Reviews - Mexico

Fabiola Iza

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Nunca fuimos contemporáneos: XIII Bienal FEMSA

Por Fabiola Iza, Zacatecas, México

After twelve editions in Monterrey and a recent transformation from its old curatorial program with a competing element, for its XIII edition, the Bienal FEMSA decided to make the city of Zacatecas its venue. In a country that still deals with the specters of its colonial past, Zacatecas offers a compact and complex setting—thanks to its strategic geographical position and impressive mineral wealth, the city was once a key piece for the enrichment of the Spanish Colony and, today, the same reasons lead it to be a setting for ecocides, the displacing perpetrated against indigenous groups along with a very high rate of migration—to which is added a unique artistic tradition that has been relegated to the margins of the so-called contemporary art.

As in the previous edition, the Biennial is conceived as a medium-term project (two and a half years) instead of a series of exhibitions that last a couple of months and from which a program of related activities is derived. Thus, the curatorial program addresses its central concerns throughout the length and breadth of two exhibitions, interventions in the public space, a series of public and museographic interventions, and pedagogical and editorial programs. This review, unfortunately, is written based on the visit made during the opening weekend so it will only address the first three mentioned expressions of the program. [1] This will undoubtedly offer an incomplete reading of the global project.

Both in the guide given to the attendees of the Biennial and in the opening speeches, the artistic director, Willy Kautz, explained that it was conceived under the model of an extensive curatorial process, that is, a program composed of several parts that add up resources to enhance something. Instead of using a term such as expansive, which mainly denotes a greater territorial scope, the use of extensive evokes areas such as agriculture, whose extensive method is intended to maximize productivity in the medium term by taking advantage of the natural resources present in the area. In line with the last edition, which appealed to the decrease, this Biennial is again positioned against one of the founding missions of the exhibitions of its predecessor: it rebels (partially) against the duty to present the most innovative and advanced art of the moment. The accurate title of this edition, Nunca fuimos contemporáneos [We were never contemporary], reveals part of the purpose of leaving Monterrey and settling for 18 months in another city: to provoke or speculate about the emergence of a dialogue between recent artistic productions of a globalized interest, the local artistic production and works of a historical nature. Even though such a deformed [2] model is not entirely successful (for the reasons of which I will argue some paragraphs later), the intention to rebel against certain modern ideas—such as progress—that are still the raison d’être of biennials, contaminates all the theoretical frameworks that serves as the driving force of each display, event and resulting product.

When asked “What does it mean to be contemporaries?” many of the museological interventions seek to establish a critical engagement with the present and address urgent local problems while at the same time discoursing with the archive or mission of the museum that houses them. For example, at the Pedro Coronel museum, Javier Hinojosa presents EL TORBELLINO DENTRO DEL TORBELLINO [The torbellino inside the torbellino], a variation of his long META-tepalcates series. The sculptures, resting on wooden benches, are a fluke of pastiche fragments of the distinctive Zacatecan quarry carved with patterns reminiscent of the Baroque style, found by the artist around the city, with fragments of concrete in which he carves motifs inspired by the visual repertoire of the indigenous cultures of Latin America. The sculptures also dialogue with a graphic series by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, part of the museum’s collection, which records a large number of architectural forms reminiscent of Roman culture.

The interventions reach their most powerful moment when they do not attempt to illustrate the complex framework of ideas proposed by the curatorial practices and seeks to deform classic canons in a less literal way. Verónica Gerber realizes this in La máquina distópica (The dystopian machine), a science fiction story narrated through a fotonovela (rewriting of a story by the Zacatecan writer Amparo Dávila), a web oracle (which combines the rewriting of the story of Dávila with a programming based on La máquina estética [The aesthetic machine] of Manuel Felguérez) and a poster that would be placed in different parts of the city center. The work takes as its starting point the current state of the area of Nuevo Mercurio and El Bote, two abandoned mines bordering the city that today are the landscape of a devastating ecological catastrophe, currently toxic dumps that put the population at risk, the which has consumed water contaminated by mining activity for decades.

Nunca fuimos contemporáneos evidences the contrasted and unequal nature of the state of Zacatecas: the fatal consequences of extractive capitalism are enunciated from precincts of one of the most beautiful cities in the country, which received the name Cultural Heritage of Humanity from UNESCO thanks to its architectural gems, that date back to the colonial era, and to the cultural expressions that they protect. Made in collaboration with Regina Tattersfield and the activist group Conservación Humana A.C. (CHAC), the intervention of Eduardo Abaroa to the rooms dedicated to the huixárica culture of the Museo Zacatecano expresses without hesitation this condition. Press releases taken from the archive of CHAC, objects that prove the many attempts to assimilate the huixárica people within the “modern” Mexican society (to eliminate its culture and gain a cheap labor force) and testimonies of its members recorded on video, Códice biocultural huixárica/ 23 años de Conservación Humana AC  [Huixárica biocultural codex / 23 years of Human Conservation AC] establishes within the museum itself an expanded history of the huixáricas people, in relation to the constant defense of its territory and its biodiversity, its sacred sites and its culture by the State, religious groups and, of course, of great companies that covet the resources that these territories possess. The intervention does not intend to develop a plastic style or to consolidate a visual language proposed by Abaroa; this, on the contrary, is subject to the canons dictated by a specific museography and, as a result, many visitors took several minutes to “find” the piece. This anecdote gives rise to address issues such as cultural tourism—superficial and ostentatious consumption—that encourage biennials (even if these fight against such an approach) and raises questions about the marginalization of expressions produced outside a canon, in this case contemporary art as a style, whose responsibility, I dare to point out, is also spectatorial.

Also present in the video Sangre pesada [Heavy Blood] by Naomi Rincón Gallardo, in Fuente de azogue [Quicksilver Fountain] by Plinio Ávila, in the installation El estado de las cosas [The State of Things] by Luis Carrera Maul—and with less vigor in Las bestias, otros mundos y todos ellos [Beasts, other worlds and all of them], an intervention to the Museum of Natural History by Vanessa Rivero—extractive capitalism and its devastating ecological, economic and public health consequences is one of the themes that feeds a good part of the Biennial. These works opened the door to question the role played by large companies operating in Mexico even if FEMSA, the bottler who organizes and finances the Biennial, is not directly identified in any of them for obvious reasons. It will be important to remain attentive to the development of the publishing program, for example, and if this will be a more propitious or effective field to begin to discuss the power relations that the art world maintains with the private initiative. Within the framework of a biennial that seeks to break its yokes, it is urgent to rethink how certain relationships perpetuate the so-called greenwashing, ways of cleaning up corporate images through critical discourses and the sponsorship of diverse cultural activities.

One of the central concerns of the curatorial discourse of Nunca fuimos contemporáneos is to question what it is to be contemporary, based on Bruno Latour’s reflections found in the book We have never been modern, so it seeks to decentralize the prevailing model followed by the biennials and the own centralized political model of the nation, which is fully reflected within the field of contemporary art. A proof of this is found in the fact that, among the artists commissioned to carry out museological interventions and in public space, the vast majority work in Mexico City. In this tenor of inequality, we can think of the two collective exhibitions of the Biennial. The Museo Felguérez presents Geometría sin fin. Una selección de la Colección FEMSA [Geometry without end. A selection of the FEMSA Collection], made under the impeccable curatorship of Daniel Garza Usabiaga, curator of the XIII edition: the exhibition seeks to bring new associations between different representatives of geometric abstraction, thus expanding the studies of this language—and its discussions—in Latin America.

On the other hand, the exhibition housed in the Antiguo Templo de San Agustín, Siempre fuimos contemporáneos [We were always contemporary], wishes to assert the marginality to which many artists of the so-called “province” of the country are limited (basically, any city except Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City). Complying with the inclusive format under which the FEMSA Biennial (which was previously a contest) was initially founded, it brings together more than 50 local artists. The exhibition includes works by the most outstanding Zacatecan painters of the 20th century, whose fame transcended state borders. The curatorial and museographic premise is to make a montage where no hierarchies, artistic authorship or generational categories are established. Although this is achieved at a spatial level thanks to the labyrinthine path designed by Giacomo Castagnola, the quality of the works included is uneven and the relations detonated between pieces are minimal. Compared with Geometría sin fin, this exhibition is perceived as a minor attempt where the affective investment in individual works is small. It is unfair to compare both exhibition exercises (Garza Usabiaga has devoted most of his career to researching modern art and was given access to a collection of historically significant works, while the approach to the work of local artists is based on a very recent contact and in its vast majority are at an early stage of their career) but respecting the formats established in previous editions makes the ambition to destabilize the “biennial” genre from its foundations a futile exercise. Paradoxically, Siempre fuimos contemporáneos seems to make the opposite claim.

Due in part to the ambition to generate a biennial that does not replicate uncritically the modern structures on which it is based, Nunca fuimos contemporáneos suffers at times from a curatorial overtheorizing that is not fully reflected in the interventions to local museums and even less in the curated displays. However, this XIII edition of the FEMSA Biennial is a complex and necessary exercise for rethinking the exhibition models, our demands as spectators of cultural events and, in general, for the national structure of art, which still replicates the much-criticized model of the center and periphery. However, where perhaps this project is most successful is in the questions it gives us, in the obstinate attempt to unravel the Gordian knots that canons and conventions of all kinds offer us.

Fabiola Iza (Mexico City, 1986) is a curator and art historian who lives in Mexico City.


*Translation to English by Isaac Norris


  1. The editorial, in charge of Nicolás Pradilla, as the same as the pedagogical programs began to develop several months before the opening of the exhibition projects, working closely with the local artistic community, both professional and student. The public program takes place a few weeks after the official opening of the Biennial and, under the format of a symposium, the discussion centers around the configuration of the biennials, analyzing examples from different latitudes.

  2. Aware of simplifying the term, it talks about breaking down divisions and hierarchies within the way of presenting the different works.


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