Los Angeles

Fernando Palma Rodríguez, Soldado (Soldier), 2001, mixed media, electronic circuits and sensors, dimensions variable. Photo: Ed Mumford.

Fernando Palma Rodríguez, Soldado (Soldier), 2001, mixed media, electronic circuits and sensors, dimensions variable. Photo: Ed Mumford.

Fernando Palma Rodríguez

House of Gaga

A small red robot with a coyote head pivoted. It drew back, ready to take a step, but found itself tethered to a rock. Its agency was neutralized by this unjust mechanism, yet it was still threatening, as its blade-clad hands rotated menacingly. Just like its blue double, on view in a simultaneous exhibition across the country, the work is titled Soldado.

The architect of this machine, Fernando Palma Rodríguez—an artist, engineer, and activist—is based in Milpa Alta, a key agricultural region near Mexico City, where, in addition to his studio, he runs a not-for-profit institution dedicated to the preservation of the indigenous Nahuatl language (historically spoken in the Aztec Empire and today spoken by more than one and a half million people) as well as its speakers’ approach to society, nature, and culture. This show, connected to his concurrent exhibition at MOMA PS1, New York, contained familiar characters (both cartoon and mythological) and repeating materials and concerns, including the idea that preserving a language involves not only using and recording it in untranslated form—e.g., the sometimes hybrid or alternating Spanish-Nahuatl titles of his works—but also safeguarding the ways in which it configures speakers’ interactions with the world, thus the artist’s references to Aztec codices. Often drafted in Nahuatl, in a mix of pictorial and alphabetic forms, these ancient accordion books depict aspects of rural Mesoamerican civic life (religious beliefs, social structures, natural histories, as well as agricultural practices) in various eras.

One distinct quality of the Nahuatl language is its substantial use of compounding, to the extent that a single word can feasibly constitute an entire sentence. Similarly, Palma Rodríguez compounds meanings through cultural references and forms, assembling microchip technology and sophisticated wiring patches into lo-fi animated sculptures intricately fashioned with graphic lines and bold colors. Palma Rodríguez also makes pointed material choices: Cast-off pieces of life—a worker’s gloves, masks, palm fronds, corn husks—are resuscitated via mechanics and motion sensors.

Back in the California gallery, at the threshold of the show’s two rooms, a masked figure extended its cyborg hand and held a precariously pivoting chair while wooden snakes twitched in an electric dance around it. At the foot of a set of stairs, smaller versions of the sculpture spawned, multiplying its effect. In the second room of the show, two tall, accessorized ladders controlled by sensors jetted jarringly toward each other in short, irregular bursts, requiring the viewer to retreat swiftly. Visible motors and pulleys set the various pieces in motion, restraining them only to reset the cycle. As stated in the show’s press release, the animatronics stand in for mythological creatures, stories, and principles, and their limited range further likens them to self-contained, repeating parables.

Distributed evenly throughout the show, these pieces created a cosmological landscape akin to the pages of the codices by which they were inspired. The codices, however, are not “records” in the modern sense, nor are they precisely stories. Though they stage characters as narratives, their form is not linear but rather pictographic: Each character (and similarly, in this instance, each object) is a symbol, possessing a self-contained cultural meaning and story. Here, in this show, symbols became things that were beyond anthropomorphized; they were given agency.

While appearing improvised, these sophisticated mechanisms (mechanical illustrations of mythologies) capture the corollary between contemporary human relationships with technology and ancient human relationships with deities. New technology has altered the way we view the natural world, and every day we devotedly surrender major aspects of our lives to machines. We even hope that technology, as it evolves alongside us, through us, will resolve some of the most pressing concerns of our time, and just in time.

Beginning with the reuse of materials and continuing through the choice of subjects, the artist’s approach—drawn from ancestral knowledge and ideology, revised by his lived experience on the same land—exemplifies a responsible, appreciative attitude toward shared resources, one we must rekindle to temper the environmental crises weathering our world. This show united the stakes Palma Rodríguez holds in various cultures and stressed the exponentially urgent concerns of not solely sustainable, but rather regenerative, practices—in agriculture, art, and language alike.

Lauren Mackler