Nine Coordinates to EL DF

30 Mar 2010
Rodrigo Hernandez-Gomez

I cannot offer a fair report on the contemporary art scene in Mexico City (aka el DF). “Why not?” you may ask. Well, in most cities this size and age, the amount of hustle is well beyond what I could fit into one entry.  However, it is not impossible to give you a few points of entry or coordinates to el DF. Nine, to be exact.

I will give you a brief run-down on three contemporary art venues worth visiting. Then I’ll take the liberty of recommending four publications that have come out in the past few years on performance art in Latin America, in particular on art collectives and intervention work in Mexico City. These books are important because there are very few documents on Latin American performance and intervention art. Finally, I’ll include a more detailed first-hand account of two performances by La Lleca collective. These performances took place inside a penitentiary in the south-east of Mexico City and not many people, beside the inmates and administrators of the jail, saw them. I draw attention to their work since there is a growing local interest in artistic practices that take on pedagogical concerns within highly politicized contexts.

So, let’s dive right in!

The venues:

There are three contemporary art places that you have to visit in Mexico City. The first is Ex-Teresa Arte Actual, a museum that does not house a collection but instead focuses on presenting performance art, multimedia, and installation work.  The building is a former church built in 1863, so not too long ago. If you see a good performance piece in this building, you are not going to forget it.  For example, I saw a piece by established performance artist Pancho Lopez there, in which he dumped several large sacks of salt all over the floor while wearing a yellow raincoat. The piece was alright, but the overall feeling of the performance in the old architecture has never left me. There are good pictures of the place in the museum’s blog, which they keep up-to-date info on their events. Here is the link: http://www.exteresaarteactual.blogspot.com

The second place I would like to recommend is the Museo Carrillo-Hill. It is out of the usual tourist areas so many visitors do not visit it.  It is, however, an important centre that presents both national and international contemporary artists. It also houses Mr. Carrillo-Hill’s collection and, most importantly, it is a venue open to presenting contemporary work that does not get shown in the main museums of the city.  Last December, they showed Yoshua Okon, from the infamous La Panaderia. This is the link to their site: http://www.museodeartecarrillogil.com

The third place I am suggesting suits people who want to dig deep for interesting events in the city which may not necessarily be glamorous. Go and have a coffee at the Karakola cafe and you will find your way around. Here is the link for that: http://www.carpetakarakola.blogspot.com

The publications:

A recent publication tracing collectives in Mexico during the sixties made me want suggests books for this blog. I have chosen some of the (very) few available among texts on performance art, intervention work, and feminist artists in Latin America. With all four titles, you will have a history that covers from the early sixties to the present: two publications cover intervention art since the sixties in Mexico, another one is focused on women artists since the seventies, and the last is a collection of writing on performance covering nine countries in Latin America. Each chapter is a small history of performance of the represented country. Most of these recommendations are not translated into English, but some translations can be found on the web or by contacting the writers or publishers. (We are actually planning on translating some of the mini histories of performance into English, right here in Toronto!)

Siete grupos de Artistas Visuales de los Setenta. Testimonios y Documentos.
(Seven Groups of Visual Artists from the Seventies: Documents and Testimonies)
by Cristina Híjar González.  Published by Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana. 2008

La Era de la Discrepancia/The Age Of Discrepancies: Arte y Cultura Visual en Mexico/Art And Visual Culture In Mexico 1968-1997:
by Olivier Debroise.  Published by Turner and UNAM.  2007 (bilingual edition)

Rosa Chillante: Mujeres y Performance en Mexico
(Woman and Performance in Mexico)
by Monica Mayer.  Published by CONACULTA and FONCA.  2004

Performance y Arte-Accion en Latin America
(Performance and Action-Art in LatinAmerica)
edited by Josefina Alcazar and Fernando Fuentes.  Published in Mexico by Ediciones Sin Nombre, ExTeresa, and CITRU.  2005

Last December 2009, I had the chance attend two performances by members of La Lleca. The event took place inside the Social Readaptation Center for Men in Sta. Martha Acatitla (in the south east of the city). Both performances involved all 35 members and participants of the collective, some of whom have been involved for years (La Lleca is in its sixth year).

The first performance is premised on a famous TV show, 100 Mexicans said, which was itself an adaptation of Family Feud, a TV game show that brings two families to battle each other for cash. Contestants had to answer questions and the right answer was always the most popular based on a previously conducted survey of 100 people.

La Lleca appropriated this model and re-named it 200 Culprits said. Here, the individuals who came up with the questions, those surveyed, and those playing the game were all inmates of the same prison. The two battling teams were: on one side, the Tiracaldos and, on the other, the Union de Grifos (Stoners Union). Tech support and logistics were provided by participants and members of la Lleca: they took care of the sound system, banners, tarps, and security of personal belongings while two members of La Lleca took the roles of host and hostess. Each team sent one member to the stage to answer the questions. If that member chose the answer that, according to the poll, is most popular, the team got a prize (a lollipop).

The audience was composed of other inmates, directors of the penitentiary and education centre, plus a few custodians. The questions were all on issues of depression, abuse of power, marginalization, and other concerns important to the life of the inmates, including how their relationships with their girlfriends changed while doing time. The directors of the penitentiary were watching closely from the left side of the stage, feeling uneasy because they were put in a difficult position.  When the discussion began, the power structures seemed to become skewed, as it must in any healthy debate. Needless to say, the use and abuse of power what constitutes a jail: without the abuse of force, of drugs, etc, jails would not be able to contain people in them. One question I particularly remember was, “What would you change in the rehabilitation system?” The possible answers were, “a) more ways to earn your release; b) reduction of the number of time one is relocated to other penitentiaries; or c) better relationships between inmates and administrative staff.”

In this performance, the game show premise turned into a euphoric dialogue between the participants and the audience, including the director of the penitentiary who also took the microphone to respond to what she thought were unjustified requests by the inmates. The performance ended with the lollipops being distributed among all the people present while one of the inmates, a member of La Lleca, voiced his reflections on an inmate’s way of life and how an inmate could become more critical.

La Lleca’s second performance, The Bride, was by Lorena Mendez. She appeared from the office of the penitentiary’s school centre in what looked like a miniskirt/wedding dress made of recycled styrofoam cups and that foamy plastic tissue used to protect new monitors. She approached the crowd, got on the stage platform, and walked around the edges of the square stage. She then turned back, walking towards the building, and stopped in front of three large paper panels.

On the first panel she wrote, “education, body, sexuality, prohibited.” On the next, she wrote, “institution, family, school, matrimony.” On the last she wrote, “partner, monogamy, heterosexuality, liberty” before walking back to the stage.

Lorena then spoke to the men in the audience, deconstructing the prescribed roles of a common love relationship. She continued, talking about her close relationship with an inmate, a member of La Lleca. There were comments from the audience about what Lorena was saying, cheering and exclamations of surprise. It slowly turned quiet as she began to tell a story of her mother, an average citizen, who one day decided to ask to see the director of a penitentiary and explained that she wanted to start group sessions with the women inmates. I looked around to see reactions to this personal story and everybody was concentrating, listening. I thought they were all probably wondering what led the woman in the story to make that decision.  Lorena tied this story to talk about a way of caring for others that she learned from her mother, which part of Lorena’s feminist strategies when working with the men in beige through and affective practice.

The performance kept unfolding as Lorena began to call on inmate members of La Lleca, asking them to think how they would like to be photographed for their wedding. Each man assumed a posture that resembled a romantic wedding photo except for one, who asked Lorena to carry him.

It was a very emotional time for everyone. One of the guys whom I had just met and who had been rapping on the microphone earlier approached me and asked if I would exchanged a jade ring that I had on my right hand for his bead necklace he was wearing. After I turned down his offer, he gave me the bead necklace anyway with a genuine hug.

Lorena questions the institutionalization of love relationships, such as matrimony, by twisting its meaning inside an institution that is meant to dehumanize people, people who are for the most part already marginalized in society. She works toward breaking with the control that these institutions have over individual’s loveships/friendships. The pictures taken during the performance work as tangible symbolic markers for the trajectory of the work of reflection, a shift in performed social relations from violence to care and self-worth — carried through performative means. The inmates carry the pictures in their wallets as they move inside the jail —  in the hallways, to their cells, and for Sunday visits with their families in the penitentiary’s yard. These ordinary routes are turned into a network of distribution in La Lleca’s practice.

Both of these performances deal with the larger problematic of imprisonment. They were undertaken with a long-term personal investment by the group which allows for affection to be part of the process. This method also allows a dialog in which performers and participants are in tune, and can speak and question with great insight about matters that are important beyond the security gates of the penitentiary. As much as I am all for this kind of approach, I could not turn a blind eye on the fact that this method is quite fragile and difficult to maintain, much like friendships.

Rodrigo Hernandez-Gomez

By the way, La Lleca is slang for the street.

March 2010

Questions, concerns and complaints email me at: newbecomer@yahoo.ca

All photos attached were taken by Rodrigo Hernandez-Gomez

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