Mexico City

“The Age of Discrepancies”

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

IN THE EARLY 1990S, Mexico City played the role more recently occupied by Berlin: peripheral to the art market, yet home to a vital, seemingly organic local art scene and inexpensive rents that drew an international crowd. The market follows the scene, of course, and many of the artists who gathered there soon rose to global visibility, a process that tended to sever them from a Mexican context and history. Such is the contention of Olivier Debroise, Pilar García de Germenos, Cuauhtémoc Medina, and Álvaro Vázquez Mantecón, the curatorial team that organized the extraordinary exhibition “The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968–1997” at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). In fact, they argue, the history of Mexican art has been invisible not only to the international audience but even inside Mexico itself, where the difficult art of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s has been largely ignored. In restoring that history, the curators begin with work from 1968, the year of the Tlatelolco massacre, in which the army gunned down hundreds of students and workers protesting the authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although the survey stretches through 1997, the curators really bookend the period with 1994, when the economic crisis and Zapatista actions in Chiapas presaged the end of the PRI’s domination and opened the era of NAFTA.

Among the exhibition’s many achievements are two so great they almost overshadow the show as a whole. First, the massive catalogue: The collection of essays, short texts, archival images, and reproductions achieves a completeness to which no exhibition could aspire (and is a tremendous gift for those who cannot see the show). The archaeological brilliance of the first half of the exhibition is the other standout; the curators and an army of assistants interviewed hundreds of artists, gallerists, curators, and museographers and tracked down rare multiples and ephemera, including fascinating documentation of artistic actions. The art is nothing less than a revelation: Grupo Suma—just one example—moved from making abstract expressionist paintings on public walls to creating political graphics and staging demonstrations. Compared to this powerful early work, some of what follows can appear trivial or lost. Perhaps the more ambiguous social context of the ’90s makes the art seem less urgent, or perhaps UNAM’s plain, cavernous, almost rough space flatters art that is itself more provisional, like posters, photos, videos, artist’s books, and installations, rather than the sculptures and paintings that dominate the end of the show.

Although “The Age of Discrepancies” initially seems to break into two roughly chronological halves, the curators have actually carefully parsed the work into nine thematic sections traversed by several lines of inquiry. One is the ongoing life of Mexico’s earlier modernist forms, particularly print work and black-and-white photography, and even the occasional mural. The widespread strategy of using cheap graphic techniques to communicate with a broad public is exemplified by Grupo Mira’s stunning posters from the late ’70s, made to raise awareness of issues like poverty and violence. The sections “Urban Strategies” and “Rebellions” are dominated by photography, such as that by the Fotógrafos Independientes, a group of photographers who, from 1976 to 1984, not only shot the streets but exhibited their work there as well. The street—as a source of vitality as well as danger—is in fact a strong theme, appearing in some of the most successful recent work, including that of Vicente Razo Botey, Eduardo Abaroa, Miguel Calderón, and Santiago Sierra. Some artists address urban crime (as did Calderón, for instance, by breaking into a car with collaborator Yoshua Okón), while others made public work, such as Abaroa’s broken obelisk in pink vinyl that was placed in Mexico City’s ubiquitous roving markets.

These practices—mindful of traditional means, social purpose, and current realities—provide an answer to the question of what was or is “Mexican art.” The related question of what or who is “Mexican” becomes increasingly visible over the course of the exhibition, flowering fully in “Identity as Utopia” and “Expulsion from Paradise,” where Javier de la Garza, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Coco Fusco, and others celebrate and satirize indigenous identity. As awareness of the global market grew, so did artists’ awareness of their function of representing Mexico within that market. From the seemingly self-indulgent folkloric portraits by Julio Galán to Jimmie Durham’s grimly funny sculptures (Cortés, 1991–92, and La Malinche, 1988–92, stock allegorical figures in the old story of white invasion and native complicity), an ambivalent neo-Mexicanismo takes center stage in the work of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Traditional folkloric imagery reappears in the final section, “Inclemency,” in Razo Botey’s Museo Salinas, 1996–, a collection of popular effigies of Carlos Salinas—the great modernizer (and Harvard grad)—that sharply indicts the globalization-happy politics of the state and its museums.

The tension between nationalism and globalism is inevitably central to the show; Mexico City’s “hot” art scene of the early ’90s was, after all, partly driven by expatriates (José Bedia, Francis Alÿs, Eugenia Vargas, Thomas Glassford, Melanie Smith, et al., as well as Durham). But the curators complicate any simple account by emphasizing the presence in the ’60s and ’70s of Japanese, Latin American, and European artists like Kazuya Sakai and Marcos Kurtycz, and art movements like Fluxus. The world evoked by the earlier art makes us see that the international character of Mexico City (and its politics) is not a new phenomenon, and it defeats the more mediagenic version of a simple paradigm shift, a Cinderella story of insular local color suddenly discovered and thrust onto the larger stage of modernity. This intricately woven history convinces both as a methodological model and as a reflection of our current reality, in which the younger generation of Mexican artists entering the market seems to desire neither to represent “Mexicanness” nor to embrace anonymous cosmopolitanism.

Katy Siegel, a contributing editor of Artforum, is an associate professor of art history at Hunter College, New York.