’s a symbol of the confusion there is today about the problems of neo-liberalism and globalization. There’s a lot of corruption, especially in this country, but I think everywhere.”
When the earthquake put everything on hold, Argentine artist Sol Pipkin was busy creating her installation through a residency with Machete Gallery. As the artist, along with the rest of the city, waited for normalcy, Pipkin wove a web from brass wire, copper, and reeds reminiscent of the Greek mythology story of Penelope. Penelope had told her many suitors that she would choose one after she finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, only to spend every night undoing part of the shroud. But unlike Penelope, Pipkin left her woven web as a vestige of the long wait and, both as a memorial and a triumph, the web was titled Fragile is not a Warning, it's an Invitation. Without any pre-earthquake forethought, Pipkin’s installation became an interactive refuge where visitors could recline on woven mats and play with pillows filled with local seeds. Surrounded by paper maché and gouache objects that had the delicacy of a dollhouse, the people could have momentary respite and see art, and the world, from a softened perspective.
Roma’s Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo lost everything during the earthquake. Arróniz held its AGW exhibit in a vacant restaurant in the same bulding as Machete. The installation contains a startling tangle of tools, while two disabled shovels lean innocuously across from a fire extinguisher. By binding two shovels as one with two handles and the other with two spades, the shovel becomes ludicrous, stripped of any other purpose than to lean against the wall. Besides building a scrappy division between the gallery space and the bar (perhaps having something to do with guarding the booze), the installation becomes a part of the once-upon-a-time restaurant, and incorporates both the tools of re-construction along with the gallery’s displacement into its curation of the present.
French artist Theo Mercier’s Phantom Legacy mirrored the narrative of the Mexico City nightmare. The project was composed of natural and handcrafted artifacts from the city and deals with themes of history, anthropology, construction, and deconstruction. As an unwitting macrocosm of the ecological moment, the artist had literally just placed the final piece onto the top of one of his vertical totems, when the earth shook and, like the city that had fallen around him, Mercer’s installation collapsed along with it. The artist, along with the Mexican people’s continued task, had to painstakingly put it all back together again. Along with the installation, the ornate Perfirio Díaz building that houses Marso was also hit hard and many of the gallery walls and ceilings were damaged. After re-constructing his anthropological homage to Mexico City, Mercer realized that not only did the cracks in the walls and the chunks of fallen plaster complement his fragmented constructs, he had also built it better this time.
The city is still in mourning; the shrines still stand outside of homes that are now rubble; and people still sleep under tarps covered in signs that call for their rehabilitation. However, as Nina Menocal told Artspace, “it’s really important that the art community give a very clear example that we are not forgetting.” As the heart of the 2017 Mexico City Art Gallery Weekend, Reactivate Mexico brought the art world back down to earth and, in response to this nation-wide tragedy, art became re-acquainted with its foundation in humanity. Sofia Mariscal Herrera told Artspace, “the earthquake was the worst experience of my life. But the next day, when I witnessed two hundred people helping to get supplies to the victims, was the most beautiful.” When asked if she saw any connection between art, community and justice, director of PROYECTOSMONCLOVA, Polina Stroganova, added, “I think that in situations like this the human aspect and social responsibility stands above all, no matter which discipline. And I believe that the people of Mexico have demonstrated this during the last months.” A recent T-Shirt slogan pretty much sums it up: “I’m Mexican. What’s your super power?”