Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2016
José Luis Barrios and Alesha Mercado Mercado El derrumbe de la estatua: hacia una crítica del arte público (1952–2014) Exh. cat. Mexico City: MUAC-UNAM, 2014. 48 pp. Paper MXN 120.00 (6070261251)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, November 22, 2014–April 5, 2015
El derrumbe de la estatua: hacía una crítica de arte public (1952–2014). Installation view. Photograph by Oliver Santana.

The excellent exhibition El derrumbe de la estatua: hacia una crítica del arte público (1952–2014) (The Falling of the Statue: Toward a Critique of Public Art [1952–2014]) examined developments and shifts in public art practice in Mexico across the last half-century. As the title of the show suggests, the driving premise was to dismantle or topple its traditional definitions. Skillfully curated by José Luis Barrios and Alesha Mercado, the exhibition featured sculptures, models and maquettes, installations, drawings, photography, as well as film and video selected from the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (University Museum of Contemporary Art) (MUAC) and its associated collections. Applying a historical lens to this timely topic, the show brought together an impressive range of artists who were directly, and at times indirectly, related to the challenge of creating public art. Despite the breadth of the exhibition, the curators did not utilize a chronological format, instead favoring the juxtaposition of the historical and the contemporary within a framework of shared themes and approaches. This was a deft choice as it resulted in new connections and dialogues across generations, revealing shared concerns related to monuments and scale, institutionalization, and the construction of history and memory in contested spaces.

The monument and its relationship to public art was one of the most heavily probed topics in the exhibition, which is unsurprising given the impact monuments have had on the landscape of Mexico. From the temples of Pre-Hispanic centers and the large-scale public projects of the nineteenth century, to muralism and the cultural heritage programs implemented after the 1910 Revolution, then to the expansion and urbanization of Mexico City in the 1950s and 1960s, public art not only physically altered public space, it was also used to shape the public’s political and social experience. The exhibition began with 1952, the year of the dedication of the new Ciudad Universitaria (University City), or the expanded campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico) (UNAM), now home to MUAC. This era, referred to as the “Mexican miracle,” presented artists with new opportunities for public works, but the shadow of muralism and its propensity for nation and culture building loomed large. This was expressed in works such as David Alfaro Siqueiros’s 1956 design for a “New University Emblem,” a futuristic (and nationalistic) design featuring eagles; Diego Rivera’s preparatory drawings for never-realized components for the decorative program of the new stadium featuring his signature blending of nationalistic and indigenous themes; and in Carlos Merida’s circa 1952 designs for the President Benito Juárez housing development, which teetered the line of sculpture and mural. Collectively these examples demonstrate a shared belief that plastic integration (a melding of mural painting, sculpture, and architecture) was the new modern, public art. Yet their visions, while aesthetically progressive, retained deep roots in the monumentality of muralism as both a format and a concept, as Barrios elaborates in his short essay for the exhibition catalogue (23–24). As these works acutely show, public art historically has served both to uphold and to tear down symbols of national and cultural identities.

The complex relationship between monuments and urban development was extended into the contemporary context with the inclusion of more recent responses to the definition of public art. These works question the efficacy of large-scale public projects within the context of the country’s failed attempts at modernization. The installation of Pablo Vargas Lugo’s cracked slab of shaped concrete, Banqueta (Diamante) (Sidewalk [Diamond]) (2003), points to the failures of monumental projects to create public spaces, troubling an understanding of how public art relates to real and imaginary landscapes. Another example is Eduardo Abaroa’s now iconic Portable Broken Obelisk (for Street Markets) (1991–93), a remake of Barnett Newman’s 1963 work, but constructed here from the bright-pink plastic tarps used to shade street vendor stalls. His portable monument probes the political and economic power structures that often influence the commissioning of public projects and questions the significance of the local in public art. His portable obelisk points to the precarious position of monuments to speak to increasingly consumerist audiences. With the placement of such contemporary works in dialogue with examples of modernist plastic integration, preexisting conceptions of the monument were destabilized and an uncomfortable and almost distrustful relationship between artist and monumental art began to emerge.

The public monument was drawn further into question with an illuminating examination of public sculpture of the 1960s through the 1980s. Examples by well-known practitioners such as Mathias Goeritz (Serpiente El Eco, 1953), Sebastián (Puerta de Monterrey, 1977), or Federico Silva’s Pre-Hispanic-infused “sacred” sculptures (Altar I, 1988) tackle the importance of marking space and how sculpture might engage the public. The artists included in this section wrestled with the redefinition of sculpture and its relationship to the public on both individual and collective levels. Many utilized geometrism and kineticism to circumvent the use of public art in nation and culture building. Moreover, the desire to redefine public and personal spaces permeated the works in this section. One excellent example was the recreation of Hersúa’s Ambiente circular (Circular Environment). First created in 1974, the sculptural installation acts as an intervention into the museum space, proposing a mediating third space activated by viewer participation. There was also a refreshing consideration of the very local relationship of the university and its public art. In addition to the examples from the 1950s, there were models of sculptures installed on the UNAM campus that were bolstered by the inclusion of Javier Hinojosa’s photographs (2002) of several monuments found in University City.

One of the great achievements of this show was the attention paid to forgotten or under-acknowledged public sculptures, a common symptom. Israel Martínez’s filmed intervention, Pandilleros (Gangsters) (2011), was a standout for its bridging of generational responses to public art and the issue of neglect. Here, a group of young students from the artist’s sound workshop reappropriated a large-scale geometric sculpture into their own personal musical instrument. The original sculpture, created by Helen Escobedo, entitled Coátl (1980), is a rainbow-hued succession of modular metal frames that create a penetrable cube. Escobedo’s work is actually located in a public sculpture park behind the museum, installed among many other examples of geometric sculpture. As is evident in Martínez’s video, Escobedo’s work has been institutionally neglected and subjected to defacement (such as graffiti) by university students. Martínez’s proposal brought to light the interdependency of physical location and public art and suggests the public should be empowered to generate their own spaces, histories, and meanings.

The distancing of public monuments from daily life was a reoccurring theme in the work included in the last sections of the exhibition, which focused on projects that utilize dematerialization and social practices. While issues of monumentality and scale still applied, these works made evident the increasingly troubled and precarious state of public art. Much of this work spoke to a concern with how to generate public art in historically contested spaces. Among other more personal responses to historical space and memory were Francis Alÿs’s interventions into the streets of Mexico City’s historic center. The installation El Colector (The Collector) (1991–92) and video Zócalo, México DF, 20 de Mayo 1999 (1999) reinforce the question of what constitutes a public art using public interventions. These works were placed in a more pointed political context through their installation alongside pieces such as Enrique Ježik’s Valla (Fence) from 2007. This installation of modular steel fencing, mimicking those used by riot police to block protestors, forms the outline of Oaxaca, a state known for its public uprisings around social and political causes. The troubled relationship between art and contentious space was also seen in Ximena Labra’s Tlatelolco Public Space Odyssey (2008), a recreation of the monument to the victims of the 1968 student and workers movement. Taking a witty approach to the serious subject of government repression, the installation successfully addresses the inadequacy of monuments to record historical events and aid in the creation of memory. While the photographs refer less didactically to public art, Teresa Margolles’s series Recados póstumos (Posthumous Messages) (2006) more quietly engages with the socio-political implications of the loss of defined spaces for public interaction. Her images of abandoned and deteriorating movie theaters, once forums for gatherings, are now vacant, relics of an age before DVDs or online streaming that draw audiences to watching from the privacy of their homes. These sections made evident that the crisis of public space—how to define it, how to use it—is a struggle beyond the local conditions of Mexico.

In addition to direct political content, there was also a heightened use of irony, parody, and humor found in much of the work from the 1990s and 2000s. The exhibition ended with Damián Ortega’s Ámerica letrina (American Latrine) (1997). A riff on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), Ortega’s toilet is shaped like a map of Latin America, presenting a pointed critique of the (mis)treatment of public art in the region. Ámerica letrina suggests that “the falling of the statue” has come to its natural end as the monument is reduced to an everyday receptacle for human waste, and this ending reiterates the estrangement of public art from its audience. In his essay, Barrios suggests that public art goes largely unnoticed today, a symptom of the traditional monument’s inability to create meaningful relationships within society, particularly in the face of growing tastes for consumption and spectacle (21). Overall, El derrumbe de la estatua: hacia una crítica del arte público (1952–2014) demonstrated that within this context the need for new definitions and approaches is more prescient and more challenging than ever. However, it was clear that interventions, installations, and ephemeral works have the power to generate new spaces and conversations. Without offering authoritative solutions to the problem of public artworks, the exhibition instead argued that a public art of today must be reinscribed within the local, political moment and leaves us with the question: now that the statue has fallen, what will artists erect in its place?

Arden Decker
independent scholar

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