Contemporary Art Writing in Mexico: The Intractable and Necessary Issue of Corruption

Teresa Margolles, "¿De qué otra cosa podemos hablar? Bandera flotante, (What Else Could We talk About? Submerged Flag)," 2009.

“Hablar de corrupcion es tocar a Mexico en el corazón,” my mentor said. “Be careful.”

Tocar. Transitive verb meaning: to touch, to feel, to play, to have to do something, to ring, to sound, to touch on, to strike, to be one’s turn, and in some sense it has no direct translation.

I recently began writing reviews of exhibitions in Mexico City for an English-speaking audience. Quickly I started feeling like a remedial parakeet raised on a 24-hour news cycle. Almost every article I write seems to invoke questions of corruption, impunity, violence, or insecurity. Whether talking about a performance artist visiting from Spain, an established Mexican video-art pioneer, emerging artists, or even Michelangelo and Da Vinci retrospectives, there always seems to be a salient reason to somewhere reference rampant political corruption as context.

Every week another story breaks: the President’s house, the Finance Minister’s house, the former Mayor of Mexico City’s house, a friend-of-a-friend disappeared, the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students, more mass graves, the Tlatlaya massacre, Chapo’s escape, the Navarte murders, another friend-of-a-friend murdered, the guards with AK-47’s play-fighting with machetes next door – all this within the last year.

There’s the axiom “if you only have a hammer you see every problem as a nail.” When I write, when I think, when I talk about art in Mexico I often feel like I only have a toolbox full of so many hammers.

Like trying to draw the portrait of a smell, corruption is abstract and hard to quantify, but it’s as common as it is sensitive. There’s a danger in invoking it, even in something as ancillary as context for an artwork, and especially by a foreigner (I’m originally from Los Angeles, born to a Mexican father; I’ve lived in Mexico City for four years). For those who live with it corruption vacillates between daily annoyance to righteous indignation to heartbreak, permeating everything from junior high-school girls’ volleyball games to freedom of the press. Foreigners often abuse the invocation of corruption as a facile dismissal. It’s too easy and tempting to flatten historic, economic, and cultural complexities into a conveniently reductive generalization. Of course Mexico is not the only country with corruption or collusion problems: the LIBOR fixing scandal in England and the sub-prime home mortgage crisis in the United States have just as many, if not much further-reaching economic and social consequences.

While the effects of corruption in Mexico are usually more tangible than, say, abstract derivatives schemes, the difference is that political corruption in Mexico cultivates a system characterized by a lack of legitimate authority: a logic of headlessness and lawlessness which hinders innovation, economic progress, and public safety. It keeps business owners, potential investors, and the general populace afraid of police or government “intervention.” In Mexico there is a near-total absence of trust in law enforcement or in leaders to make decisions in the people’s best interest, be it something as small as maintaining public trashcans and sidewalks, to reforms requiring constitutional amendments.

So when we talk about contemporary art in Mexico, even if the work itself isn’t necessarily overtly political, we often feel the need to discuss the corruption, classism, and political impunity that are background to the works, either in their inspiration, production, presentation, or our own projections.

It would be ridiculous to look for a definitive first intersection between art and politics, even if restricted to Mexican art history. But given their fixture as an international symbol of Mexican history and culture, when thinking about the history of institutional critique in Mexican art perhaps it makes sense to launch a consideration with the muralists. Their works were intended as vocal critiques of government repression and capitalism in general, and were designed so that every person, regardless of literacy level, could understand their message of revolution and labor solidarity. Paradoxically, their work is more symbolic of state propaganda, manipulation of art history, and cultural tourism, than revolution. It has always been confounding that these socialist works celebrating an agrarian revolution are housed in official government buildings in the capitol far away from the people they depict. They are symbols of patrimonial heritage and tourist attraction.

The same state-sponsored manipulations reach back in time to pre-Columbian art. The Museum of Anthropology houses Mexico’s spectacular collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, including the Sunstone and colossal Omec heads. Opened in 1964, at the height of the PRI’s power (the “Institutional Revolutionary Party,” in power for 71 years), the museum is as much a dignified symbol of nationalist pride and cultural heritage as it is the synthesis between ancient history and the power of the state. An association with our mythic and marvelous past for the purposes of legitimization is a common trope for drumming up and exploiting nationalist sentiment, so we don’t need to ask why artifacts from the various Indigenous cultures from different regions of the country are centralized in one museum in the nation’s capital when it would probably be more resonant and respectful of cultural heritage to display them in museums in their place of origin.

The irony is that there has been so much illicit trade, so many fakes passed off as real, so much tampering with the canon, that it’s impossible to know which pieces are genuine or counterfeit. In reaction to the museum as “atavistic symbol of fetishization” of PRI rule, artist Eduardo Abaroa presented his piece Proposal for the total destruction of the Anthropology Museum (2012), not as an act of terrorism, but as an act of rational resistance to this politically-abusive manipulation of the narrative of history.

Abaroa is among the generation of artists who, in the 1990s, became known for producing work criticizing the failure and broken promises of neoliberal policies in Mexico. Works like his Portable Broken Obelisk (for outdoor markets) (1991-93) or Minerva Cuevas’s Mejor Vida Corp were deeply affected by the consequences of globalization, the fall-out of neoliberal economic policies like Nafta, the fall of the price of crude oil, the devaluation of the peso, and the government’s general ineptitude and instability.

Even foreign artists who immigrated to Mexico in the 1990s found themselves producing work responding to the political climate of the time. Melanie Smith’s piece Orange Lush (1995) collected foreign plastic consumer-goods, all the same shade of orange as those that were suddenly flooding Mexico, to examine the friction between consumerism and poverty the city experienced during that decade.

Taking a more overtly political stand, the Belgian, Mexico City-based artist Francis Alÿs began making critical pieces like Vivienda para Todos (1994) in which, on election day, he constructed a tent made of political posters held aloft by the hot air rising out of the subway grates in the Zócalo in front of the National Palace (à la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch). Or Cuentos Patrióticos (1997), in which, again in the Zócalo, Alÿs lead a group of sheep in a circle around the Mexican flag, a reference to the bureaucrats who, when forced to stand in the same spot in support of the government after the 1968 student massacre, instead turned their backs to the National Palace and bleated like sheep.

Histories like the student massacre just before the 1968 Olympics are so well-known and so important to Mexican national history and art history that it’s easy to forget they’re not necessarily registered abroad. When Belle and Sebastian performed in Mexico City, this August, they played a video montage about the Mexico City 1968 Olympics. True to their form it was a twee vintage-y ode romanticizing a time when athletes wore cotton and bowl cuts, but it was done with absolutely no awareness of the political and social charge that the 1968 Olympic Games still carry in Mexico.

The palpable awkwardness of the band’s oversight reminded me of Tercerunquinto’s Desmantelamiento y reinstalación del escudo nacional (“Dismounting and Reinstallation of the National Crest,” 2008), commissioned by the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco. How does one explain that piece without talking about the 71 years under the PRI, the massacre of the peaceful student protesters? The hunting down and murdering of them and anyone caught hiding them in nearby apartments? The government’s ridiculous claim that the students were infiltrated by foreign communist forces? It took forty years and a change in the political party to shed light on what really happed. And yes, four decades later we have proof of what was already understood: it was the state.

In MFA programs it’s not uncommon to hear the criticism, “I don’t understand what’s at stake here.” In the work of the collective SEMEFO and founding member Teresa Margolles, the use of human remains of victims from drug-related violence is brutal and direct but for an artist from Culiacan, a city in Mexico famous for its narcos and violence, there’s no question about what’s at stake.

I remember the first time I saw a piece by the collective SEMEFO. It was my first trip to Mexico City, and we were in MUAC, the art museum of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to see Before the Hangover, a group exhibition of artists whose practice in México City coalesced in the 1990s. The show’s title was a reference to the peso devaluation in 1994, often referred to as the Tequila Crisis. There had been an installation by Vincente Razo titled El Museo Salinas (1996), his bathroom-museum collection of sardonic memorabilia of the Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari: T-shirts, CDs, masks, pamphlets, artisanal and plastic figures of the bald man who was all ears and ‘80s B-movie mustache. Arranged floor-to-ceiling on a wall the color of a UN passport, most of the figures had alebrije-like batwings or horns that made the little Gortaris look like a flock of Satan’s tax attorneys. Then, in the middle of the room a glass fish-tank filled with bones and ashes. “It’s human,” our guide explained.

The power of works by Collectivo SEMEFO and Margolles comes from their direct, unblinking confrontation with the horrific reality of violence and corruption. In 2009 for the Venice Biennial Margolles washed the floors of the Mexican pavilion with bloody water from drug-war victims and replaced the Mexican flag traditionally hung over the front of the door of each pavilion with a white flag stained with dried blood. When it began in to rain, the blood rehydrated and started to drip, staining the sidewalk. The exhibition invitations were little cards with photos of victims that said on the back “use to cut lines of coke,” linking the recreational party drugs of international art soirees with the violence in Mexico. Works like this have a direct lack a poetic nuance, but when facing these kinds of urgent realities, what is the role of poetry?

The narco violence that Margolles refers to in her work extends beyond street dealers and gangsters working for the drug lords, it chokes-off farming, industry, tourism, urban livability, and public safety. The government’s inability to maintain public security, as exemplified by the escape of El Chapo, one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, forces the cost of security onto the private sector. Last year, as a result of a combination of bad weather and ongoing violent clashes between auto-defense groups, narcos and the army in the state of Michoacan, where limes and avocados are grown, caused a lime shortage that drove the wholesale price of a case of limes in the USA up about 450%, from $15 to $100. Drug-related violence reaches spindling fingers into unexpected industries like agriculture, bars and restaurants, and even residential real estate through channels of corruption in Federal government that permit it to continue. Raúl Benítez Manaut, a security analyst at UNAM explains in an article for The New York Times that “corruption allowed drug trafficking to flourish, but that the government had ‘not decided to fight corruption because that would mean fighting against itself, against the sick part of itself’.”

The new Secretario de Función Pública (secretary of public administration), Virgilio Andrade, fills a presidential appointment whose purpose is to ensure public officials abide by the law; he was named in January after a two-year vacancy. Two weeks ago he announced that after a six-month investigation into the alleged “conflict of interest” in the cases of the houses of the President and the Finance Minister, they have found no evidence of corruption, leading them to conclude that there isn’t any.

Reminiscent of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner in terms of its utter farce and distanced truth, Secretary Andrade’s announcement is a sign that, with flagrant daily encroachments on the social contract that people are truly working hard to build, we can’t let the topic drop from public conversation.

Since art is a distillation of the values, views, politics, and culture of a place, and since art is important to the public image that the Mexican government wants to promote internally and abroad, when talking about art in Mexico it is important to mention corruption if only because it’s so pervasive and unavoidable.

As I write this essay the city is already erupting with the sounds of celebration. Tonight President Peña Nieto will make his third annual Grito de Independencía (Cry of Independence) from the National Palace over the Zócalo, and I’m reminded of the advice of another mentor, who said, “There are enough obstacles to make and exhibit artwork. The critique we need to make is of the institutions.”

“Hablar de corrupcion es tocar a Mexico en el corazón.”

Maybe this Independence Day, after all the horror and sham-justice that Mexico has seen this year alone, attention on the heart wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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