Mexico City

Pedro Reyes, Puño rojo (Red Fist), 2013, volcanic stone, concrete, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 3 1/8“. From ”Archivo Centro SCOP."

Pedro Reyes, Puño rojo (Red Fist), 2013, volcanic stone, concrete, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 3 1/8“. From ”Archivo Centro SCOP."

“Archivo(s) Centro SCOP”

Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura

Pedro Reyes, Puño rojo (Red Fist), 2013, volcanic stone, concrete, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 3 1/8“. From ”Archivo Centro SCOP."

What happens to cultural heritage in the aftermath of disaster? The exhibition “Archivo(s) Centro SCOP” reflected on the matter by using the building that houses Mexico City’s Centro Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas (Center for the Ministry of Communications and Public Works), or SCOP, as a case study. Completed in 1954, the edifice became a landmark in Mexican modernism, embodying an idea of public art as entailing the integration of large-scale murals and sculptures into large building complexes dedicated to public service. Gathering documentary material, recent works from five Mexico City–based artists or collectives, and an architectural conservation proposal, the exhibition speculated on the fate of the government building, which faces possible demolition because of damage sustained in the catastrophic earthquake of September 19, 2017.

The murals, through their imagery and grandiose scale, echo the state-sponsored narrative of a direct link between a glorified indigenous past and the history of the modern nation. By contrast, the new works addressed the physical and ideological ruination that the SCOP headquarters now symbolizes. Thus Tercerunquinto—the artists Gabriel Cázares and Rolando Flores—repurposed damaged slabs of blank, grayish stone taken from the site’s main esplanade into a somber “mural.” Here, in contrast to the celebratory identity politics nurtured in the muralism of the 1950s, mourning and loss become the core of what currently binds Mexicans as a people. The research presented in curatorial labels and archival images clarified the political climate in which the SCOP was conceived. Working during the time of the so-called Mexican miracle, a prosperous era that also witnessed the establishment of today’s ruling political class, architect Carlos Lazo sought to create an important administrative center within an urban network. Described as a man who was “either an architect doing politics or a politician doing architecture,” Lazo was rumored to have used the major work to earn a place in the presidential succession. Not only a tool for political indoctrination, the arts were also a possible entryway to power.

Consisting of a thin, teleprompter-like structure balanced with pieces of rubble and against a turquoise velour backdrop, Virginia Colwell’s installation The Keynote Address (Planning for the architectural ruin in Mexico: the mark of a new age of transcendence and the claiming of our cosmic destiny), 2018,created a theatrical situation in which spectators could look over the entire gallery while reading a fictitious speech supposedly delivered by Lazo at an international architecture conference. Through Lazo, Colwell asserts that architecture, in its quest for longevity and endurance, fails to take into consideration an inevitable part of its cycle: decay. We should prepare for the ruin but fail to do so.

Proof of that statement came in Pedro Reyes’s contribution, Puño rojo (Red Fist), 2013. The engaged character of Mexican modernism is evoked in the depiction of a fist made using Juan O’Gorman’s stone mosaic mural technique; by recuperating O’Gorman’s characteristic artisanal method, the work pleads for preservation of muralism’s aesthetics and its ideals. In an accompanying text, Reyes suggests to architect Fernando Romero that SCOP’s pictorial oeuvre be transferred to Mexico City’s New International Airport, Romero’s most recent project, for safekeeping. Romero humbly weighed the request—this potential scenario is glimpsed in an enormous maquette of the future airport, produced by his architectural firm, that covers more than half of the gallery. Unfortunately, the shallow approach proposed for the murals’ integration into a new context and the simplistic attempt to maintain the currency of a past aesthetic movement diminish whatever critical resonance the other artworks on view might have achieved. Romero, one of the founders of the exhibition venue, has been under public scrutiny for the ecological risks his airport project entails, as well as peddling for influence in order to obtain state commissions. At a time when cultural monuments are being ravaged by military conflicts around the world, the exhibition’s driving question about the fate of culture after a catastrophe was a timely one. Yet it inadvertently revealed the power dynamics through which patrimony is handled in Mexico: as private property in the hands of the few.

Fabiola Iza