Contemporary Art in the Americas Arte Contemporáneo en las Américas

Cultural Representation and the Demise of NAFTA

by Eduardo Abaroa

Eduardo Abaroa and Rubén Ortíz-Torres talk about the art scenes in LA and Mexico City framed by globalization in a neoliberal era.

Eduardo Abaroa; Total Destruction of the Anthropology Museum (Photoshop), 2016. Photographic mural. Photo courtesy of the artist

Eduardo Abaroa: I want to begin by recalling a discussion we had many times while I was living in Los Angeles, your adopted city. Why is there so little contact between the art scene in California and that of Mexico City? Even with shows like Phantom Sightings in the Tamayo Museum, there is still a lot of distance.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres: We would have to begin by mentioning the estrangement that exists between the different art scenes in California and Los Angeles, and those of Mexico. There are several parallel art worlds that are fairly disconnected.

There are artists from LA who work within an international circuit but seldom show their work in the city, as happened with Jason Rhoades, and happens today for example with Jorge Pardo. There is a Chicano art scene that is very disconnected from contemporary art, yet there is another emerging Chicano art world where curators and artists do participate in museums, galleries, and art schools. There is a “low brow” art scene that has its own magazines, galleries, and collectors. There are other intermediate level galleries with a more local participation. There is another “art” world which is being consolidated in the realm of social practice, etc. Therefore, I think there are connections between some of these art scenes and there are some that never connect. There are cases like Regen Projects, one of the most important galleries in its very established context, which has an important connection with kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City and its artists. LA museums like LACMA and the Armory in Pasadena are interested in a deeper relationship with the neighboring country, and some others like MOCA, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Museum of Latin American Art have, at some point, been very aware of what was happening in Mexico. Today it is the Getty Center that it is now provoking these connections. Regarding Mexico, there are galleries that are representing artists from California like Labor (Gala Porras-Kim) or Yautepec, which represented my student, Morgan Manduley. And museums like MUAC have presented the work of Asco. There are results of this new cultural corridor that are very important and can’t be denied. The art school SOMA in Mexico City is one of these results, not only because some artists who teach there attended art schools in Southern California, but also because of the impact it is having on young artists from here as well. The importance of this axis is growing, although it might still be invisible to certain Latin American intellectuals who are imperviously still looking up to Paris. I still find comments in social networks lamenting the kidnapping of Frida Kahlo by Chicano artists during a look-alike contest in a Dallas museum (which of course was not Chicano). The comments implied a double racism, at once chauvinist and malinchist, where the foreign and the Mexican is simultaneously deprecated. Nevertheless, there is a new generation of artists and intellectuals who are already bi-national and whose experience is in itself a more significant encounter beyond the distance and the pending walls.

Now, it is, of course, easier to stay informed about what happens in Mexico. Nevertheless, through social networks, the phone, Skype, Univision, the digital version of La Jornada, the Youtube videos of Galatzia, or the gossip of visitors I only see fragmented, edited, and partial representations of what is happening, which I am sure is way larger and more interesting and complex than it seems.

Eduardo Abaroa; Figure (Notes for the Destruction of the Anthropology Museum), 2014. Digital print. Photo courtesy of the artist

EA: When I visited LA there were certainly several art scenes. Mexico is not so cosmopolitan, but it was a small scene twenty years ago, where most artists knew each other. Now we have a really impressive amount of artist spaces, galleries, schools, etc. The multimedia attitude of contemporary art has spread to the most dynamic places: Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Tijuana, Oaxaca, and to other cities of Mexico. Artists are traveling to remote areas of the country for several reasons. No one can have a clear picture of all the art that is happening in the country, or even in Mexico City. This is healthy, but unfortunately, there is not much visibility for whoever does not belong to a very reduced group. We have the usual problems people face in many parts of the world. Women, ethnic or social minorities, or even specific media do not have shared opportunities and this is a big problem. The fact that the number of galleries has increased a lot since the year 2000 has not meant that the scene is more open. On top of that, it is clear that the return of the PRI party to the government has led to greater control over cultural institutions, and today museum directors and curators have to be more careful. Many practice self-censorship. Such a state of affairs is terrible for Mexico, which urgently needs open, plural, and free media.

Mike Davies has described LA as an “ecology of fear,” a city whose people have always felt themselves to be on the brink of catastrophe, be it an earthquake, a forest fire, drought, air pollution, riots, etc. Mexico City has this dystopian character, too, with very similar themes to which we now have to add organized crime on an unprecedented scale. But it could be that not only the cities but also the two countries are facing a terrible moment. Presidents Peña and Trump are considered similar sociopolitical tsunamis, but the former only has a local effect, while the latter is a threat to the whole world. Is there a role for art in this situation?

Your early work includes these paintings where you imply the destruction of national identity in Mexico as a result of the 1985 earthquake. What has happened in the almost thirty years since then? Is there a possible revision of so-called Neo-Mexican art? There are many artists in Mexico that are working along similar lines as yours back then. I’m thinking of Mariana Castillo, Fernando Palma, or some younger ones like Juan Caloca. If whatever had to do with Mexican iconography felt forbidden during the nineties and part of the two-thousands, to look back at this damaged territory seems crucial today. It is not a revival, obviously.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres; El Fin del Modernismo, 1986. Acrílico sobre tela, 78.74 x 47.24 in. Photo courtesy of the artist

ROT: Regarding the idea of “Mexican” art and its relationship with the “International” during the last thirty years, I do not feel that anything has emerged. As Nietzsche explains, it feels like a sort of eternal recurrence, a cycle that we seem trapped in—between the reassertion of a local “Mexican” culture on the one hand, and, on the other, its negation in favor of a role in or an integration into a supposedly more “modern,” “universal,” or “international” model. During the eighties I thought that a particular reading of postmodernism would help break with Nietzsche’s cycle in favor of a more Hegelian, dialectic possibility, where the Mexicanist theses and its antitheses of international rupture could reach a syntheses in which you could embrace both, or that the negation of one of these alternatives wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, during the nineties, the cycle of the eternal recurrence returned. The attempts to synthesize and the invention of hybrids were in fact stigmatized and accused of nationalism when in many cases they were impure parodies of nationality. The ignorance of the international art world contributed to this. Many people never realized that the Mexican School ended long ago when many avant-garde experiments and ruptures took place. There was some opportunism by people who were championed as breaking with Muralism during the nineties.

The idea of the end of art today may open the possibility for these syntheses in Mexico City and Los Angeles. Maybe these fusions in LA will help people begin to understand or at least to digest and negotiate the Babelian multitude of languages and identities in competition and conflict.

I agree that one of the grave consequences of globalization and the substitution of a local validation system for an international one has been the limits imposed on ethnic and social minorities, as well as on gender and sexuality. Curiously, today it is those countries whose colonial projects have been the most globalizing where we now have these xenophobic and nationalistic attitudes, like in England and the USA. I also agree with the dystopian condition and apocalyptic notion of the Ring of Fire [1] that joins Mexico City and Los Angeles. Maybe we could also include Tokyo, although organized crime and the incompetence of leaders do not seem to be functioning in Asia in the same way.

Maybe an alternative to the obsolete model of the nation-state and these desperate nationalist populisms in times of globalization is the independence and interconnection of cosmopolitan cities that in many cases already function as sanctuaries.

EA: If the discourse that validated globalization is now obsolete, along with that which validated the nation-state, the only things left are places of autonomy and dissidence. In Mexico, there have been many popular struggles in this sense, even before the Zapatista movement. They run parallel and alternatively to the course of progressive globalization. But for right-wing intellectuals to give any credit to these causes is to remain in Roger Bartra’s cage of melancholy.

A few days ago a Mexican critic, Jesús Silva Herzog-Marquez, wrote a piece about the recent Andy Warhol show in Mexico City [2] denouncing the “Warholism” of politics and the fascism of banality which in his view anticipated the time of Trump. It is a very partial criticism of Warhol’s superficiality, which forgets the social movement to which this artist belonged, one that, in its own way, implied a sort of ironic reconfiguration and even a social and sexual liberation, instead of the strengthening of the autocratic, theocratic, and patriarchal system that Trump promotes. A lot of people believe that there is something that wakes up, or that re-emerges from American discontent. But in any case, this return of which you speak is bothersome because it could be understood as national spirit or a certain fatalism of people as if we could not get away from specifically USA issues or specifically Mexican issues. The left and right in both countries are traditional, they respond to a limited amount of premises guided by neoliberalism. I believe that aesthetic thought has in this ground its larger capacity for action and change. Unfortunately, it is co-opted almost immediately by different instances.

ROT: Of course, I am also bothered by this “fatalist” trap of polarized alternatives that supposedly substitute each other with every cycle, when in fact these and other realities have coexisted and are still coexisting, mixed with each other to some degree… And they will coexist in this way in the future. The “Make America Great Again” slogan is particularly absurd and paradoxical in this critique of eternal returns. Which America? “Great Again,” like when? Before the conquest, smallpox, syphilis, genocide, and slavery? The country that has in a certain way—for good or bad—symbolized and materialized the Western ideals of modernity, the new, pluralism, and democracy is today surrendering to an original fake myth. Nationalist positions that have been used to resist colonization, globalization and foreign intervention by imperialist countries are now co-opted (as you mention) to justify these imperialisms in an attempt to specifically avoid pluralism and to limit the rights of supposedly stranger minorities.

I read the criticism you mentioned about banality, frivolity, and the “dictatorship” of fame in Andy Warhol that allegedly justifies Trump. By the way, Trump did not like the silk screens that Warhol made of his tower because they did not color coordinate with the building, and Warhol didn’t like the lying billionaire either because he was cheap and did not buy them. To this great lost “America,” Warhol and the rest of modern and contemporary art are certainly degenerate. Trump on his part has wanted to defund federal support for the arts and even used the adjective used by the Nazis to describe Chris Ofili’s work The Holy Mary Virgin, saying it was “absolutely gross, degenerate.”

I imagine with terror and fascination the possibility of a “neo-Americanism.”

Rubén Ortiz-Torres received his MFA from the California Institute of Arts in 1992. He is a Mexican-born artist who has been living and working in Los Angeles since 1990.

Eduardo Abaroa (b. 1968, Mexico City) earned his Bachelor of Fine Art from the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (UNAM) in 1992 and his Masters of Fine Art from The California Institute of the Arts in 2001.

Notes

[1] The Ring of Fire is a major area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and/or plate movements.

[2] Search for Letras Libres, “Warhol y el fascismo de la banalidad.”

Eduardo Abaroa and Rubén Ortíz-Torres talk about the art scenes in LA and Mexico City framed by globalization in a neoliberal era.

Eduardo Abaroa; Total Destruction of the Anthropology Museum (Photoshop), 2016. Photographic mural. Photo courtesy of the artist

Eduardo Abaroa: I want to begin by recalling a discussion we had many times while I was living in Los Angeles, your adopted city. Why is there so little contact between the art scene in California and that of Mexico City? Even with shows like Phantom Sightings in the Tamayo Museum, there is still a lot of distance.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres: We would have to begin by mentioning the estrangement that exists between the different art scenes in California and Los Angeles, and those of Mexico. There are several parallel art worlds that are fairly disconnected.

There are artists from LA who work within an international circuit but seldom show their work in the city, as happened with Jason Rhoades, and happens today for example with Jorge Pardo. There is a Chicano art scene that is very disconnected from contemporary art, yet there is another emerging Chicano art world where curators and artists do participate in museums, galleries, and art schools. There is a “low brow” art scene that has its own magazines, galleries, and collectors. There are other intermediate level galleries with a more local participation. There is another “art” world which is being consolidated in the realm of social practice, etc. Therefore, I think there are connections between some of these art scenes and there are some that never connect. There are cases like Regen Projects, one of the most important galleries in its very established context, which has an important connection with kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City and its artists. LA museums like LACMA and the Armory in Pasadena are interested in a deeper relationship with the neighboring country, and some others like MOCA, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Museum of Latin American Art have, at some point, been very aware of what was happening in Mexico. Today it is the Getty Center that it is now provoking these connections. Regarding Mexico, there are galleries that are representing artists from California like Labor (Gala Porras-Kim) or Yautepec, which represented my student, Morgan Manduley. And museums like MUAC have presented the work of Asco. There are results of this new cultural corridor that are very important and can’t be denied. The art school SOMA in Mexico City is one of these results, not only because some artists who teach there attended art schools in Southern California, but also because of the impact it is having on young artists from here as well. The importance of this axis is growing, although it might still be invisible to certain Latin American intellectuals who are imperviously still looking up to Paris. I still find comments in social networks lamenting the kidnapping of Frida Kahlo by Chicano artists during a look-alike contest in a Dallas museum (which of course was not Chicano). The comments implied a double racism, at once chauvinist and malinchist, where the foreign and the Mexican is simultaneously deprecated. Nevertheless, there is a new generation of artists and intellectuals who are already bi-national and whose experience is in itself a more significant encounter beyond the distance and the pending walls.

Now, it is, of course, easier to stay informed about what happens in Mexico. Nevertheless, through social networks, the phone, Skype, Univision, the digital version of La Jornada, the Youtube videos of Galatzia, or the gossip of visitors I only see fragmented, edited, and partial representations of what is happening, which I am sure is way larger and more interesting and complex than it seems.

Eduardo Abaroa; Figure (Notes for the Destruction of the Anthropology Museum), 2014. Digital print. Photo courtesy of the artist

EA: When I visited LA there were certainly several art scenes. Mexico is not so cosmopolitan, but it was a small scene twenty years ago, where most artists knew each other. Now we have a really impressive amount of artist spaces, galleries, schools, etc. The multimedia attitude of contemporary art has spread to the most dynamic places: Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Tijuana, Oaxaca, and to other cities of Mexico. Artists are traveling to remote areas of the country for several reasons. No one can have a clear picture of all the art that is happening in the country, or even in Mexico City. This is healthy, but unfortunately, there is not much visibility for whoever does not belong to a very reduced group. We have the usual problems people face in many parts of the world. Women, ethnic or social minorities, or even specific media do not have shared opportunities and this is a big problem. The fact that the number of galleries has increased a lot since the year 2000 has not meant that the scene is more open. On top of that, it is clear that the return of the PRI party to the government has led to greater control over cultural institutions, and today museum directors and curators have to be more careful. Many practice self-censorship. Such a state of affairs is terrible for Mexico, which urgently needs open, plural, and free media.

Mike Davies has described LA as an “ecology of fear,” a city whose people have always felt themselves to be on the brink of catastrophe, be it an earthquake, a forest fire, drought, air pollution, riots, etc. Mexico City has this dystopian character, too, with very similar themes to which we now have to add organized crime on an unprecedented scale. But it could be that not only the cities but also the two countries are facing a terrible moment. Presidents Peña and Trump are considered similar sociopolitical tsunamis, but the former only has a local effect, while the latter is a threat to the whole world. Is there a role for art in this situation?

Your early work includes these paintings where you imply the destruction of national identity in Mexico as a result of the 1985 earthquake. What has happened in the almost thirty years since then? Is there a possible revision of so-called Neo-Mexican art? There are many artists in Mexico that are working along similar lines as yours back then. I’m thinking of Mariana Castillo, Fernando Palma, or some younger ones like Juan Caloca. If whatever had to do with Mexican iconography felt forbidden during the nineties and part of the two-thousands, to look back at this damaged territory seems crucial today. It is not a revival, obviously.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres; El Fin del Modernismo, 1986. Acrílico sobre tela, 78.74 x 47.24 in. Photo courtesy of the artist

ROT: Regarding the idea of “Mexican” art and its relationship with the “International” during the last thirty years, I do not feel that anything has emerged. As Nietzsche explains, it feels like a sort of eternal recurrence, a cycle that we seem trapped in—between the reassertion of a local “Mexican” culture on the one hand, and, on the other, its negation in favor of a role in or an integration into a supposedly more “modern,” “universal,” or “international” model. During the eighties I thought that a particular reading of postmodernism would help break with Nietzsche’s cycle in favor of a more Hegelian, dialectic possibility, where the Mexicanist theses and its antitheses of international rupture could reach a syntheses in which you could embrace both, or that the negation of one of these alternatives wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, during the nineties, the cycle of the eternal recurrence returned. The attempts to synthesize and the invention of hybrids were in fact stigmatized and accused of nationalism when in many cases they were impure parodies of nationality. The ignorance of the international art world contributed to this. Many people never realized that the Mexican School ended long ago when many avant-garde experiments and ruptures took place. There was some opportunism by people who were championed as breaking with Muralism during the nineties.

The idea of the end of art today may open the possibility for these syntheses in Mexico City and Los Angeles. Maybe these fusions in LA will help people begin to understand or at least to digest and negotiate the Babelian multitude of languages and identities in competition and conflict.

I agree that one of the grave consequences of globalization and the substitution of a local validation system for an international one has been the limits imposed on ethnic and social minorities, as well as on gender and sexuality. Curiously, today it is those countries whose colonial projects have been the most globalizing where we now have these xenophobic and nationalistic attitudes, like in England and the USA. I also agree with the dystopian condition and apocalyptic notion of the Ring of Fire [1] that joins Mexico City and Los Angeles. Maybe we could also include Tokyo, although organized crime and the incompetence of leaders do not seem to be functioning in Asia in the same way.

Maybe an alternative to the obsolete model of the nation-state and these desperate nationalist populisms in times of globalization is the independence and interconnection of cosmopolitan cities that in many cases already function as sanctuaries.

EA: If the discourse that validated globalization is now obsolete, along with that which validated the nation-state, the only things left are places of autonomy and dissidence. In Mexico, there have been many popular struggles in this sense, even before the Zapatista movement. They run parallel and alternatively to the course of progressive globalization. But for right-wing intellectuals to give any credit to these causes is to remain in Roger Bartra’s cage of melancholy.

A few days ago a Mexican critic, Jesús Silva Herzog-Marquez, wrote a piece about the recent Andy Warhol show in Mexico City [2] denouncing the “Warholism” of politics and the fascism of banality which in his view anticipated the time of Trump. It is a very partial criticism of Warhol’s superficiality, which forgets the social movement to which this artist belonged, one that, in its own way, implied a sort of ironic reconfiguration and even a social and sexual liberation, instead of the strengthening of the autocratic, theocratic, and patriarchal system that Trump promotes. A lot of people believe that there is something that wakes up, or that re-emerges from American discontent. But in any case, this return of which you speak is bothersome because it could be understood as national spirit or a certain fatalism of people as if we could not get away from specifically USA issues or specifically Mexican issues. The left and right in both countries are traditional, they respond to a limited amount of premises guided by neoliberalism. I believe that aesthetic thought has in this ground its larger capacity for action and change. Unfortunately, it is co-opted almost immediately by different instances.

ROT: Of course, I am also bothered by this “fatalist” trap of polarized alternatives that supposedly substitute each other with every cycle, when in fact these and other realities have coexisted and are still coexisting, mixed with each other to some degree… And they will coexist in this way in the future. The “Make America Great Again” slogan is particularly absurd and paradoxical in this critique of eternal returns. Which America? “Great Again,” like when? Before the conquest, smallpox, syphilis, genocide, and slavery? The country that has in a certain way—for good or bad—symbolized and materialized the Western ideals of modernity, the new, pluralism, and democracy is today surrendering to an original fake myth. Nationalist positions that have been used to resist colonization, globalization and foreign intervention by imperialist countries are now co-opted (as you mention) to justify these imperialisms in an attempt to specifically avoid pluralism and to limit the rights of supposedly stranger minorities.

I read the criticism you mentioned about banality, frivolity, and the “dictatorship” of fame in Andy Warhol that allegedly justifies Trump. By the way, Trump did not like the silk screens that Warhol made of his tower because they did not color coordinate with the building, and Warhol didn’t like the lying billionaire either because he was cheap and did not buy them. To this great lost “America,” Warhol and the rest of modern and contemporary art are certainly degenerate. Trump on his part has wanted to defund federal support for the arts and even used the adjective used by the Nazis to describe Chris Ofili’s work The Holy Mary Virgin, saying it was “absolutely gross, degenerate.”

I imagine with terror and fascination the possibility of a “neo-Americanism.”

Rubén Ortiz-Torres received his MFA from the California Institute of Arts in 1992. He is a Mexican-born artist who has been living and working in Los Angeles since 1990.

Eduardo Abaroa (b. 1968, Mexico City) earned his Bachelor of Fine Art from the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (UNAM) in 1992 and his Masters of Fine Art from The California Institute of the Arts in 2001.

Notes

[1] The Ring of Fire is a major area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and/or plate movements.

[2] Search for Letras Libres, “Warhol y el fascismo de la banalidad.”

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