Art junkets always sound good on paper: the allure of expense-paid travel to some distant metropolis; a conference or fair or biennial to dive into; a crash course in the local art scene; a highly condensed bit of gratuitous tourism. Yet inside this pretty Trojan horse lurk a host of challenges that arise when you spend concentrated blocks of time crowded into minivans alongside other art professionals with whom you might not see eye to eye, to put it mildly. Luckily, last weekend’s SITAC conference defied such uneasy expectations. While the “serious” side of the conference was a real mixed bag, forty-eight hours of immersion in the crevices of Mexico City turned out to be criminally fun and absolutely stimulating.
Having arrived for day two of the conference, our morning kicked off at the Teatro de los Insurgentes with an odd, three-way panel (Roger Buergel, Alex Alberro and my jetlagged self) followed by a conversation with Hans Haacke. Even if our presentations didn’t completely jibe, our exchange was totally collegial and even humorous—Alberro and I found some unexpected common ground in the figure of Martin Kippenberger. At lunch Thierry de Duve introduced his tablemates to a deadly combination of tequila and spicy-tomato-juice chaser; thus fortified, I found that the afternoon session hummed by, albeit with occasional moments of total discursive wackiness. I lapped up Dawn Ades’s talk on late Dalí, taking copious notes as she lauded the artist for being “an enemy of modernism”a stance that was something of a metaphorical life jacket in SITAC’s vast sea of politically correct discussion.
After a quick pit stop at the hotel in the early evening, the SITAC crew was shuttled to the Roma district for two private views and a gallery opening before dinner. The three spaces—Garash Galeria, Galeria OMR, and the Galeria Nina Menocal—were impressive in terms of the meticulousness of the presentations, the charisma of those in attendance, and the decaying grandeur of the buildings themselves; though, weary (and wary) of cultural “parachuting,” I couldn’t fully judge the quality of the very young artists on show.
After the Nina Menocal opening, the crowd—SITACers, gallery patrons, artists (including local celebs Francis Alÿs and Miguel Calderón) and a few handsome hipsters—all wound up in a nearby social club called Covadonga—apparently a fixture for postopening dinners and artists’ late-night drinking sessions, and, with its colorful cast of mostly older men swilling tequila and playing dominoes, a pleasantly far cry from the networking of Pastis or the “M’a tu vu?” of Café Beabourg. I ran into my friend Claire Bishop at a table with a few local artists. Two of her companions—artists Mauricio “Lord Byron” Guillen and Stefan “Gordo” Bruggemann—offered to take us out for an introductory taste of Mexico City’s nocturnal life. So began an odyssey that involved several nightclubs (including an amazing trannie joint called Hysteria), a cruise through Garibaldi Square for a mariachi-band serenade, and an initiation into toques—a strange electrocution ritual/bar game.
Needless to say, the concluding session of SITAC was rough on a few hours of sleep. After the official closing panel and lunch, memories of the previous night’s adventures beckoned us to skip the nap and keep going. Leaving the Teatro de los Insurgentes and its opulent-Marxist Diego Rivera mural, Claire and I hooked up with Mauricio again—along with Fernando Ortega and Jonathan Hernandez, two of the more interesting artists from local gallery Kurimanzutto’s stable—for some daytime sightseeing. Our afternoon dérive took us past many famous landmarks, current hotspots, and numerous prosaic-yet-poetic street scenes that conjured readymade works by the likes of Alÿs or Gabriel Orozco. I got a sense of how densely woven the city’s pop-cultural fiber is, and how numerous its aesthetic ghosts (Kahlo, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros). It was edifying to hear how our companions navigated such a strong context in their own art practices. Our last stop was the crowded, highly animated opening of artist Xavis Rolo’s show in a warehouse in El Centro. Despite the gentrification of Mexico City and its incorporation into the list of current art-world hotspots (e.g. Warsaw, Istanbul, Bangkok, etc.), such artist-run initiatives seem still to be the scene’s lifeblood, and thankfully have not yet made it onto the pages of Wallpaper Navigator.