For this post, I spoke with Cuauhtémoc Medina, a Mexico City-based art critic, curator and historian who has a PhD in History and Theory of Art from the University of Essex, and a BA in History from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), Mexico City. He is a researcher at UNAM and has most recently curated the latest edition of MANIFESTA9 European Biennial of Contemporary Art. Medina was Tate Modern’s first Associate Curator of Latin American art.
Mariana Aguirre: What do you think are the most important changes that have occurred in Mexico City since the publication of La Era de la Discrepancia in 2006, in which a team including Olivier Debroise and yourself analyzed the recent history of this scene?
Cuauhtémoc Medina: I am surprised that the integration of Mexico City’s art scene into that of the global art world has solidified. Had you asked me in 2005, 2006, I probably would have wrongly predicted that these waves of international attention were usually short, that in three, four years, the gaze of the art world would shift and only a few names would remain.
The reason the scene has stabilized and grown is, to a great extent, related to several structural transformations. There has been a complete change in the class inscription of art in Mexico. For the first time since the beginning of the twentieth century, the upper classes are interested in contemporary art and are backing the development of artists even if their work is critical of the social system. This is a completely new situation that is not uncommon in other parts of the world; there has been an extension of the interests of a new elite that sees in contemporary art a space for intervention, expression and a site of prestige.
There has also been an improvement in the institutions devoted to contemporary art and the networks around them. Museums, which in Mexico are mostly financed by the state, have upgraded their operations significantly. The national university (UNAM) became a major player with the creation of the MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo) in 2008. MUAC has brought a sense of ambition to this scene not only in terms of the amount of space it devotes to art, but also by bringing a more general audience into the dialogue. You can now see exhibits where hundreds of thousands of people are in attendance, such as Cildo Meireles’ in 2010.
MUAC has, in turn, challenged other museums, like the Museo Tamayo, the Sala Siqueiros, and the MAM (Museo de Arte Moderno) to become more ambitious, and they have reactivated their collecting, which had been dormant for decades, developed more complex academic and educational programs, and upgraded their facilities and budgets. In a few years, when the first private museum of contemporary art will open with the Jumex collection, Mexico City will be one of the cities with the largest concentrations of contemporary art institutions in the world. Beyond that, it is no longer the case that the artists are the ones lending these institutions prestige, since these institutions have a standing of their own. The way those institutions have created both social networks and intellectual communities explains their growing social significance as well.
Finally, there is a sense in which the political implications of contemporary practice are becoming increasingly visible within the public scene, sometimes provoking conflict and scandal. It is very significant, very interesting, that works by Miguel Ventura or Teresa Margolles have become national news, and this has, contrary to what the bureaucracy would fear, fortified the scene.
MA: Can you tell us what you think changed in order to allow for the rise of these institutions and for the continuing visibility of Mexican artists in the international scene?
CM: I would say that there is a more general issue, in terms of the general landscape of culture in the country. The other arts, the other cultural fields, are not being as energetic and socially committed as contemporary art is in terms of their relationship with the historical moment we live in, its extreme violence, and its density. There are some exceptions in that respect: writers like Élmer Mendoza, who have tried to develop a novel form akin to the times of narco-genocide we live in, have managed to become part of a quest to discuss a very complicated time, but contemporary art has for the moment a major role in defining what a politically informed cultural practice can be.
We witness, in fact, a shift in the relative weight of different cultural practices in the public life of the country. There is a sense in which all along the twentieth century, in Mexico, different literary groups, the literary magazines, and above all, the main writers of the century, were the focus of social and cultural interest, as well as the hinge between the political classes and the cultured society. The figure of the “literary tastemaker” is finally gone. Carlos Monsiváis, the last public intellectual of stature, the person that developed our tastes, defined our moods and defined the task of an awareness of the texture of the contradictions of national life, has died. It is likely that he will be the last writer that engaged in an attempt to provide the diagnosis and temperature and emotional response of this society as whole. Additionally, the literary field has somehow receded. Writers are not as constantly provoking changes in form and political attitude, and certainly they are no longer controlling the other cultural fields. The contemporary art world is, somehow, beyond their reach.
Apart from that, in the last fifteen years of the so-called democratic transition, the government and the presidency got rid of the symbolic pressure of intellectuals. They have effectively dismissed the role of the intelligentsia, they don’t try to co-opt dissidents, and in the case of someone like the disputed elected president of this country (Peña Nieto), they can go around the world, happily, publicly showing that they don’t even read. However, it is worth noting that the contestation against Peña Nieto is related to that illiteracy, and that the origin of #yosoy132 [movement against Peña Nieto] and other recent oppositional forces relates to that moment when the candidate failed to name three books during Guadalajara’s book fair in November of 2011.
Precisely that reaction suggests this point of fracture; the field of culture in Mexico is no longer as immediately enmeshed in questioning the political structure as it used to be, but people expect culture to have an important political role in society. It is in that void that contemporary art involves a question of what is political and an attempt to repoliticize cultural practices and transform their effects.
MA: In terms of contemporary art, it is very frustrating that outside of Mexico City, other cities lack the same pace, consistency, and more importantly, institutions with the same level of quality.
CM: Indeed, but asking about those issues to a Mexico City critic and curator might be problematic in itself. The critique of the cultural centralism of Mexico cannot be accomplished by asking those in Mexico City to take care of what is happening in the rest of the country, for that would just reinforce that centralism. I understand that the country and its cultural institutions are organized by having a central place as the cultural center. This has to do with the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth century; it is the French model, ministerial cultural politics, essentially. There is another problem or factor, which is that the global art world has stopped being a structure composed of regions or geographical areas, becoming instead a network of cities. Therefore, the relevance, activity and agency of Mexico City has been empowered by that network.
At the same time there are decentralizing forces that are also specific and relate to cities. The significance that Tijuana acquired as a signifier of border culture turned that city into a referent for contemporary art around the world that is not subordinate to Mexico City. One can say something similar about Guadalajara, it has a very small group of artists and backers and a very, very weak and unstable institutional structure; regardless, it has achieved a lot of visibility within the global sphere and market, and this is done through its own channels.
Now, I would say that, indeed, many of us would like to develop a network that would be much more complicated than this. I am not a public officer, I am just an art critic and curator, but at the university (UNAM), we’ve been trying to decentralize the structure of art history. There is a need to create alternative centers because we also know that having a concentration of art history in a single university in a single institute, my institute, is not the way to develop.
There is a problem, however, and it is that as Monterrey shows, sometimes the spaces that are more vociferous regarding centralism display a complete lack of responsibility when developing cultural structures. Monterrey is an example of a place that through the market and its business mindset, tried to become a competitor. The truth is that art was a toy that the upper classes in Monterrey played with for a couple of years and then forgot.1 At the same time, the very significant, active, and interesting emerging art in Monterrey has been working within a very marginal structure, and ends up gravitating towards Mexico City.
MA: What you mentioned about Monterrey is interesting because it reminds me of what is happening in Guadalajara. There are plans for a contemporary art museum, now that the Guggenheim’s project failed. It seems that the moneyed classes are interested in promoting these museums, but I am not sure what their commitment is or how that’s going to affect the local art scene, especially because there are no important institutions in Guadalajara, public or private, that support contemporary art.
CM: The process in Guadalajara has been complicated, and I am glad that the Guggenheim’s initiative didn’t succeed. Seemingly, the model based on the patronage of a single individual doesn’t seem to work either. The fact that La Planta [an independent space devoted to contemporary art] was so promising when it opened and was later closed due to the owner’s whim demonstrates the lack of substance in the commitment one has to expect from people with money in this country in relation to cultural patronage.
Artists in Guadalajara, in Monterrey, have been on the forefront of trying to change the cultural attitudes in their cities, challenging traditional views in terms of media, social, religious and moral values. I believe that if one takes the long view, one would need to say that one of the most democratic and progressive forces in Guadalajara and Monterrey have been their contemporary art scenes.
MA: I lived in the United States for a long time and have been back for a year, and yes, we do have a very small scene in Guadalajara.
CM: It is much more influential than it actually realizes in terms of being one of the very few spaces of non-religious avant-garde, free, and even sexualized culture. And that is something I really feel is enormously important for a place like Guadalajara.