Reading time: 6 minutes
Parque Galería, Ciudad de México
September 15, 2018 – October 13, 2018
In his book “The Cage of Melancholy”, Roger Bartra defines the national character as a political necessity that contributes to laying the foundations of a national device to which the sovereignty of the Mexican State must correspond. Bartra’s proposal of transgressing in order to understand the way the Mexican character has been interpreted is taken up by Juan Caloca in “Change of State” as an invitation to transform matter in order to reveal new perspectives and critical approaches to all that which is considered as national.
Caloca’s works address the country’s social and political life from a critical and counter-official perspective. His pieces and performance actions, many of them carried out in collaboration, have been interested in recovering the historical memory by pointing out parallels between the past and the political present of the nation, and in questioning the hegemonic construction of national identity and its national symbols. In 1984, the Mexican government passed a law prohibiting the modification or misuse of the flag, coat of arms, and anthem, ensuring that they are only used to aggrandize the state. Blind worship of patriotic symbols freeze identity in a uniform vision, which in the Mexican case is closely linked to a PRI-concocted nationalism that functions as a mechanism of ideological control over society. Over the years, many activities typified in the Federal Criminal Code as an “outrage against national symbols” took place. Examples of these are a set of actions entitled “Entrails of the Nation”, as well as the installations, subversive files, and a video game resulting from a research called “Outrages against the Nation”. The totality of Caloca’s work to date is marked by the desire to question the nationalism reflected in the celebration of Independence, the worst years of the War on Drugs, and the systematic repression endorsed by the recently passed Internal Security Law. His work has questioned the boundaries of what is considered legal to give it a new significance based on specific actions: drink, sing, file, vomit, disarticulate, infiltrate, wave.
The works gathered in this exhibition are studies on the deconstruction of the aesthetics of power and its representations through two key symbols: the coat of arms and the flagpole. The absent flag is important because it denotes an evanescent State; a suitable, voluntary withdrawal that leaves the field clear for other repressive forces to take its place. While Caloca initially focused on the patriotic symbols as a whole, he is now looking into the symbolism of their parts. Colors and fragments of power, when decontextualized, acquire a nearly-mystical dimension. The pieces included in “Change of State” address the transformation of symbols and a sensitive analysis of what deconstructing an emblem, a flag or a flagpole imply beyond their recognizable forms as representations of power. Through painting, embroidery, installation, sculpture, and ambience, Caloca performs an additional series of actions on matter: he dismembers, abstracts, tears apart, penetrates, and transforms it. In doing so, part of the patriotic symbols are taken back to a state prior to institutionalization, generating discomfort in the bodies of those present in the room, and acquiring new dimensions that converge with the popular use of several elements.
Every flagpole has its own spearhead, turning it not only into a weapon, but also making it look like the head of a serpent. Precisely, in “Machine of war”, the flag is presented to us as ouroboros; the serpent devouring itself evokes symbolisms of the passage of time and the continuity of life, but also of eternal Sisifean struggle. Other sculptures show flagpoles penetrating printed copies of the Federal Criminal Code and a book on civil law in both versions of “The legislation taken to its ultimate consequences conducts to an infernal State, where the human being is an insignificant gear of the Leviathan it transforms into”. Like bull horns, the flagpoles enunciate the implicit violence of the Internal Security Law and its militarization of police activities. Hobbes’ Leviathan, advocating for the absolute power of a monarch and a strong State where people relinquish their freedoms in exchange for protection, aiming to avoid the war of all against all, is not very distanced from the rationale behind this law. The sculpture diptych entitled “The Hours of Extermination (Mass Grave)” consists of two flagpoles turned into a gravedigging pick and shovel. The chrome-plated tools accompanying government officials during every official ceremony, inaugurating every work of infrastructure come across as accomplices of the State and the army in the forced disappearances in Mexico.
The second set of works acts on the shield, separating the minimum components that comprise it. In “Future Evanescence (Altepetl)”, a vaporizer spreads the vapors of a mixture of Lake Texcoco’s polluted waters and the victorious drops of laurel essence, creating a potentially disgusting sensory environment. The disappearing Altepetl is not Pre-Hispanic, but rather serves as a commentary on the current political situation of a progressive fading of the State. A series of twenty embroideries in gold tear up the coat of arms –as we commonly see it on coins, official medals, stamps, official templates, and similar objects– into barely recognizable parts, thus demonstrating a fragmentation beyond the possibility of repair. Nevertheless, the title “Big Bang” suggests there’s life beyond the explosion.
In the preface to Manlio Brusatin’s “The History of Colors”, French philosopher Louis Marin wrote, “Colors are ideological adventures in the material and cultural history of the West.” The title piece of the exhibition takes the elements of the coat of arms –cactus fruit, snake, water from the Texcoco Lake, obsidian, shells, Altepetl, turquoise, oak, eagle, laurel, nopal, and jade– and turns the materials into pigments used in a series of twelve monochrome paintings. The mythical scene represented in the coat of arms, which depicts an eagledevouring a serpent, perched on a blossoming cactus, was used by the Mexica people in Pre-Hispanic times, then during the colony, and finally during the republic, when it was amended on many occasions until it became a perfect representation of Mexican officialdom’s national mestizaje –a widespread concept expressing the merging of Indigenous and Spanish blood. The process to create “Change of State” involved visiting several markets, contacting taxidermists and a geologist, and traveling to the remnants of Lake Texcoco. Ironically, obsidian –a black gemstone of great importance to the Pre-Hispanic world– had to be acquired abroad. The current uses of the coat of arms’ components are diverse, but include cooking, traditional medicine, witchcraft, jewelry; whereas others –the land, the lake’s polluted water– are only matter. In Andean colonial painting, image representations bore the meaning of the materials they were painted with. In other words, Christian images were venerated and, through them, the sacredness of the materials used to make the pigments used. Something similar occurs with the emblem used in “Change of State”, which –forbidden as it is to use the actual image– choses an abstraction impregnated of mystical power. That is, people worshipped through images, but the sacred was actually the matter with which the colored powders were made. A similar spell occurs with the coat of arms in “Change of State” that, having been denied the image, opts for an abstraction that is imbued with mystical power.
As a whole, the pieces suggest relationships between elements, the idea of nation and the current state of the country. Things never disappear; they only change eternally. Matter never ceases to exist; it is only transformed.
Text by Marina Reyes Franco