Switching Gears

Fabiola Iza on “Museo Autoservicio” in Mexico City

Sofía Táboas, Cualquier abertura filtrada, giratorio (Any Filtered Opening, Guillotine), 2019, steel and tinted glass, dimensions variable.

AS ELSEWHERE, the impact of social distancing on Mexico City’s artistic activity has been relentless. This year, the closest thing we have to the city’s annual Gallery Weekend, a hectic, weeklong affair canceled due to Covid-19, is the novel initiative “Museo Autoservicio” (Self-Service Museum). Conceived by curator and Mexican modern art scholar Daniel Garza Usabiaga, the project’s first outing, titled “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” and on through December 20, appoints itself (falsely) as “the first-ever drive-thru exhibition.” Installed in the underground parking lot of Antara Fashion Hall, a high-end shopping mall located across the street from Museo Jumex, works from twenty-two artists can be enjoyed from the comfort—and safety—of a car.

“Museo Autoservicio” aims at countering “Zoom fatigue” by offering a new means of viewing contemporary art, summarily dismissing the digital formats toward which most institutions have veered. In June, Garza Usabiaga publicly voiced his skepticism regarding this newfound enthusiasm for digital formats, deeming them “elitist” and helping fuel a debate about a widening class divide. Instead, he promoted an experiential ethos, devising an embodied encounter which, I feared, would be more attuned to a Disneyland attraction.

Luis Barragán and Mathiass Goeritz’s Las torres de Satélite, 1957, in Ciudad Satélite.

Fortunately, that fear was quickly allayed. The exhibition’s vehicular theme is grounded not in our present conundrum but in Garza’s Usabiaga’s academic research into cars as emblematic of modernity. During the 1950s and ’60s, urbanists and artists marveled at this prosthetic machine that allowed what architect Mario Pani termed “metropolis-men” to speedily traverse Mexico City’s ever-changing cityscape. The unfixed viewpoint granted by an automobile is the basis for artistic landmarks such as Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz’s sculptural ensemble Las torres de Satélite (The Satellite City Towers, 1957): five concrete, trilateral pillars of different heights painted in red, orange, white, and blue that stand between two highways that connect Mexico City with Ciudad Satélite, an upper-middle-class suburb. The advertising industry, which also played a pivotal role in shaping midcentury modern life in the city, followed suit, designing “spectacular” ads in response to the scopic possibilities granted by the perspective of an automotive subject. In “Objects in the mirror,” the idea of an artwork transformed by vehicular movement was particularly convincing in Gabriel Rosas Alemán’s geometric steel folding screen Suspension of the Everyday State of Consciousness, 2019; Sofía Táboas’s prismatic glass and metal enclosures, Any Filtered Opening, Revolving and Any Filtered Opening, Guillotine, both 2019; and artist duo Lake Verea’s Frottage of the Wall in Our Studio that We See Every Day, 2020, a tinfoil mural whose depictions of light switches, cracks, and protruding nails express the tediousness that attends pandemic life. (Fleeting headlights whimsically transform the parking lot when hitting the two latter works: Táboas’s tinted glasses refract hues of lilac, mauve, and taupe across the concrete, and for a brief but powerful moment, the tinfoil in Lake Verea’s mural mirrors the headlights’ glare, creating an effect so bright that is almost blinding.) 

Lake Verea, Calca del muro de nuestro estudio que vemos todos los dias (Frottage of the Wall in Our Studio that We See Every Day, 2020, aluminum foil.

Some inclusions abuse tautology—Jerónimo Reyes Retana’s video I35, 2019, is a static shot of an empty parking lot—while others offer little beyond fidelity to the curatorial premise, as with Aldo Chaparro’s “Totem” series, 2020, a trite reiteration of Modernist sculptural tropes. The exhibition is more exciting when it embraces its spectacle-driven aesthetic with works like Cristóbal Gracia’s acrylic sign Wheres the Beef?, 2017, and most successful when it addresses its failure. While the ideal of a utopian metropolis professed by Barragán and his peers may seem now dated—anyone who has experienced Mexico City’s nightmarish traffic will find it outright laughable—the shortcomings of our own era lurk throughout “Objects in the mirror.” Fabiola Torres Alzaga’s 2004 video The Day After considers the boggling corruption that built “El Partenón del Negro Durazo,” a tropical replica of the Greek Parthenon in the coastal state of Guerrero. In stills, the artist portrays the present-day ruination of the architectural folly once home to Arturo “El Negro” Durazo Moreno, Mexico City’s notoriously crooked Chief of Police between 1976 to 1982. Diego Pérez’s Tire Labyrinth, 2004–06, renders painfully visible the ecological impact of cars, while Tomás Díaz Cedeño’s installation of chain-bound concrete stalactites, 1000 Years, 2019, suggest menacing shards of urban decay—a metaphor, perhaps, for our bleak era. The eerie presence of these works as they emerge, due to clever lighting effects, from the parking lot’s darkness was heightened by Fernando Aznar and Fernando Esteban’s ambient, haunted piano-and-string score. To access it, visitors scan a QR code linked to Spotify, and are asked to hit play once their car reaches the green light that marks the beginning of the exhibition.

Jorge Méndez Blake, Haiku para estacionamien (Haiku for Parking), 2020, automobile and books.

Despite my enthusiasm for Garza Usabiaga’s project, I worry that it fails to narrow the class divide even more than its digital counterparts. Whereas cars no longer symbolize progress, they are indeed emblems of privilege, and ever more so today, when journeys through the local public transport system, heavily utilized by working-class people from the outskirts of town, are classified as a high-risk activity due to exposure to the coronavirus. The show’s conspicuous gender gap (four out of twenty-two artists are female) may well be owed to the systematic lack of patronage for women artists in Mexico—such funding is essential for creating work in the large formats required in this context—rather than to curatorial carelessness, but I can’t shake the feeling that it actively perpetuates sexist structures (women are still overwhelmingly underrepresented in museum exhibitions, have a scarce presence on local galleries’ rosters, and their work remains collectively devalued compared to men’s). Furthermore, while the choice of venue is understandable—few businesses or institutions would accept or finance a similar proposal, and the Antara Fashion Hall’s large parking lot is ideal—the bourgeois setting signifies and practically abets social segregation. The compulsory car needed to experience the show can’t help but bring to mind recent protests by the far-right, mostly upper-class Grupo FRENAAA (National Front Against Andres Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s current president), whose followers have, out of sanitary concerns, taken to the streets in their luxury cars rather than by foot. Despite the show’s inventive concept and trappings, I drove away musing about the complicated task taken on by Garza Usabiaga. Should he have focused less on the model and more on the infrastructure itself? The answer still eludes me.  

Fabiola Iza is a curator and art historian based in Mexico City.