Better in Theory

Mexico City

Left: Writer and curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, chief curator of the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporéneo at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Right: SITAC XI directors Paola Santoscoy and Marcio Harum. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

THE POLYFORUM SIQUEIROS is an absurd, angular structure standing in the shadow of Mexico City’s World Trade Center, in the borough of Benito Juárez. Perched like an eccentric papal hat over a handful of cheap cafes and restaurants, the building breaks up the otherwise endless Avenida de los Insurgentes, said to be the longest street in all of the Americas, which cuts a line like a scar, north to south, through this heaving, hurling megacity of more than twenty million people.

The Polyforum was the last, most ludicrous project by the late Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who set out to make the largest mural in the world—La marcha de la humanidad (The March of Humanity)—a history of his country’s struggles in bombastic bas-relief. A few weeks ago, I found myself turning my back on one of the world’s most captivating and chaotic cities to spend three days inside the Polyforum. It was like crawling into a corner of Siqueiros’s brain and hiding out in his ego.

It also seemed ridiculous. Outside this garish and ungainly artwork, there was a world to change. The city was rumbling toward September with a series of political showdowns in mind. A band of anarchic teachers from the south of the country were on strike in Mexico City: blocking roads, shutting down the airport, barricading the end-all, be-all of public squares (the Zócalo), and forcing the president (Enrique Peña Nieto) to retreat from a high-profile speech. But slugging it out in a place apart—in the space of an overblown painting the size of a building—was exactly what several hundred enthusiasts of contemporary art theory chose to do in their last days of summer. Welcome to SITAC, numero once, themed along the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “being-with-one-another,” or, more poetically in this context, “estar los unos con los otros.”

Left: Fundación Colección Jumex director Patrick Charpenel with curators Marco Granados and Lucia Sanroman. Right: Artist and filmmaker Rafael Ortega.

Mexico City’s Simposio Internacional de Teoría sobre Arte Contemporáneo is one of those famed public forums whose reputation for urgent, timely discourse on topics of art, politics, and history reverberates all over the world. Supported since 2000 by a local organization of professionals and philanthropists known as PAC (Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo), and building on a curious prehistory as the prototypical talks program for an art fair in Guadalajara, the annual event has drawn together an impressive international lineup of tough-minded artists, writers, and curators over the past decade.

Their purpose? To debate, expand, and explode such fields and concepts as resistance (Issa Benitez’s SITAC III, in 2004), catastrophe (Eduardo Aboroa’s SITAC IX in 2011), feminism (Gabriela Rangel’s SITAC VIII, in 2010), the south (Cuauhtémoc Medina’s SITAC VII, in 2009), performance in relation to art history and its institutions (Pablo Helguera’s SITAC IV, in 2005), and the future itself (from the Raqs Media Collective, Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s SITAC X, last year). Woven around and between each edition are the rumored and probably apocryphal stories of artists electrifying audiences, of crowds booing speakers offstage, of rude exchanges, angry outbursts, a scandalous striptease, and withering insults slung like mud among colleagues.

“In Mexico there’s an enormous hunger for this kind of theoretical artistic exchange,” said Helguera, who sits on SITAC’s advisory board. “There are more avenues for it now, but they didn’t exist before.” Given the rough-and-tumble lineage, this year’s proceedings were exceeding, almost disturbingly polite (the audience numbers were also way down, due to an exceptional calendar shuffle, which dislodged the symposium from its usual home in January). It started, however, with a deep sense of unease. After packing into the Polyforum, I thought I had been stricken by illness (immaculate hangover? disorienting hunger? phantom heartbreak?) until I realized that slowly, inexorably, the room really had begun to spin. Such is the Siqueiros shtick. The room rotates, a light show kicks in, and the artist’s voice grumbles onto the PA system to explain the paintings, in case you missed their point. In this case, it was a carnival ride for the Conceptual art set.

Left: Artist Emanuela Ascari with SITAC advisors Pablo Helguera and Sofía Olascoaga. Right: Dealers Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri of kurimanzutto.

After that prelude, Paola Santoscoy, from Mexico City, and Marcio Harum, from São Paulo, directed the symposium with amiable, low-key aplomb. Extracting a constellation of ideas about individuality, collectivity, and conviviality from Nancy’s The Inoperative Community and Being Singular Plural, they enriched them further by adding lodestars such as Occupy, the Arab Spring, Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests, and the “Yo Soy 132” student movement in Mexico, which came into being sixteen months ago as demonstrations against Peña Nieto’s presidency.

Nancy himself does not travel, so his presence was smuggled in through excerpts in a four-volume reader, and interview footage shot at his home in Alsace. “Being in Mexico, we have to talk about the news,” Nancy said, wondering out loud about where to find the essence, effervescence, and friction that were rumored to exist in the streets of the city so often deemed delirious, addicted to risk, obsessed with death, and described, rambunctiously, by William S. Burroughs as “sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.”

Past editions of SITAC have struck a better balance among the art world’s various actors—with artists such as Doris Salcedo, Antoni Muntadas, Thomas Hirschhorn, Tania Bruguera, Marina Abramović, Shirin Neshat, Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Trevor Paglen, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Tino Sehgal holding their own against the likes of Hal Foster, Manuel De Landa, Sarat Maharaj, and Irit Rogoff. This time, the symposium was completely overrun with the twenty-first century’s young, upwardly mobile curator class. At worst, this meant the graduates of curatorial studies programs running through notes for the exhibitions they’d made, peppering their talk with a million tiny mentions of the “potentiality” of a thing.

Left: Curator and editor of the SITAC XI reader Monica Amieva with curator David Miranda of the SITAC XI education program. Right: Critic, curator, and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik.

“I blame Bard,” said an exasperated artist, grousing in the break between sessions. To be fair, the most boring and the most brilliant of all the talks were by alumnae of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, an easy target for anyone’s ire against excessive discursivity (this was a crowd that used “you’re an epistemological impossibility” as the gentlest of insults). But overall, the rigor of historical research and the punch of real storytelling were beyond the capabilities of at least half the speakers, a fact further complicated by a total lack of timekeeping and moderating.

This made the highlights all the more bright and shining, beyond the incidental pleasures of listening to the psychoanalyst Suey Rolnik, a phenomenon unto herself, singing Brazilian love songs, lullaby style, in a van rolling slowly through Mexico City’s legendary traffic; or hearing the ever affable Helguera, an artist who also runs MoMA’s public education programs, talk about the literary history of Latin America, the role of novelists and poets in the development of the region’s art criticism, and the peculiar inability of the always looming Octavio Paz to take any interest whatsoever in Conceptual art; or digging for information from Coleccíon Jumex director Patrick Charpenel on the opening of the new Museo Jumex in November, with a slate of exhibitions ranging in subject from James Lee Byars to Damien Ortega; or following the inimitable logic of the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, another force of wonder, as he divided the world, with absolute certainty, into Trotskyites and Stalinist agents, and then, for fun, rubbed salt in the wound of the local art scene’s by-now-almost-comical split between the camps of Francis Alÿs and Gabriel Orozco.

If the symposium was missing an element of equilibrium, and fundamentally suffered the participation of too few artists (the most tender and performative was Fernando Palma), then the so-called social agenda was almost ruthlessly strategic in its distribution of events: a gallery dinner (kurimanzutto) at the end of day one, a gathering at the home of a collector (Boris Hirmas) at the end of day two, and lunch at a museum (MUAC, the Museo Unversitario Arte Contemporaneo) followed by browsing time (best spent in Miguel Lopez’s marvelous incision into the permanent collection, called “Altered Pulse”) at the end of day three.

Left: Artist and PAC board member Ery Camara. Right: Curators Candice Hopkins and Janet Dees of SITE Santa Fe.

In a panel on collectivity, Alhena Katsof of Public Movement offered dazzling insights into the workings of the shape-shifting Israeli artists group. “Politics exist within our bodies,” she said, “often as dormant knowledge. We’re looking for a way to seal the politics within the action,” a process she likened to “the physical education of becoming a citizen.”

In another panel on language and identity, the curator Candice Hopkins, part of SITE Santa Fe’s new team, zigzagged through an incredible episode in the history of the Klondike gold rush, in which a forgotten festival, the Golden Potlach, created a gender-bending, border-crossing fusion of Native American and European cultures from the desires, obsessions, and illnesses of ramped-up early capitalism.

Mario Bellatín, a Mexican-Peruvian novelist with a cult following who often disorients his audience by cracking jokes about his missing arm (at SITAC, he showed off a tool he uses to manipulate his iPhone, a necessary diversion in the darkness of the Polyforum), gave the most confounding talk of the symposium, totally in character, shrouded in a literary jest, about a “ghost book” no one would publish. “He is a true avant-gardist,” a curator told me. “He might not be the next Roberto Bolaño, but he might be close, and a few years from now, you might find yourself saying, ‘I heard him speak once in Mexico City.’ ”

Left: PAC board members Aimee de Servitje and Patricia Sloane. Right: Artist and architect Tony Chakar.

Speaking of Bolaño, the Turkish curator Övül Durmuşoğlu plucked a choice quote about “super lucidity” from the late Chilean writer’s masterful novel The Savage Detectives as a means of working through the fragility, romance, euphoria, and fear that had been unleashed by the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Would the sharpness and clarity of those emotions be enough to form and sustain a political movement capable of reinventing democracy in our time? To her great credit, Durmuşoğlu expressed high hopes and a modest will.

In two similar veins, the Beirut-based artist and architect Tony Chakar gave an abbreviated version of his lecture-performance “The Space of Nün,” which uses the story of a grandmother distributing mangoes to soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a pretext to explore the potential for radical politics in conveying the many different meanings of love through ritual. Helena Chávez MacGregor, meanwhile, presented a powerful text on apparitions, and the relationship between artistic practice and the space of political action, using the Mexico City protests of 2012 as the spine of her essay. “In the summer of 2012, I appeared with others,” she said. “It was an instant, a community of desire, of dancing in spite of everything. What is at stake is not the invention of a new political model but a change in our understanding of what politics means.”

It wasn’t always clear whether the organizers of SITAC XI were serious in their stated intention to build a living, breathing community in the space of the Polyforum. What emerged without question, however, was a kind of twinned, tensile dream. On one hand was the desire, born of political despair, to appear as a subject, to become visible in a space of protest, to claim a voice, agency. On the other hand was a more delicate, less articulate desire to hold onto and protect some kind of inscrutability for art, to leave it half-hidden, only partially seen, and to allow it the space of silence. That last part came through the final talk, a left-field lecture by the philosopher Vladimir Safatle on the late style of Beethoven, as filtered through the writings of Adorno and Edward Said. An exercise in close listening, it was tonic for the room, and a solace inside the Siqueiros.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Artist Melanie Smith. Right: Critic, curator, and PAC board member Osvaldo Sanchez with artist and writer Yishai Jusidman.

Left: Curators Övül Durmuşoğlu and Manuela Moscoso. Right: Writer and curator Miguel Lopez of Red Conceptualismos del Sur.

Left: Writer and curator Daniela Castro. Right: Curator Maria Chehonadskih.