Mexico City

Héctor Zamora, Movimientos emisores de existencia (Existence-Emitting Movements), 2019. Performance view, Labor, Mexico City, February 5, 2019. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

Héctor Zamora, Movimientos emisores de existencia (Existence-Emitting Movements), 2019. Performance view, Labor, Mexico City, February 5, 2019. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

Héctor Zamora

As objects, the individual pieces in Héctor Zamora’s exhibition “Movimientos emisores de existencia” (Existence-Emitting Movements) were intriguing. Gathered together in a large oblong island at the center of the gallery, they were clay forms that looked like terra-cotta shells but were in fact vases, the kind that many cultures around the world have historically used to store essentials such as water and oil. These vases, however, would never be employed for such purposes. Zamora had 650 of them put on the floor when they were still fresh, unfired clay. He then, in a performance on the opening day, lined up a group of seven women in black tunics and had them step on each vessel. The woomph of air as it was expelled from the vases filled the crowded gallery. The work was said to originate in the artist’s fascination with feminine figures carrying water on their heads. He thinks this indispensable type of labor is “efficient, elegant and sensual.”

This was not the first time Zamora has dealt with so-called gendered labor. In his 2017 piece Memorándum at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City, he set up scaffolding around the walls of the museum, where forty-eight identically dressed female typists sat at little wooden desks tapping out their own biographies on old-school typewriters. Sadly, the ribbons were depleted, so the women typed and typed but nothing was clearly printed. As they finished each page, they threw it down into the center of the room, where the blank sheets piled up. The piece was conceived by Zamora as a protest against the invisibility of the labor of secretaries in a “misogynist capitalist workforce.”

The work in this show was also ostensibly a protest. The clay vessels, the instruments of physical labor, were, according to the press release, like uteri carefully carried by women. But worry not about this regressive—and trans-excluding—essentialism, because the women in the performance, by stepping on these objects, were supposedly not only smashing the patriarchy but also transforming wombs into vulvas, which, of course, stand for free sexuality. Never mind that not all women have vulvas, uteri, or the willingness to use them. The language surrounding this artwork suggests that such women are simply not as free as those who do.

If previous Zamora exercises have told us anything, he will probably adapt the show for another country and venue and have a different group of women perform it. Regardless, it won’t be a collaboration. The performers’ agency is limited to deciding to partake or not: yes or no, a check or none. (I hope they are paid.) Even in a show intended to highlight the labor of women and their lack of choices, the power dynamics inherent in their relations with male employers are glossed over with choreographed silence.

I really wish one didn’t have to point out the insurmountable inadequacy of having women’s protests orchestrated, aestheticized, and monetized by a male artist. However sincerely this show was put together, however earnest its half-baked message was, it could not amount to a sound critique as long as the sole purpose of the manual labor of women continues to be to amass recognition and wealth for a man.