Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico
Below the Underground, one of the many exhibitions included in the robust and multifaceted Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA series of programs supported by the Getty Foundation, stands out for its emphasis on feminist and anti-corporate strategies explored by artists in Mexico in the 1990s. This show, intensely archival without being dry, reconstructs a rich, layered, and relatively recent history of subversion: clandestine performances, ad hoc public forums, experimental galleries, collaborative zines, pirate radio channels, and obscure club nights. Situated as all performance is, and premised on live audience participation, most of the works survive either through selected documentation and ephemera or dexterous recreation, both seen here.
On ViewArmory Center For The Arts
October 15, 2017 – January 22, 2018
Viewers are greeted by the prominent title of a work first presented at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 1995 by the artist collaborative Pinto mi Raya/I Draw My Line (formed in 1989 by Mónica Mayer and Victor Lerma). Justicia y Democracia, written in massive white sans serif letters, which poses a question to visitors: “Here, in this troubled time, what concrete action would you take to reach this utopia?” By “this utopia” they mean the possibilities for a just and democratic society. Presented as both an installation and living archive, viewers are provided with pencils, sheets of lined loose-leaf paper, and a binder where anonymous hand-written responses are gathered. Prior to our current era of frenzied feedback via social media, the use of an analogue comments section such as this allows for statements like “Keep lines of communication open,” reflecting at once an answer to the prompt and a commentary on the artwork itself.
Indeed, by printing its bilingual exhibition guide texts in a font inspired by the ASCII computing language, Below the Underground gestures to the nascent Internet that would have coexisted with the unsanctioned art actions in Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara surveyed here. The narrow, abrupt contours of the characters conjure the utilitarian anonymity of early Bulletin Board Systems (such as The Well) and primitive user-generated graphics. The guide’s design visually correlates the virtual circumvention of authority with the physical “hack” of urban infrastructure by artist and activist collectives.
A doorway cut into the wall where Justicia y Democracia is emblazoned leads to a room featuring documentation from Lorena Orozco Quiyono’s live performance Tres acciones y un texto desesperado (Three Actions and a Desperate Text) (1996). Like Justicia y Democracia, Tres acciones depends on audience cooperation. In the video we see a series of full-length mirrors set up in Mexico City’s crowded Zócalo. One is tinted green, another red, and a third white to connote the Mexican flag. Two cow tongues hang from the red mirror while a nearby stereo plays an audio recording of a girl reciting verbatim from a state-sanctioned textbook. As with Justicia y Democracia, Orozco spray-paints a message that invites reply in turn—“Escribía mi rabia, pon la tuya” (I wrote my rage, put yours)—only this time the artist left spray cans and markers for viewers to use so that by the end of the day these reflective surfaces were thick with layer upon layer of illegible writing. In the 2017 rendition, black and white stills are arranged under Plexiglas on a narrow black plank that leans against the wall. The video is projected directly on the wall at an oblique angle such that the lower left hand corner of the frame overlaps with the floor.
Marcelaygina (Georgina Arizpe and Marcela Quiroga) test standards of acceptable public behavior in their 2000 performance, also set in the Zócalo. The artists engage in ostensibly drunken revelry to mock standards of feminine comportment and to intentionally provoke the attention of cops. When the police intervene, they inadvertently perform themselves (and their masculinity) in the drama’s unfolding, a condition also emblematic of the more mainstream and less overtly political European current of relational aesthetics that dates to this period. Further, divergent scales and styles of social visibility are echoed in the display of the video footage in easily seen and more intimate manners: projected eye-catchingly on a large overhead screen, with portions of the image cast onto the surrounding walls and ceiling of the room, while more footage plays surreptitiously nearby on an upended monitor on the floor.
Feminist sentiment permeates the actions of Orozco and Marcelaygina, in which expectations about the social performance of gender are purposefully undermined, and this coincides with the channeling of the 1970s protest spirit of los grupos that many of the artists assembled here embody. Indeed much of this exhibition unfolds like a regionally specific coda to the concurrent Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. This context suggests the open, public-opinion poll mechanics of Justicia y Democracia are a logical extension of Mayer’s explicitly feminist 1978 performance El tendedero/the Clothesline (featured at the Hammer) in which hundreds of local women aired frustrations with gender oppression in public, on note cards affixed with clothespins to a laundry line.
The female body as a site of critique and its patently feminist inheritance was particularly overt in works by Elvira Santamaría, Lorena Wolffer, and Ema Villanueva. A wall-sized photograph from Santamaría’s Arrastrando un cuerpo (Dragging a body) (1995), shows the artist in a crowded square, holding the corners of a sheet within which her peer—the artist Eugenia Vargas—is stripped naked and motionless. Wolffer’s performance If She is Mexico, Who Beat Her Up? (1997-98) literalizes the “personal is political” in the form of an allegory of troubled U.S.-Mexico relations, as Wolffer assumes the guise of a runway model whose body is covered not only by stylish garments but moderate to severe bruises. Video of her runway appearance plays from a vintage television monitor, while photographs shot in the style of a fashion print campaign are shown in free-standing metal frames reminiscent of in-store marketing displays. Clothing samples hang on a metal rack, while a small table features accessories, including a bright red Everlast boxing glove. Wolffer offers a gendered commentary on a nation’s deceitful performance of well-being within the context of routine, commoditized violence against women.
In Villanueva’s Pasionaria, caminata por la dignidad (Pasionaria, walking for dignity) (2000), color photographs document a walk she took through the streets of Mexico City while scantily clad, inviting those around her to write their opinions of a recent student strike directly on her body so that she became both object and subject of the work. In her street action Clase de dibujo libre (Free drawing class) (2000-present), represented by a single color photograph, she performs as a nude life drawing model who carries on an active discussion about contemporary issues rather than silently posing. As part of the exhibition, artist Artemisa Clark restaged Villanueva’s performance by posing nude for a drawing class. Obviously, set within the context of the community art center of the Armory, the piece was less transgressive than the original.
Formed in Guadalajara in 1997, the performance troop Jalarte Arte Asociación Irregular (Jalarte A.I.) engage in a more discreet defiance, disguising their artist collective with business tropes and maintaining a daily logbook as cumulative performance within their office storefront (Libro de visitas, 1997-98). The appropriation of corporate language and dress carries great political resonance in the historical wake of NAFTA policy, which so readily privileged multinational conglomerates over the Mexican working class. In Museo Salinas (1996) the artist Vicente Razo parodied both museology and mass-market merchandizing in assembling chupacabra caricatures of NAFTA negotiator Carlos Salinas de Gortari (Mexico’s president 1988-1994) in what was originally a private shrine—Razo termed it a “consumerist archaeology”—inside the bathroom of his apartment.
Eduardo Abaroa’s Obelisco roto portatil para mercado ambulantes/ Portable broken obelisk for street markets (1991-1993), in which he reimagined Barnett Newman’s signature modernist sculpture, hacks a more iconic art historical artifact. Using the mercantile apparatus of the tianguis vendor, he translates the Cor-Ten steel sculpture’s iconic equilibrium into a temporary, bright pink replica installed at an open-air market. Steel poles lean against one wall of the exhibition, with the pink plastic tarp that originally stretched across it folded nearby. The inert structure, accompanied by documentary photos, challenges the autonomous solidity of Anglo-American modernism. Newman’s Broken Obelisk breaks open again; its aesthetic purity dismantled in theory as in practice.
Art intended at the outset for exhibition beyond the museum’s walls is notoriously challenging to exhibit. Original objects and artifacts can be hard to come by and textual narration is drawn to the fore. Nonetheless the success of this expansive, intergenerational exhibition is that it translates performance back into action with dedicated multilingual clarity.