Violence, corruption, poverty – they’re part of life for many in Mexico. And they’re complex issues that artists there are exploring. “Mexico: Inside Out: Themes in Art Since 1990,” a landmark exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, has gathered work from 23 artists living in the country to look everyday life there. And those artists provide a level of nuance and sophistication that go beyond the headlines:
The first piece you encounter in the exhibition looks more like something you’d see at a rec center. It’s a pair of ping pong tables that intersect to form an X. In the middle is a shallow, four-foot square pond complete with lily pads.
“Instead of you being a passive participant as you walk through, you’re actively engaged in this ping pong game,” says Andrea Karnes, who spent four years curating the exhibition for the Modern. It’s one of the most ambitious looks at contemporary Mexican art in the last decade. “It’s an entirely different way to engage a work of art.”
Artist Gabriel Orozco’s take on ping pong is a lot harder than just having to hit a ball over a tiny net. You’ve got to really think about how you’re going to navigate the game. And you probably need a little more luck than usual.
It’s a perfect way for visitors to reset their minds for experiencing life in Mexico.
There are more than 60 pieces of art in the exhibition. Some can stand on their own as beautiful objects, like Thomas Glassford’s collection of 7,000 broomsticks painted in a rainbow of color. And some require a thorough reading of the description on the wall.
Mexican artist Artemio has piled up 27,000 kilos of dirt taken from the Juarez desert in one corner of a gallery. After a little reading, we learn that the dirt weighs roughly the same as 450 women – all factory workers who have disappeared over the years. They’re presumed dead and buried in that desert.
Later, in a corridor, we’re invited to press our ears against a wall to listen to letters being read aloud.
The letters in Idaid Rodriguez’s piece are from patients of what was once Mexico City’s largest psychiatric hospital. Hearing the voices reminds us that these letters were written by real people. Which makes it all the more tragic when we learn that the hospital was shut down by the Mexican government. The government wanted to rid the city of undesirable citizens ahead of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
In fact, that time period saw a number of instances in which the country clashed with its people as it attempted to dress up for the world. Karnes says the era has had a lasting effect on Mexican artists.
“That moment defined a lot of what artists in Mexico are still dealing with today,” she says. “It was kind of a break from the institution. It was the beginning of artists who, at that time, didn’t care whether they were in the institution or not. They started to open alternative spaces – these kind of DIY spaces – all over Mexico City and just do their own exhibition. Now, ironically, they’re the ones sought after for exhibitions.”
Much of the art deals with specific events in Mexico’s recent history. But one piece stands out as a bridge to the present. In Francis Alÿs’ video installation, we hear a brass band rehearsing a song. But in the video, all we see is a red Volkswagen Beetle driving up a steep dirt road.
When the band makes a mistake and stops, the Beetle rolls sadly back down the hill.
Each time the car attempts the climb, we root for it. It gets tantalizingly close. But in the half-hour long video, it never makes it over the hump.
The piece is a fitting metaphor for Mexico’s attempts to modernize. And it asks us to consider what we’ve seen – in the video, and the exhibition as a whole.
Pessimists will point to a car – and by extension, a country – that never can quite make it to the goal.
But optimists will note that it never stops trying.
Andrea Karnes, the curator of “Mexico: Inside Out,” will be a guest on Think this afternoon. Tune into KERA at 1 to hear the conversation.