Irony, Barbary, Sacrilege

Cuauhtémoc Medina

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Beloved Modernity, Who Does Not Forgive

What promised to be the "Age of NAFTA" ended up being the new Burning Plain.1 During the eighties and nineties, the Mexican government and its elites invoked, in ever more exalted terms, the idea that Mexico would finally be integrated into that bleached utopia called "modernity." Despite the panegyrics, it was a selfish wish. "Modernity" had a clear meaning in terms of the economic landscape: accelerated privatization, the dismantling of traditional communal land holdings in the countryside, the internationalization of capital . . . that orthodoxy that is triumphant capitalism's rights of conquest.

Hypothetically, becoming "up-to-date" should mean a lifestyle like that found in the United States and Europe, from the mirage of occidental democracy to the abundance of McDonald's. But, as is stubbornly demonstrated in the history of the supposedly "developing" countries, the conduct of "economic liberalization" cannot be carried out except at the expense of our dreams of political modernity and with the increasingly perfect distribution of inequalities. It is not a paradox, but rather a necessary result of the very violence that "modernization" implies that the Mexican state, along with its Chinese and Cuban compadres, had to make use of the apparently unmodern machinery of ideological, military, and political control in order to impose its restructuring--which modernization could only carry out under the sign of despotism and repression.

Thus the collapse of 1994&endash;1995: the intensification of conflicts among religious and economic sectors; the eruption of political violence; the punctual return of the financial crisis at the end of 1994; the Indian rebellion in Chiapas and the zeal for drowning it in blood, even at the cost of consensus. Once more "modernity" showed its true face, appearing as chaos and social breakdown. How, one must ask, was this chaos expressed in the field of arts and culture in Mexico? In the likeness and image of the distorted premise sustaining its government, contemporary culture in Mexico can be nothing but divided, fluctuating, pallid, and confused. A grandiloquent mixture of mirages and leaps into the void, swinging between the resuscitation of Aztec mummies of the government's discourse, the cosmopolitan dreams of middle-class intellectuals and artists, and the first stammerings of a possible--but still unrealized--critical culture that is unable to properly define itself due to the tricks of its enemy, a criticism that is not articulated because its adversary is cynical and slippery.

Faced with the impossibility of manufacturing a mythology based on the holocausts of neoliberalism, the country's political and economic elites turned their gaze toward that capital, dilapidated now but always available, which is Mexicanism. The international exhibitions "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" and "Europalia," the Mexican Gallery at the British Museum, the collaborationism contained in the sterilized enthronement of the cult of Frida Kahlo, and the transformation of archeological sites into prospectuses for tropical Disneylands, decorated the ephemeral triumphalism of the early nineties that needed to reaffirm the national iconographic apparatus in order to function as a tool of ruthless internationalization. The old prescription was applied: that of historicist pastoralism. The government of the world's oldest revolution attempted to alleviate the absence of an image of the future by trying to reaffirm the thesis of the continuity of the culture's past without conflicts or divisions, since, from the perspective of power, Mexico is an entity where massacre and pillage are hidden behind an image of docility. It is a fruitful association of the new and the old, in which the modernity of the maquiladoras and international competition would coincide with the heritage of "Mexico's greatness," before which any opposition, though it came from the idolatrous Indians, was simply an avoidable annoyance. It is an image for export (one that attracts tourism and is sought when Mexico is considered in the galleries and museums) but an image with a clear sense of itself, serving as a source of legitimization, interpreting a monopoly of power in the likeness and image of its monoliths, and defining the terrain wherein the tasks of intellectuals, writers, and artists--the priests of their faith--are supposedly located.

In effect, this structure that is Mexico's national culture--which survives in spite of a domestic television culture inhabited by home-bred Madonnas who don't mention sex, rap groups without ethnic identity, upper-middle-class punks--is the desiccated child of the intellectual and artistic battles of post-revolutionary Mexico. From Vasconcelos to Octavio Paz, from Diego Rivera to Carlos Fuentes, Mexican intellectuals and artists have constructed a mythology that is precisely that nation that springs to people's lips when they speak of "Mexico." A construct which, due to various causes and political programs, has ended up as an unsalvageable pile of rubble. And, as Roger Bartra said in La Jaula de la Melancolía (The Cage of Melancholy), a construct whose main effect is to make it difficult for contemporary Mexicans to define their political and cultural duties:

. . . the national metadiscourse tends to impede or make more difficult Mexicans' relationship with their past and with the history of the world: history is reduced to hieroglyphics, to static symbols destined to glorify the nation's power and to put good sense to sleep; when one wakes from this dream it is difficult to recognize one's own past and even the presence of the world. We have dreamed of a million mythic heroes, but all that remains of the nation is its ruins.2

Certainly, the cult of nationalism that the Mexican government revived in recent years had become a moribund religion that nobody but ideologues and the mass media could take seriously. In 1987, Bartra believed that the collapse of the idea of a Mexican national culture would cause an inevitable liberation: the nakedness of "desmodernidad":3

Mexicans have been expelled from their national culture: this is why Mexicans pay less and less homage to a metamorphosis thwarted by melancholy, to a progress castrated by backwardness. Mexicans see themselves less and less as that axolote4 which the mirror of national culture offers them as a paradigm of unifying nationalist stoicism. They are not enthusiastic about efficient modernity, nor do they want to revive the promise of a proletarian industrial future. Neither do they believe in a return to the Golden Age, to incipient primitivism. Cast out of their native paradise, they have also been expelled from the future. They have lost their identity, but they don't mourn it: their new world is an apple of discord and contradictions. Without having been modern, they are now unmodern; they are no longer like the batrachian, they are other, they are different.5

Still, theory is one thing and ideology is another. In spite of its sterility, Mexican identity, like that of the PRI (Mexico's rul- ing Institutional Revolutionary Party), is a corpse in good health. In spite of its increasingly frequent appearance in sensationalist political headlines around the world, Mexico continues to cash in on its aroma of cultural peculiarity to the degree that, as a metropolis, it often supplants the image of Latin America. It is a mask that conceals, since each idealization of lo mexicano must be countered with its sociological nemesis: racism with the Museum of Anthropology, Catholic moralizing with the improbable eroticism of Like Water for Chocolate, the PRI dictatorship with the country of surrealism.

The culture of Mexico is the vision projected in the eyes of Mexican presidents when they decide to "disappear" their opponents, or assassinate them.6 It is that entity that gives credence to the paranoia of domestic and foreign threats, that validates the authoritarian acts with which our government periodically oils the machinery of those businesses that are its sole true interest.

One could, like many others, act as if artistic and literary work had nothing to do with such constructs of history, and create a "metropolitan" culture in spite of the curse of nationalism and the atrocities committed in the sacrosanct name of Mexico. But acting as if a situation does not exist just tends to perpetuate it; the task of dynamiting the Mexicanist culture of power has barely begun. The reformulation of Mexican culture that would turn it into a living and liberating entity is still a dream. If the national culture that poisons us is a religion of empty tyrannical images, a subversion is called for that would also be iconographic. At times this would seem to be irony disguised as candidness, at others a revelation of facts contradicting dogma, at still others an amusing sacrilege: as false idolatry, as syncretic dislocation, or as an eschatological profanity.


Javier de la Garza, Aparición de la Papaya, 1989; courtesy of Galería OMR, Mexico City

The Aztec Ghosts

For nine years Javier de la Garza has been painting narratives about the impossibility of Mexico, stories in which the poetry and themes of nationalist mythology are fleshed out as a demonstration of their improbability. These are epiphanies of idolatrous falsehood.

I think nobody could fail to notice that de la Garza's strategies are directly related to those that prevailed in western painting during the eighties: roughly paraphrasing the appropriation of the styles and icons of the first vanguards or stages in the "history of art"; the utilization of ideograms and boxed texts as if to call upon the viewer's skepticism at the ability of painting to transmit its own discourse; the tendency to present more or less central and dominant figures standing out against a background that is not a setting but rather a decorative montage of saturated surfaces, before which the figures clash with their apparent immobility and volume. But, above all, de la Garza's paintings reveal his affiliation with paintings of the eighties in the way in which they are offered as a kind of personal mythology where the paintings seem marked with an excess of oratory accompanied by the impossibility of reading it; this happens either because the painting produces in the viewer an assumption that the artist is keeping some meaning to himself that is displayed as much as it is occluded, or because it combines the stridency of its "messages" with a lack of articulation of its parts.

De la Garza's paintings echo the "postmodern" concern that an opulence of information is a guarantee and expression of the absence of meaning. Thus his work tends to take refuge between mysticism and irony, between the symbolic image and informational indigestion. In this sense, his paintings have meaning only when one considers them in the context that they criticize by reinventing it, the context of the iconography of Mexicanness that Mexican painters and filmmakers developed from the twenties to the fifties, especially those of the sentimental and kitsch branch of melancholy nationality: the films of El Indio Fernández photographed by Gabriel Figueroa, the calendars of Jesús Helguera, María Izquierdo's "metaphysical" paintings and the untouched martyrdom of Frida Kahlo, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Aztec sculpture.

In fact, Mexican art criticism classified de la Garza as part of a movement, which was called "neo-Mexicanism"--a designation that tends to disguise it as mere revival, so that nostalgia also served to nourish official iconography. This was a current which, as art historian and critic Olivier Debroise observed, began in the eighties as an alternative to the internationalization predominant in Mexican art of previous decades, but that became a kind of mainstream for Mexican painting by mid-decade, with all the risks and contradictions that that involved. Paradoxically, what began as irony became a commercial success, partly because it reinforced an image of Mexican painting recovering its national character, but also because it coincided with North American art's new interest in cultural identity.7

Evidently, de la Garza was not trying to pose the reinvigoration of the national myths in his painting, but he cannot deny having participated in this to some degree. Meanwhile, the fact that a taste for his work developed is proof that fossilized Mexican rhetoric is more than capable of assimilating even its heresies. De la Garza has experienced the ambiguities relevant to his points of reference, particularly the difficulty of adequately distinguishing between criticism and homage. His works incorporate that ambiguity, and play on the possibility that the viewer will take them as authentic expressions of the neo-Mexican, while his real intention is to emphasize a paradoxical distance from nationalist myths.


The Border: A Place, Everyplace

One of the paradoxes of Mexicanist culture is the fact of having built its dreams in praise of the mestizo while continually feeling threatened by the possibility of new cultural mixtures. Specifically, it always experiences the threat of meltdown when faced with an image of the American way of life. The other side of the illusion of cosmopolitan Mexican culture is the image of its declining folk culture: as long as the Mexican upper classes define themselves mimetically, they reinforce their dream of the lower classes being identical to their original models, as if cultural assimilation were part of their monopoly on privilege.

Even before going to Los Angeles to study at the California Institute of the Arts, Rubén Ortiz Tórres had shown a special interest in the way in which Mexican and Catholic cultural icons have been affected by the emergence of commercial mass culture in Mexico. However, in recent years his closeness to the border lifestyles that have developed among Chicanos and residents of northern Mexico suggested the need to use these images as a field for the study of cultural misunderstanding.

Rubén Ortiz Tórres, Graceland Apparition / El Vez, 1991; courtesy of Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles

Rubén Ortiz bases his work on the idea that all cultural identity is a hard-won construct of abstraction: the cleanness of disturbing aesthetic elements and the freezing of certain features that are raised to the status of cultural principles, such as the images of Mexico as a rural reservoir of popular Catholicism, and of the United States as a theme park of industrial progress. All identity--and the representation of lo mexicano is an exemplary case--is a political construction. But what is significant in this construction of identity is that despite its artificiality, it ends up being assimilated and applied in daily life, creating a constant instability and an abundance of paradoxes. As Ortiz demonstrates in his video Como leer al Macho Mouse (How to Read Macho Mouse), Emiliano Zapata is caricatured as Speedy González; similarly, Mexican artisans make clay sculptures, in the most traditional style, portraying Donald Duck. Ortiz is particularly interested in those cases that break with cultural taxonomies and generate unexpected dialogues: for example, the way in which the U.S. obsession with the danger of invasions from outer space, provoked in part by immigration, is reflected in Tijuanan paintings on velvet of E.T.

According to Ortiz, the artist's task is not to represent this chaos and put it in order, but to confront the public with the representations that have been made of it, and perhaps to provoke with the disinterested black humor of his own reflections. Thus, Ortiz documents and selects the way in which living culture is practiced in terms of its symbolic abstractions, partly because he is fascinated by that vitality (for example, the opulence of Chicano Low Rider cars) and partly because living culture can only be simultaneously tragic and comic.

His work is a challenge both to the idea (often dreamed of by Mexican artists) of a pure "international" artistic language, and to the utopian notion of representing the identity of a culture through art. In this sense, his work is distinct from Chicano art, which often aspires deliberately to being a symbolic representation of the state of border culture. In contrast, especially in his color photographs, Rubén Ortiz has concentrated on showing that the same evanescence exists in the concept of the Mexico-United States border, whether the moment of the impossibility of recognizing the identifying features of a place is being documented and dramatized in Los Angeles or Mexico City (or many other places). He is interested in those moments when the border is no longer just the Rio Grande dividing line, but becomes a possibility that is latent in any place in North America. Such scenes show the border to be not a place but an aesthetic disturbance.

Ejército Mexicano, Rubén Ortíz Torres. 1992

Recently, Rubén Ortiz has tried to go from the observation of this dislocation to direct intervention. His baseball caps are more than an ironic commentary on the way the emblems of sports teams appropriate cultural stereotypes; they also construct the possibility of a future Mexican-North American identity--one of the conquest and politicization of mass culture. If these caps were actually fashionable, the cultural industries would circulate not just the stereotypes but the paradoxical and self-critical images of the discourse about identity. Basically, Ortiz tests the possibility of surpassing the reservoir of art. His work looks toward a different audience, one for which representations are more than just something to be enjoyed, an audience for which representations may become political weapons: a purely hypothetical audience, probably improbable, but many times implicit in the multiculturalist standpoints. The baseball caps presented as utopian projects, caged in their vitrines, make even more evident the inconvertible distance between artistic practice and mass culture.



Let's explore the premise that ideologies are secular religions, that they turn history into a sacred, fossilized, inaccessible narrative, a written theogony. Museums, with their objects displayed out of reach, devoid of all context or contact, manifest that narrow vision of the past and of tradition, consecrating the idea that only that which is no longer available is culture. It is not just that governments rewrite history to justify their political power, but that once they do this they wall history up so it will not propitiate subversive ideas. The education that inoculates us with one version of history tends to present that version as irrevocable fact, in spite of the fact that academic research on the past is constantly being rewritten, and in spite of the fact that popular historical narratives (such as myths) are constantly erased and reconstructed in the plasticity of memory and the spoken word. One of the keys to hegemony is to keep identity and history always present, while maintaining statism at a distance. In this sense, contact with the past takes place under strict control--paternal control.

In her installations, action videos, and objects, Silvia Gruner has been trying to give form to a concern that we might call sacrilege: approaching memory through corporal contact, dislocating the untouched appearance of history and tradition by means of eschatological eroticization. In a way analogous to how Catholic mystical theology periodically disturbs the structure of official Catholicism, Gruner invites the viewer to have unmediated access to the signs of her culture. Thus, her works frequently emphasize a kind of aura contained in objects: the soul residing in horses or in a bed, the historical presence that phantasmatically inhabits convents and houses, or the iconography of holiness incorporated in a suit. And thus her images, such as the fragrance and color of the soap in one of her installations, are physical emanations and not just visual objects.

Of course, this sacred contact with culture cannot take place without a trace of irony. Silvia Gruner's ceremonies arrive at a certain moment when they bite their tails and metamorphose into jokes and games. Perhaps in this way Silvia tries to ward off the dangers to which a feminist perspective is exposed when it deals with tradition: that is, the temptation to personify it. It is not surprising in the case of Mexico that women such as Frida Kahlo, María Izquierdo, and Tina Modotti are mythicized just when the model of national cultural identity is in crisis; since women tend to be conceptualized with the untouched and irrational essence of nature and culture, for this reason they are summoned when traditional certainties are shaken.

In Don't Fuck With The Past, You Might Get Pregnant (1994), Gruner has perfectly joined this theme of the past taken by force with the need to oppose the myth of femininity as the paradise of identity. The video and stills are presented ambiguously as private ceremony or pornographic archeology. A series of tepalcates, broken clay figures from pre-Columbian agrarian religions that are still frequently turned up in tilled fields, are newly fertilized by the artist's hand. That hand draws the idols to a contact denied by historical narrative, while at the same time representing the past as fornicatable material, as the object of violence. The idol is screwed; the woman's hand paradoxically becomes a phallus. (It is not in vain that patria --Spanish for country, root of "patriotic"--is a feminine derivative of pater.) But as the title of the piece suggests, the escapade is self-rape; it is the artist, and not the past, who might be impregnated by the contact. One would like to see in this "ravishing of the coatlicues" the possibility of freeing the past from its dogmas in order to re-link it with new tasks and a new present.

Silvia Gruner, Don't Fuck With The Past, You Might Get Pregnant (detail), 1994

The isolated, anxious gestures of these images are a metaphor for the tentative pursuit one would like to make of identity and history once the official narrative has expired. It is not in vain; the ancient mythologies tear at us subversively as incest.


The United Nations of Art

International exhibitions come and go; they are the thermometer of the nascent culture of the end of the century. It is no coincidence that they take place. While markets are inundated, in an increasingly irreconcilable and expatriate mass of products, with jeans made in Thailand, Japanese tequila, South African wine, and Brazilian PCs, the arts aspire to the formulation of a clarified, self-aware exchange of provenances.

Certainly this cultural representation is problematic. On the one hand, the multiculturalism that apparently dominates the world art scene tries to be the antidote to that inferno of galactic uniformity that was imagined in the metropolis to be the result of international modernism. But, on the other hand, multiculturalism also presents us with the concept of "national cultures" that romanticism formulated for modern states.

Nevertheless, the international exhibitions that we present and observe, contain, like a sin by definition, the assumption that the artists and the works of art represent their countries; the audiences that attend them continue to expect these exhibitions to reveal some truth about, say, for example, "Mexico and Ireland." This is an illusion; the experience of a society cannot be summarized in an object or image. Yes, a work of art can be involved in the task of giving momentary meaning to a contradictory mass of stimuli--it can, perhaps, aspire to becoming a point of reference or a talisman to help us get through a volatile context--before it falls into the bin of frozen definitions of "cultural patrimony."

But even so, there is a trap, and the trap is set. The fine arts live by the fraud of their transparency. The public walks through the halls of galleries and museums and consumes, instamatically, an image that is practically by definition an immediate unit of meaning, which, in spite of being contradictory and bloody, can be viewed in a second and assimilated like a slogan. We visit Babel as tourists and come back with a snapshot.


The Snapshot

No image can be more eloquent than the snapshot, precisely because it is so anti-glamorous. Nothing in it refers to the aesthetics of war, with its close-ups of resplendent activity and its shameless pursuit of suffering with a human face or glory that has not yet been exterminated--all those signs that are precisely what make an image seem documentary, shouting at us about how important it is. Just the opposite: the decomposition of the scene contains much of the simplemindedness of those shots that stuff family albums in the age of the Instamatic. The actors do not play at rhetoric with their gestures, and nothing in their modesty would seem to give away the act they are committing. There is nothing in them of the savage macho mixture of bandido and hero that feeds the fears of those who predict the awakening of the so-called "Bronco Mexico." They are nothing like the Ché Guevarian guerrilla fighters of student dreams or middle-class nightmares. Something in them makes myths leap out, as well as demons.

Finca Liquidambar, Angel Albino Corzo, 1994. Photo by Omar Meneses / La Jornada

The workers on the Liquidambar ranch in Angel Albino Corzo, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, have taken over the house of the hacienda's owner. It is September, 1994; the photo was taken by Omar Meneses for the newspaper La Jornada. On the walls above the lintel hang four silk-screened prints by Andy Warhol.

One of them, the one on the left, hangs crookedly--as crookedly as the portraits of Benito Juárez or the president tend to hang in Mexican public schools. Marilyn, eternally murdered in her smile, looks dispossessed and bored in her glass prison--so far from the spotlights of Hollywood, as far as the peasants are from Diego Rivera's murals. The photo--which I suppose would be envied by Louise Lawler--shows not only the domestication of art in this setting of neocolonial furniture and lamps of doubtfully aristocratic European parentage, it also makes visible the nature of a contradiction experienced as regularly as our daily bread. No, as romantically and demagogically as we might wish, it is the contradiction of the inability to decide between the past and the future, between poverty and development. Not the halting steps of a transition, but a wound in the social imagery that opens more and more because the government discourse is trying to close it.

Here are the revolutionary Indians, in whose name the Mexican government still governs, and who are the government's worst nightmare. This is the Mexico that the sanitized, drugged image of our national culture does not begin to comprehend, and thus eliminates. The Mexico of growing incomprehension and uncontrollable discontent. What happened to our surrealist country? What happened to magical realism?

In all this, there is only one real shame. The Mexican culture must be true to its anger, or it deserves to be no more.

Translated from Spanish by Ellen Calmus





1 A reference to Juan Rulfo's novel Llanoen llamas.

2 Roger Bartra, La Jaula de la Melancolía: Identidad y Metamorfosos del Mexicano (The Cage of Melancholy: Identity and Metamorphosis of the Mexican) (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1987), p. 241.

3 Bartra's term alludes both to the literal sense of "un-modernity" and the Mexican slang concept of "desmadre" ("without mother"), which means both chaos and uncontrolled feast, depending on the usage, while implicitly referring to "illegitimacy."

4 Axolote is a peculiar batrachian of the salamander family that lives in the lakes of Mexico; it is well-known because it reproduces itself in a larval state, and can stay in that condition until the end of its life without metamorphosis.

5 Bartra, La Jaula de la Melancolía, p. 242.

6 The link between a homogeneous definition of Mexicanist identity and the authoritarian behavior is well proved by the central argument Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo used when he launched the failed military offensive against the Zapatista army on the 9th of February, 1995: ". . . the origin, composition of the leadership, and the goals of the group [of the Zapatista Army] were neither popular, nor indigenous, nor from Chiapas. . . . [and] . . . clearly represent a threat against the Mexican people and public order." (México: Presidencia de la República. Dirección General de Comunicación Social, Press Statement no. 150, February 9, 1995, pp. 3-4). Independently of the question concerning the legitimacy of the government actions, what distinguishes them is the idea of excluding and criminalizing all actions that do not

correspond with the public image of the identity of the population. This implicit charge of "anti-Mexican activities" explains a great deal about the vital importance of the cultural narrative for the Mexican regime.

7 Olivier Debroise, "Javier de la Garza: fusiones," introduction to the exhibition catalogue Javier de la Garza (Mexico City: Galería OMR, 1993), p. 14.



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