New York

“Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values”

With the art-world radar now trained on the slightest aesthetic stirrings in every corner of the globe, it’s only a matter of time before a local scene is written up, mated, and dispensed to a wider audience. Given the buzz around Mexico as a hot cultural exporter, “Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values” might have been another attempt by American and European art institutions to capitalize on foreign trends. But the show’s weighty conceptual title signaled that this grouping of some twenty like-minded artists was a serious endeavor. As presented by P.S. 1 curator Klaus Biesenbach, Mexico City’s having its moment meant seeing good art, including some good political art. “Mexico City” was intended to be complicated, provocative, and troubling and for the most part kept its promise.

For reasons that weren’t fully elaborated by the institution, the show featured about a third fewer artists than had originally been planned. Various absences, such as that of Damián Ortega, whose videos and sculptures made from ordinary materials like tortillas and golf balls are specifically about Mexico, were hard to ignore. Logistical challenges aside, Biesenbach’s vision remained constant throughout. The city was portrayed as a place of extremes—polluted, corrupt, dangerous, and crowded. The sense of an unnavigable condition was perfectly captured in Melanie Smith’s Spiral City, 2002, for which the artist photographed poor neighborhoods at dizzying angles from a helicopter that flew in and out of a haze of smog. This is the same city that’s home to the women of “Ricas y Famosas” (Rich and famous), 1998-2002, Daniela Rossell’s photographs of friends and relatives posing in humid overfurnished environments, surrounded by mountains of possessions and objets d’art. They seem to have it all, but just beyond the marble Jacuzzi lurks danger (chiefly in the form of kidnapping), which one imagines must prevent them from having any real freedom.

In general, the show demonstrated little resistance to the thrills of affliction and violence in pulp narratives. This overstimulating, hyperbolic metropolis was characterized by Alejandro González Iñárritu in his film Amores perros, 2000, which tells interwoven stories of loss, tragedy, and betrayal among different social classes. Miguel Calderón and Yoshua Okón collaborated on another provocative work, A propósito. . . (Incidentally), 1996. A low stack of 120 car stereos created a grid like sculpture behind which rolled choppy video footage projected onto the gallery wall, portraying what viewers could only believe were the two artists breaking into cars and stealing radios (no actual crimes were committed for this piece). Ivan Edeza’s . . . de negocios y placer (of business and pleasure), 2000, unfortunately required no such suspension of disbelief. The video contains incredibly violent and very real scenes of hunters in helicopters brutally gunning down Indians in the Brazilian jungle below and collecting the corpses like trophies. Edeza acquired the tape at a flea market. Although exhibiting this document might be taken as a commentary on the crimes, the easy circulation of such material, and the world’s denial or ignorance of such brutality, as an artistic gesture the piece was facile; its horrible realism posed more questions than it (or the show) seemed prepared to answer.

More productive political work appeared elsewhere in the show. Minerva Cuevas’s Mejor Vida Corporation stages guerrilla actions such as changing product bar codes so that expensive grocery items ring up for less. The group was represented here by Think Global—Act Local, 1999, photographs depicting men wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Nike and other corporate logos. Are we to assume that these people fabricated the clothing in sweatshops, or perhaps that the shirts were knockoffs of corporate originals? Cuevas leaves such questions unanswered. Provocateur Santiago Sierra pressed the issue of unfair labor practices by employing tactics similar to those of an exploitative factory owner: Sierra paid workers a small wage to stitch an American flag onto a heavy length of satiny red tarpaulin. At P.S. 1 the flag was piled on the floor like a huge soft sculpture; in an earlier performance, it was hung on the facade of Museo La Tertulia in Colombia until an anti-American Drotester (unrelated to the project) set it on fire, and it was removed.

Unpredictable environments, where existence seems untenable and governed by pitiless chance, are perhaps more conducive to art than to life. For an artist, the street yields treasuresand Francis Alÿs and Gabriel Kuri know this. Alÿs’s The Collector, 1991, is a small magnetized metal “dog” on wheels that picks up bits of trash from the sidewalk as it is pulled along (P.S. 1 allowed visitors to take the piece outside for a stroll). One photograph by Kuri locates the decorative in a tree trunk dotted with wads of colored chewing gum, and his Untitled (Doy fe/by my faith), 1998, unexaggerated version of a street vendor’s cart in which a giant sculpted pork rind sits under a hot lightbulb, provided welcome levity.

Two crucial questions rippled through the exhibition: How did Mexico City happen? And how did “Mexico City” the show compare to the fraught realities that informed the contemporary art brought together here? As the show’s title implies, what drives the world and its most globalized cities is the currency of bodies, their use as tools of labor (including art making) and the consumer power they wield. Bodies can be targets, objects of desire or derision. Someone always has to be a “them” so there can be an “us.” Traversing “Mexico City,” one was mindful of the fluidity and circularity of power dynamics, cultural as well as social, in which intangible commodities like national identity or subjectivity are often traded—and traded on.

“Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values” is on view at Kunst-Werke Berlin through Jan. 5, 2003.

Meghan Dailey is a frequent contributor to Artforum.