Art Is a Cabaret

Claire Bishop on SITAC in Mexico City

Mexico City

Left: Tania Bruguera and Pablo Helguera. Middle: SITAC advertisement. Right: Robert Storr holds forth.

Who knew that the SITAC conference is the art event in Mexico? The fourth International Symposium on Contemporary Art Theory proved to be a nonstop slew of private viewings and collectors’ parties complementing three long days in which a semiglittering array of art historians, theorists and critics slogged it out via an indefatigable (and often incomprehensible) translator. This year’s theme, chosen by artist Pablo Helguera, the symposium’s director and smooth host, was the relationship of art criticism to art history. Given the euphoric amnesia of most art magazines, this was a well-chosen point of departure, even if the resulting discussions managed only to arrive at the consensus that history is a good thing.

The daytime panelists shared a stage with a nightly production of Cabaret, whose low-budget Weimar set, along with the chat-show style of Helguera’s hosting, gave the proceedings a curiously showbiz flavor. Helguera got things rolling by interviewing Shirin Neshat, who looked fabulous enough to numb you to her swooning over the “deep mysticism” of Persian Iran and the inability of Western audiences to “truly understand” her work. Someone later compared her talk to a readymade Andrea Fraser—a spot-on assessment. Neshat-style identity politics have become untouchable, and we need a Fraser (or French and Saunders) to set about dismantling it. Other artists treated to the talk-show format were Hans Haacke and Marina Abramovic. Marina held the capacity crowd spellbound, and everyone erupted into rapturous applause when she finished her tales of endurance and enlightenment. As she bowed before the audience, it was as if she’d rocked legions of fans with a comeback tour at the Auditorio Nacional.

At Wednesday night’s preconference party I’d had my first taste of pollo en mole—chicken in chocolate sauce—and many of the SITAC panels were characterized by a similarly unnerving combination of ingredients. Speakers from different worlds were thrust together in unsavory union, one of the most memorable being Dawn Ades (rigorous Dali art historian), Tania Bruguera (Cuban performance artist) and cute-but-way-out-of-his-depth Massimiliano Gioni (curator and Cattelan puppet). These three had nothing in common but a shared confusion as to why they were invited to talk about marketing and art history. Another ill-advised pairing was a session called “From the Media towards History” which conjoined Thierry de Duve’s “In Bed With Madonna” (a seductive confessional about his relationship to art—basically, it’s like sex) and Cuauhtémoc Medina’s deconstruction of art criticism’s ideological role in founding Mexican national identity. Medina’s demolition of Octavio Paz and Rufino Tamayo hit a raw nerve, turning the audience against the conference’s only Mexican speaker in favour of de Duve (or “Señor Monsieur” as one member of the audience addressed him).

With more thoughtful moderators these panels wouldn’t have seemed so lopsided, and a number of key dropouts didn’t help (Anri Sala, Vasif Kortun, Jens Hoffmann). Sala was replaced by a screening of his video Intervista, 1998, which came as a welcome break from Rob Storr and Paulo Herkenhoff’s interminable stroll down MoMA memory lane. Storr rambled on about Richter, while Herkenhoff bemoaned center-periphery relations and Guy Brett. Less fragrant comments came from arch-grump Donald Kuspit, who hurled insults at Serge Guilbaut and anyone else in his line of sight. Kuspit’s penchant for petty belittling would have been hilarious if he hadn’t been so deadly serious (e.g., to RoseLee Goldberg: “What precisely is the significance of people running around naked?”). Unable to leave immediately because of snowstorms in New York, Kuspit kept up his cantankerousness the next day, snarling chippy comments at Alison Gingeras and Roger Buergel.

So who is Roger Buergel? After three days with him we’re still no closer to the dark horse of Documenta. But at least we got to hear him talk gently about The Government, his recent curatorial effort in Barcelona. I just hope that SITAC’s largely student audience, receiving at least 80 percent of the conference in English, managed to get more from the event than putting famous names to faces. Helguera aimed high, and assembled a brave cross section of new and established figures—but it takes skill and confidence to elicit productive dialogue from such a menagerie. As Thierry de Duve might have put it: The guest list was great, but nobody got laid.