Shattering Myths South of the BorderDon't expect to see "Mexican art" that satisfies your fantasies about Latin American culture in the show "The Persistency of Image." This major exhibition at the Artsonje Center deals with stylistic trends of contemporary Mexican art and displays works that question the shifting notions Mexicans have of their identity.
In fact, if you go to this show, put aside all the exotic images, fantasies and myths you may have about Mexico, such as the images of artifacts from Meso-American cultures you read in ethnograph magazines or even scenes from Hollywood films portraying illegal Mexican immigrants as dishwashers working in American fast food restaurant. Because if you come to the to the gallery with a single-minded vision of the country and its cultural production, this exhibition will be an immediate challenge to your history and a chance for an endorsement to your guilt. Organized in part by the Contemporary Museum of Art Carrillo Gil, the exhibition features artists whose practice evokes contemporary art issues.
The show may be a perplexing experience for those whose only understanding of Mexican art is through the murals of Diego Rivera. Compared to Rivera's propagandistic murals, which concern mostly nationalist ideology, contemporary Mexican art, or at least the works represented in this exhibition, attempt to explore the artists' more personal understanding of the nation as a socio-political construct.
Eduardo Abaroa is an example of one who incorporates personal politics into his works. In his "Irremediable Cafelea Pyramidal," the artist attempts to challenge myths about Mexican culture, often simplified into Aztec civilization, by inverting a pyramid-shaped sculpture built out of 6,800 aspirins. The peculiar display of the pyramid hung upside down from the ceiling, connected by plastic fishing wire, also suggests a monumental element, which celebrates the artist's personal experience of aspirin and the chronic headaches he grew up with as a child. By juxtaposing an individualized experience with a historical event, the artist demonstrates the difficulties of defining one's national identity into a generalized notion.
Silvia Gruner takes a more conceptual approach in her "Reparar." An artist of Jewish origin, Ms. Gruner is mostly known for her performance series, in which she stuck adhesive tape onto cracked cement sidewalk slabs. While poignantly illustrating the difficulties and absurdity of trying to repair the cracks with tape, the artist also uses this as a metaphor to discuss the frequent powerlessness of the individual against the dominant power structure.
Yishai Jusidman, who participated in this year's Venice Biennale, also contributes an installation piece that demands attention. Mr. Jusidman imitates portraiture techniques from the Baroque period in depicting patients from a mental institution. By doing so, the artist makes direct reference to the enriching conditions of Europe during the Baroque period, which was only possible through the violent exploitations of the Americans. By using carpet as a replacement for a canvas, Mr. Jusidman brings a strong sense of corporeality to the work and juxtaposes the ill-fated conditions of the patients to the modern history of Mexico.
Betsabee Romero makes a more playful reference to contemporary Mexico through his presentation of a Volkswagen tire decorated with dried roses. As reflected in this uncompromising combination of a car tire and flower ornaments, the work embodies the hybridism of contemporary Mexican culture caught between traditions of the past and shifting notions of the modern values. The dried roses symbolize Catholicism, which bases its narrative on Mexican folklore about a peasant who witnessed the Virgin Mary.
It is noteworthy that significant numbers of artists in the exhibition, who are representative of mainstream art in Mexico, are, in fact, descendants of non-Mexicans who demand more diverse definitions of cultural identities themselves. Perhaps this is what makes this show so compelling to see, especially for outsiders.
Many works in the exhibit continually complicate the viewer's perception about what are appropriate Mexican images and non-Mexican images. This preoccupation with "defining" Mexican identity fades away, however, after viewing the whole exhibition. Near the end of the show, the viewer comes to a solemn acknowledgment that an identity cannot be explained into a single notion, because it constantly fluctuates. The closest commonality you learn about Mexican artists in the show is their use of subtle presentation when making political references in their works, especially their effective use of allegory and metaphor. And though the contemporary approach to raising questions have changed over the years especially compared to mural artists who partook in the Mexican Nationalist Movement, the political issues are nevertheless quite prevalent.
The exhibition "The Persistency of the Image" runs through August 18. For more information, call 02-733-8940 (English service available).
by Park Soo-mee