Rolando López’s Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum is a collective space of resistance. A (non-) space that exists beyond its limitations and scarcities. A series of practices that insert themselves into the art world via collaborations that all but emerge from invisibility. An institutional critique project that operates on the periphery of a peripheral country. A body of work made possible because its presence is impossible. A dark reminder that modernity’s ideals have failed and that the dream of progress ended up being a machine that destroyed everything in its path.
The work by Rolando López (b. Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1978) traces its origins to the Cerro de la Grasa (“Grease Peak”), a toxic industrial waste dump that takes up approximately ten hectares in his native city, the poisonous legacy that the foundry known as the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana (1894-1924), belonging to philanthropist and art collector Solomon Robert Guggenheim (1861-1949), left behind almost a century before. The US industrialist established his foundry in Mexico’s Bajío region at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to a lucrative contract he signed with the state’s then-governor, Alejandro Vázquez del Mercado, who not only gave him the land but also exempted him from almost all tax liability in exchange for the promise that the metals operation would bring progress and economic prosperity to the region, quite in line with the era’s policies as promoted by then-president Porfirio Díaz.
The much-desired progress did not reach Aguascalientes, and today barely a trace of the mining company remains except the tons of toxic industrial wastes that lie out in the open in the namesake state capital. The Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum brings to light the hazardous legacy the US art patron left in Mexico, yet now clad in the same halo that today defines the cultural and financial machine the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has managed to impose since the middle of the twentieth century, via its lucrative museum franchises operating in New York, Bilbao, Venice, and—coming soon—Abu Dhabi. It’s also worth mentioning two additional sites the foundation approved—in Guadalajara (2009) and Helsinki (2016)—ultimately had to be cancelled due to economic problems and/or rejection from the local community.
While the Guggenheim Foundation promotes itself worldwide as an institution “committed to innovation through collecting, conserving and interpreting modern and contemporary art,” the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum points out the hazardous effects the Guggenheim family metallurgy business left behind in Mexico.
Rolando López materializes his museum through an architectural program that presents an elaborate visualization of the utopian institution, with blueprints, projections, and models displayed according to the same parameters the Guggenheim Foundation applies to each of its new extravagant sites. Nevertheless a difference resides in the fact that the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum does not embrace at its center either luxury or fine design, but rather, the filthy, noxious, and polluted. It is a dark, toxic museum that criticizes and places into crisis the hegemonic structure with which the Guggenheim Foundation, which, according to its 2016 financial report, holds assets equal to $172,577,842, has managed to consolidate its cultural dominance.
2. The Contract
The Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum origins trace back to a contract Rolando López found at the Aguascalientes State Historical Archive, signed by US industrialist Solomon R. Guggenheim and then-governor Alejandro Vázquez del Mercado that called for the construction of a metallurgical plant.
The document coolly and elegantly reveals the privileges and abusive conditions that lay behind this putative economic-development program that the Porfirio Díaz dictatorial regime promoted, behind a façade of positivist ideals regarding order and progress, but that in reality served as a justification for the plundering and exploitation that then existed—and continue to exist—in relation to foreign investment in Mexico and practically every other nation on the periphery.
The contract between Guggenheim and Vázquez del Mercado was signed on April 12, 1894. According to the document, Guggenheim was at that time also president of the Gran Fundición Nacional Mexicana de Monterrey in the state of Nuevo León and created the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana in Aguascalientes, which operated from 1894 to 1924, in order to expand the mining industry. In exchange for a deposit of 4,000 1894-value pesos and a 200,000 pesos infrastructure investment, the industrialist was licensed to exploit the mining operation at the rate of 180 metric tons daily, tax exempt for twenty years, as well as being eligible to receive any other state-owned installation or natural resource. This sort of benefit favoring foreign investment has relevance today because the State of Aguascalientes has promoted a series of automotive plants established under very similar principles. The over-exploitation of natural and human resources as well as the environmental and social impacts the mining industry exacted a century ago are now being replicated by transnational auto-manufacturers.
Solomon Guggenheim, in accordance with the contract’s Article 5, was permitted to establish company stores, an additional mechanism for exploiting workers, since prices for staples they sold (foodstuffs, cheap liquor, clothing, and footwear) greatly exceeded those workers’ wages and racked up debt that compounded exponentially, to such a degree that if a worker was unable to repay the debt in his lifetime, his children or relatives inherited it, in a cycle that has come to be considered a sort of latter-day slavery because it gave rise to debt-servitude.
Article 7 expressly indicates that Guggenheim could dispose of any state-owned property to establish the foundry, its workshops, and out-buildings. Article 8 establishes the same, but for indiscriminate water use as well as that of any other natural resource he might receive free of charge, or—in the case of private property—he was empowered to request its expropriation. This explains, for example, how the San Pedro River lost nearly its entire flow in Aguascalientes due to the mining operation. Article 15 of the contract seems contemporary to a fault since it establishes that one of the mining operation’s considerations was to hire students that had graduated from state schools. This same phenomenon is seen today as Aguascalientes’s public universities have designed their curricula to promote technical degrees that can provide the state’s auto assembly plants with workers to the detriment of social- and humanities-focused careers.
Rolando López developed the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum to attack one of the institutions that has most defined modern and contemporary art’s evolution—and the institutions known as museums—on every level. Along that productive line, López stretches notions like collecting, heritage, memory, architectural design, institutionalization, community, trademark registry, and curatorial programs to their limits to create a corpus of work that deliberately opposes every aesthetic and artistic ideal modern and contemporary museums have promoted for over a century. Using today’s advertising mechanisms, the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum exploits the Guggenheim Foundation to position its brand and area-of-influence worldwide (even copying the typefaces that distinguish the Guggenheim brand). Through high-profile architectural projects that give rise to major gentrifying effects in the cities where they are established (the Guggenheim Bilbao is the archetype of this operation), the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum developed what was in principle a viable (if impossible) architectural program made manifest in blueprints, renderings, models, and three-dimensional projections that explore every possibility the idea of building a museum on the Cerro de la Grasa could offer, to be constructed of the very same toxic wastes that have been left behind in Aguascalientes for a century, ever since the Guggenheim family’s mining operation closed.
López has appropriated every expository device architecture shows use to demonstrate his utopian museum is feasible in terms of construction, since the project started off with a design whose backbone was a series of buttresses that permit the walls’ elevation based on a very common construction technique in this part of Mexico’s Bajío region, specifically, placing stones atop one another to build residences’ walls.
A peculiarity that defines this museum is its break from every modernist desire to put up imposing buildings that make a show of their power by means of weight and height; on the contrary, the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum sinks into the Cerro de la Grasa as if it were a mine. The poisonous legacy is not to be displayed in the traditional white cube, but rather in a sort of cavern flanked by blackened and polluted walls.
In tandem with his utopian architectural project, López has developed a permanent program of activities that take place in or around the Cerro de la Grasa as a means of “leveraging” the filthy legacy philanthropist Guggenheim left behind in Aguascalientes. Notable activities have included concerts (Himno de los durmientes), fashion shows (Porfiados), performance (Under the Same Sun), writing workshops (Taller básico de microhistorias), and painting shows (Escenarios para una piedra), for which the ten hectares of toxic industrial wastes have served as a backdrop. As part of the museum project, López has invited a number of contemporary artists (Daniel Monroy, Néstor Jiménez, Omar Fraire, Axel Flores, Pilar Ramos, and Argel Camacho) to undertake interventions and “residencies” in Aguascalientes and produce artworks from toxic industrial wastes.
As a work structure, López has explored the entire spectrum of production that goes with a museum to place the systems of legitimization which these institutions give rise to into crisis. To that end, he has established alliances with “traditional” institutions (Artpace San Antonio, the Museo de la Ciudad de Querétaro, Mexico City’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, and Wesleyan University) that legitimate his activities at the same time that he questions those entities.
An exercise in historical memory—using critical processes that question power structures in the contemporary art world—is always exploited in the name of creating art with an economy of resources that perennially determines cultural production from the periphery. Therefore, the toxic industrial wastes Solomon Guggenheim left in Aguascalientes are the precise metaphor for enunciating production models from the reality that a cultural hegemony framed by global capitalism imposes.
Based on historical data Rolando López found in Aguascalientes’s public archives and information the Guggenheim Foundation provides regarding how its collection was formed, we can connect operations at the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana (1894-1924) to the moment when Solomon Guggenheim began collecting in New York.
According to the Guggenheim Foundation, it was in 1929 (five years after Solomon Guggenheim shut down his Aguascalientes mining operation) that he began to acquire his large collection of abstract works by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) that today has become the New York foundation’s icon.
It is clear the US industrialist never delivered on the much-coveted progress and economic prosperity he promised upon his arrival in Aguascalientes. But it is logical to suppose profits the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana generated during three decades provided sufficient capital to create one of the greatest modern art collections ever.
It is paradoxical that the most important collection of work by Kandinsky—an artist who developed an entire theory of the spiritual in art—has been assembled thanks to the plundering and overexploitation of natural and human resources that a US mining magnate undertook in an unknown city in Mexico’s Bajío region. For López, this connection between Kandinsky and Aguascalientes, by way of the Guggenheims, becomes key to understanding his own context and presence as a contemporary artist. It is for that reason that—as an additional layer in his project—he proposed an exercise in collective (non) remembering and developed a virtual landscape at the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum based on a virtual reality platform (similar to Second Life, the virtual world where users interact through a character known as an avatar) that recreates the museum López designed online and that, perhaps naturally enough, is to be inaugurated with a major Kandinsky retrospective.
In 2016, he uploaded the exhibition entitled Paisaje con chimenea de fábrica to the virtual version of the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum. It assembles thirty Kandinsky artworks the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation freely publicizes via its website.
López took images of the Kandinsky collection without authorization to appropriate the Guggenheim brand’s distribution model as well as to call attention to the exercise of power that large cultural franchises currently exert at the international level, imposing a global canon. López also chose to appropriate Kandinsky based on the fact that the latter’s works give rise to a fortuitous and resounding bridge between his work and the Gran Fundición Central Mexicana, through one of his early paintings, Landscape with Factory Chimney (1910), painted too early to be executed in line with the abstraction that would lead to Kandinsky’s international fame. But it became the exhibition’s perfect corollary.
A second work, Santa Francisca (1911), coincides with the name of one of the mines Solomon Guggenheim exploited in Aguascalientes. There are few references about the specific theme to which Kandinsky alluded, but in the context of the Aguascalientes Guggenheim Museum’s virtual landscape, its inclusion adds a poetic—and indeed, spiritual—twist.
The rest of the selected works correspond to the abstract period Kandinsky developed after his residency at the Bauhaus. Even more importantly, it coincides with the period when Solomon Guggenheim began to collect the artist and spread his fame around the world. For López, stealing/appropriating/abusing/exploiting/reclaiming the Guggenheim family’s legacy is his greatest commitment, responsibility, and critical legacy.