Road to MECA

Linda Yablonsky at the opening of the Macro Espacio para la Cultura y las Artes

Left: Dealer Hilario Galguera and Carlos Lozano de la Torre, governor of Aguascalientes. Right: Artist Jannis Kounellis. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

SO YOU WANT TO RELIEVE contemporary art of the market’s polluting influence?

Come to Aguascalientes!

You want to develop a critical language anchored by history but not shackled to its weight?

Come to Aguascalientes!

You want to open one of the world’s biggest art museums in the middle of nowhere?

Aguascalientes is where you must go.

That’s where a bunch of odd bedfellows—art historians, curators, and politicians—made their way on January 30, when Carlos Lozano de la Torre, governor of Aguascalientes, joined other high-ranking Mexican officials in the state capital, also called Aguascalientes, to cut the ribbon on MECA, or Macro Espacio para la Cultura y las Artes. This event—major for the city—took place beyond the global art world, which knows zip about it.

Well, listen up, artsters! MECA is an institution with a future…and not much else, at least as yet. It has no collection, no curators, no program, no corporate sponsorship, and no private patronage. It does have a whopping 64,500 square feet of column-free exhibition space, a state-of-the-art conservation lab, and a lot of potential for any Kiefers, Serras, Barneys, and Hirsts out there who think on a monumental scale. Meanwhile, for the next six months it can boast “Fireworks over Mexico,” a magnificent site-specific exhibition by that Arte Povera agent of the evocative found object, Jannis Kounellis.

Left: View of “Fireworks over Mexico.” (Photo: Manolis Baboussis) Right: Cultural Institute of Aguascalientes director Dulce Maria Rivas and art historian Doris von Drathen.

On MECA’s chilly opening night, the eighty-year-old artist, who lives in Rome and speaks no Spanish or English, patiently sat onstage, under a starry sky, for ninety minutes of self-congratulatory speechifying by the governor, his first lady, the federal culture minister, the state cultural institute director, and I’m not sure who else. (I don’t speak Spanish either.)

With an actual display of fireworks, guards opened the doors to the museum and five hundred or so shivering VIPs poured into the cavernous glass and red brick lobby. After some serious tequila sipping, they were herded into the exhibition to polkas performed live by the entire Symphony Orchestra of Aguascalientes.

The show, a metaphor for secular resurrection, is simultaneously true to Kounellis and to the history of Aguascalientes, a high-desert state in north-central Mexico that takes the shape of puckered lips. Until de la Torre took over, it was so uninviting that even the drug lords snubbed it. That made the state the safest in Mexico, but safe for what? Once the thriving nerve center of a national passenger rail system dismantled in the 1990s, the capital city now contained little more than a hot-spring-fed spa or two, a baroque cathedral, a small museum dedicated to the native political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, and, most appropriate, the National Museum of Death.

Left: Art historian Bruno Corà with Michelle Kounellis. Right: Curator Nicolas Bourriaud.

Governor de la Torre’s master plan for returning the region to prosperity attracted Nissan Motors, which built its two largest plants outside of Japan in Aguascalientes. Daimler-Benz came next, soon to be joined by the largest beer distributor in Mexico. The clever, seemingly incorruptible governor then funneled hefty tax money paid by these companies into a vast arts complex, with a university, art school, symphony hall, and museum, each converted from Dia:Beacon–size factory buildings that were formerly devoted to the repair and maintenance of railroad cars.

The governor’s wife, Blanca Rivera Rió, has a Ph.D. in art history. To inaugurate the museum with a splash of international cachet, she consulted the Mexico City–based dealer Hilario Galguera, whose gallery roster includes Kounellis and Hirst. With Kounellis on board, Galguera then asked the Italian art historian Bruno Corà to organize a high-level symposium for the opening weekend. Though deliberately scheduled to precede Zona Maco in Mexico City, a forty-five-minute flight away, early arrivals to the fair mostly opted for organized festivities in Guadalajara.

That left the symposium’s fourteen participants—curators like Nicolas Bourriaud, Marie-Laure Bernadac, and Guillermo Santamarina and historians José Springer, Doris von Drathen, and Thomas Crow—to float the art boat at the stiff, opening-night dinner. Galguera gallery artists Benjamin Torres, Daniel Lezama, and the American expat James Brown had a table pretty much to themselves.

After more interminable political speeches by the governor and his wife, Galguera rose to deliver an impassioned appreciation of Kounellis and the works he created for his exhibition. Made with cast-off materials gathered locally over the previous three weeks, they include a mortuary of forty-eight battered and paint-peeled wooden armoires—the railcar repairmen’s old lockers—set horizontally to resemble coffins raised above the polished concrete floor on beds of shale. Twelve wooden folding chairs surround a table, with a centerpiece consisting of a black derby and a pair of black gloves on a carefully folded black coat. Taking up another room is a jungle of rusted rebar that Kounellis installed as fallen crosses that form an iron fence.

Left: Artist James Brown and collector Luis Vasquez. Right: Curator Guillermo Santamarina.

Galguera’s speech praised the show as a tribute to both Aguascalientes and Mexico. That got him an ovation, and provided a warmth that the political grandstanding could not. “It’s not very funny,” Kounellis said of his work, with his wife, Michelle, translating. “But it is substantial!”

That was funny.

At midnight, when dessert was served, the art group left, the better to prepare for the rigors of the symposium, titled “The Drama of Form,” that began early the following morning. I was surprised to see a full house—about three hundred people, notebooks at the ready, sporting earpieces for simultaneous translations in three languages. Many were students and professors from the art school a few yards away. For them, such an international gathering in so isolated a place was amazing. For the rest of us, to spend a weekend immersed in an investigation into the language of art well apart from its commercial or speculative value was also, for these times, unusual.

Lengthy disquisitions by Corà, artist Jose Jimenez, and Bernadac on the sad state of contemporary art compared to the excitements of the 1970s and before—long before—were followed by a snooze-worthy extended lecture on Kant and genius by José Luis Barrios Lara, who seemed to forget that this forum was supposed to be about the drama of art. Up next, thank God, was Father Friedhelm Mennekes, a Jesuit priest from Cologne who became a curator almost by chance, when James Lee Byars challenged him to take out the altar of his church, Saint Peter’s, and replace it with a circular white sculpture between white plinths inscribed with symbolic letters. “You are the altar,” Byars told him. It changed the priest’s life. (That quoted line, however, would make him the butt of backstabbing jokes from his fellow panelists. “To speak about art is to kill the art,” he said.)

Left: MUAC/UNAM curator Patricia Sloane and art historian José Luis Barrios. Right: Father Friedhelm Mennekes.

Nonetheless, Father Mennekes was the first of the day to realize that a thirty-minute talk about visual artworks not present would benefit from slide illustrations, and it made a difference. His presentation of works by Byars, Gary Hill, Barbara Kruger, and Rosemarie Trockel that he risked his job to commission for his church in the ’80s was fascinating and amusing. He closed with a story about the making of a more recent exhibition by Kounellis in Mexico City’s deconsecrated Saint Augustine church, an experience that Mennekes described with all the wonder one wants from art of any age. “Without art, you can’t access the real spirituality of our day,” he said. “Contemporary spirituality cannot live without art.” A wise man.

With the program now running an hour and a half late, participants were forced to nosh on pork sandwiches in the green room backstage. By now it was clear that the two camps present—academics and hands-on curators—were somewhat at odds. Married to their texts, the academics generally thumbed their noses at slide shows, which were obviously useful to everyone else.

The historians seemed to hold the curators suspect, as if they weren’t qualified to speak on the subject, which remained vague, though Crow’s illustrated speech about the “intellectual and moral stake of art” and its distribution in our consumerist society was clarifying. The art world, he proposed, has absorbed the agency that poetry and music used to have in our culture. That was interesting. And true. I was learning a lot, particularly about the egos of academics at war with each other. I hoped for more fireworks at a roundtable that would conclude the conference the following day.

Dinner that night was a poolside pizza party at a hundred-acre ranch outside of town owned by Mexican architect Humberto Artigas (son of the famed modernist architect Francisco Artigas) and his wife, Luz. The couple collects paintings of horses, antique carriages and saddles, and actual horses too. (“I feel like I’m in a narco video,” said Carpe Diem publisher Alexandra Brown.) A white horse was chewing on hay in a stable behind the patio, where the somewhat dazed group of academics partook of thin-crusted pies baked in a wood-burning oven by the table. One had a ham-and-pineapple topping, a Mexican specialty. “It’s actually delicious,” Crow said, digging in. The Artigases age their own tequila in barrels they keep in their custom-fitted bar. It helped those who indulged ward off the desert chill.

Left: Architect Manolis Baboussis. Right: Curator Marie-Laure Bernadac and art historian Stephen Bann.

Stephen Bann, a lovely Britisher who would speak wonderfully of the classical form’s staying power in contemporary art turned into merchandise, passed the time with Bernadac, a curator formerly attached to the Pompidou and then the Louvre. She is obsessed with the Spanish bullfighter José Tomás, reportedly the best in the world. He would perform what was expected to be his last run at the bulls in Mexico City the following day, and she was going. What got her into bullfighting? “Picasso!” she replied.

Day Two proceeded on schedule, as did lunch by the garden at the fanciest hotel in town. Our hosts were Galguera and Dulce Maria Rivas, director of the Aguascalientes cultural institute and de facto director of MECA. We were still puzzling out Santamarina’s emotional speech about the fate of artists today. “What was he talking about?” Corà whispered. “He says, ‘I’m an artist, I’m a teacher, I’m a museum director, I’m a curator.’ What did that have to do with the drama of form?” Well, everything, actually.

Next came Bourriaud, who was fired last year as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris by the sort of politicians who cut the ribbon on MECA, and is now doing for the city of Montpellier, France what he did for Paris when he cofounded the Palais de Tokyo. He spoke of “post-medium” artists he has championed, like Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, who have made exhibitions themselves a medium with their own logic and purpose. Quoting Parreno, he defined an exhibition as “a film without a camera.” Quoting Huyghe, he seemed to agree with the idea of an exhibition as “a place to exhibit someone to something,” not the other way around.

That upset the historian Adachiara Zevi, who sticks to more traditional definitions. “Nicolas invents terms for things that have always existed as if they were new,” she said with contempt. “Adachiara is right,” Michelle Kounellis decided. “What the Italians have to give is history. They are rooted in ideology—that’s crucial!” But, Bourriaud observed, with approval, “Artists today don’t know where they’re going.”

Left: Art historian Thomas Crow, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Aguascalientes Institute of Culture director Dulce Maria Rivas. Right: Artist Daniel Lezama.

The arguments continued. In her talk about parallels in the work of John Cage and Jochen Gerz, von Drathen characterized their purpose as “making life more interesting than art.” What about life in a symposium? Italian critic Marco Vallora castigated nearly all of his fellow panelists, particularly Father Mennekes as an altar. He called Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull “a banality covered with diamonds,” while Kounellis, he said, “makes us feel the voice of silence.”

What I felt was that what people love most about contemporary art isn’t silence but talking about it. The conversation will never die—or be contained in the language of the two-page manifesto that Corà intends to distill from the weekend’s speeches. “I want to come up with a way to talk about art that puts the humanity back into it,” he said. “So much of what is written about art is not about art.”

After the inconclusive roundtable, Dulce Maria Rivas gave each panelist an actual medal and a certificate of service. Really! Next morning, when the whole group boarded a plane for Mexico City, Corà pronounced the forum a success.

Bourriaud’s parting words were different. “Never count on anything going the way it’s supposed to,” he said.