Tania Pérez Córdova, First-Person Narrator (detail), 2013/2017, marble and prescription cosmetic contact lenses, 4 1/4 × 74 3/4 × 1".

Tania Pérez Córdova, First-Person Narrator (detail), 2013/2017, marble and prescription cosmetic contact lenses, 4 1/4 × 74 3/4 × 1".

Tania Pérez Córdova

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Tania Pérez Córdova, First-Person Narrator (detail), 2013/2017, marble and prescription cosmetic contact lenses, 4 1/4 × 74 3/4 × 1".

For “Smoke, Nearby,” Mexican artist Tania Pérez Córdova’s first US retrospective, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago made the unusual decision of leaving one of its downstairs galleries clear of any dividing walls. The open expanse was bathed in a uniform white light, which lent a still, clinical appearance to the sculptures hanging from, leaning against, or tucked within a series of irregular wooden display structures. These constructions functioned as stations at which the viewer could pause, gradually building conceptual connections between the different sculptures as she navigated the space. Only one work, Detour, 2017—a photograph of smoke curling into the air—hung on the perimeter wall. The photograph staged a missing element of a nearby sculpture, They say it’s like a rock, 2015, an elegantly warped glass plane from which a stick of incense was suspended (the museum’s fire code meant that it could not be lit). Distributed throughout the room were kindred works made from found panes of glass (one taken from the museum’s ceiling above) coupled with other objects, one per work: a jade bracelet, plywood, soap-free cleansing gel, a plastic bag, nail polish, a guitar string, and a cigarette butt. Pithy wall descriptions produced interplays between obdurate materials—bronze, marble, clay, aluminum, earth—and absent things, people, or events: For instance, the captions for Portrait of a Man Unknown and Portrait of a Woman Unknown, both 2013/2017, paintings that replicate the patterns of a man’s shirt and a woman’s dress, informed visitors that the works’ mediums also included the man and woman wearing those clothes. Who these people were, and whether they knew each other, was unclear. Upon initial viewing, these mannered riffs on Fluxus and institutional critique felt overly broad, but on closer inspection, subtle clues unveiled pointed, site-specific narratives. (As it turns out, the man and woman who inspired these paintings are local Chicagoans with whom Pérez Córdova made a “small agreement . . . [they] would pop by [the exhibition] from time to time wearing the shirt [and the dress].”)

The show, curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy, presented Pérez Córdova’s practice as a pointed departure from those of other contemporary Mexican sculptors, such as Abraham Cruzvillegas. As scholar Robin Greeley argues, Cruzvillegas’s references to slums (colonias paracaidistas) in his work have created a recognizable set of signifiers for Mexico City as a specific metropolis, albeit one harshly conditioned by the global economy; by contrast, Pérez Córdova seems to return to the melancholic, placeless poetics of Gabriel Orozco. In Yielding Stone, 1992, Orozco rolled a ball of plasticine in the street as it picked up detritus, consequently immortalizing indexical traces of the external world in its gnarled surface. Pérez Córdova’s We Focus on a Woman Facing Sideways, 2013/2017, similarly refers to a time and a place that we cannot see or experience: The work comprises a Swarovski diamond earring dangling from a brass display, as well as “a woman wearing the other earring” somewhere beyond the institutional space. What social class does this individual occupy; what sort of mobility does she have? 

The practice of incorporating inaccessible elements or events in an artwork has its roots in the postwar avant-garde, from Yves Klein’s “immaterial transfers” to Robert Smithson’s nonsites. Pérez Córdova locates a darker possibility in this tradition with A person possessed by curiosity, 2015, a ceramic bowl with the fossil-like imprint of a Banamex debit card on its surface. The debit card was linked to a real bank account into which the artist deposited money throughout the exhibition’s run. A person possessed likely makes reference to a major money-laundering bust that occurred in 2013, when the Federal Reserve connected Banamex USA, a subsidiary of Citigroup, to Mexican drug cartel activity. If Pérez Córdova imbricates this work in vast flows of politics, finance, and crime, she engages the scale of the individual body in First-Person Narrator, 2013/2017, a marble slab with a shallow depression in which honey, green hazel, and blue cosmetic contact lenses float. Another example of the sinister elegance of Pérez Córdova’s practice, First-Person’s disembodied gaze prompts us to wonder if someone once wore the contacts in an attempt to lighten the color of their eyes. Here the pathos of identity in the Trump era is rendered ghostly and yet acutely physical.

Daniel Quiles