Present and Absent
May 16, 2014 | by Hunter Braithwaite
The art world comes to Mexico City.
In a few hours, a conference room on the fourth floor of Mexico City’s Hilton Reforma will swing open and the third day of the Material Art Fair will commence. But it’s five a.m., and I’m on the sixth floor, in the heated indoor pool, with about five near-naked and naked artists and a bottle of mescal bobbing in the shallow end. None of us has a room here. Lenin said you can’t trust artists because they can navigate all levels of society. In this case, that means all floors of the Hilton.
The evening began yesterday at a Mariachi bar. I proceeded to a store selling giant micheladas that had the mouthfeel of a Papa John’s pizza in a cup. Then I went to a grimy rave. Then to the end-of-the-world wealth of a penthouse party in Polanco where the free sushi meant that at least two people were doing blow off of chopsticks, and where, in line for a marble bathroom indecorously coated in piss, I met a Spanish developer named Iggy who was building an entire village with Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architecture firm, on a stretch of virgin Mexican coast. After that, I picked up more mescal and sat on the desolate, please-abduct-me corner of a Centro Histórico street, pulling from the same bottle now bobbing in the Hilton pool’s shallow end.
I live in Miami, where for weeks the talk had been about Mexico City. When do you get in? Where are you staying? The contemporary art fairs Zona Maco and Material both opened in the first week of February. Why not go? To work in the culture industry is to justify any type of vacation or prolonged period of dicking around as research.
As a supposed arbiter of transcendence, art and its surrounding world has of late succumbed to stasis and homogeny. Things feel the same. An unceasing focus on the contemporary has culture in the doldrums of a present-tense continuous, defined by a million identical white-cube galleries and purple-carpeted convention halls. But it takes a lot of movement to feel like you’re staying in one place. Everyone—collectors, artists, curators, handlers, advisors—is launched into a ceaseless grand tour of the capitals of capital, armed with VIP cards to the nameless Biennials and Fairs wobbling skyward Babel-style.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Miami, which to many seems an art fair with a city attached. The parties and the velvet-rope-divided subjectivities are as much a part of a naturalized cultural terrain as the academy and the museum are in other cities. For artists here, drinking and schmoozing are not just that—they’re praxis. So I booked a flight to Mexico City. Everyone was going.
I split a cab with two other artists into the city. We sat in traffic along Paseo de la Reforma—the same street the hotel was on, hundreds of address numbers away—and watched street children with balloons shoved down their pants clown around in the median. For the past hour, our gallerist friend Alan had been whatsapping us about a VIP tequila brunch. The only thing worse than sitting in traffic in Mexico City is sitting in traffic knowing that you’re missing free tequila somewhere. When we finally pulled up to the Hilton and found the convention room where Material was held, the brunch had finished.
Organized by an American, Brett Schultz, and a Mexican, Daniela Elbahara, Material brought together forty young and alternative spaces from Mexico and the States, with some Europeans thrown in for good measure. Artinfo.com described the fair as “the NADA of Mexico City,” referring to the more established fair, which appears in New York, Miami Beach, and Cologne. Art fairs, which have always been distortions of place—wrinkles in the cultural and geographic fabric as creased as the blazer in your carry-on—have become so normalized that they’re now getting the Paris-of treatment, wherein x is described as the Paris of y. If that sounds confusing, it’s a unique quality of the art world’s relentless pace that spurs this type of bewilderment. Perhaps it begets a certain kind of pride; it is a malady of lifestyle, like tennis elbow or jet lag.
Wandering around, I came to the Komplot booth, in which an upright sheet of Plexi had several holes cut into it, with black latex eels draped through them.
“The artist has a lot of anxieties about the anus,” a man whispered behind me.
“Don’t we all?” I replied.
“See, the eels represent the phallus,” he continued, in an accent I couldn’t place. I told him there was no need for Freud here—that many people just stick eels up there, plain and simple. I brought up an article I’d recently read about a man in China who had died after an eel/anus crime de coeur.Eels aside, there was a lot of anxiety at the fair. Some of its strongest pieces were categorically anti-fair, which was strange, because they were in the fair. In order to decommodify the art commodity, some booths staged performances—such a strange verb for these happenings, which had all the theatricality of QVC demonstrations—or brought in collectibles. The back wall of Regina Rex’s booth was made out of mud dredged from Biscayne Bay, dried, shipped from Miami to Mexico, and then rehydrated. The piece, “Black Beach,” was by Hugo Montoya and going for $7,000.
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Mexico City’s ornately colonial architecture is underscored by a thrumming brutality. It’s as heavy as an Olmec head but as fragile as an eggshell. Myth maintains that Mexico City began on an island in the middle of a large lake—the Indians would weave huge reeds mats and place them in the waters. It took generations, but the mats, after they sank, turned to soil, and then the water disappeared.
Just as the Indians laid down mat after dissolving mat, today’s Mexico City has been created by centuries of struggle between different cultures, with today’s topsoil created from yesterday’s wreckage. As much as the city wants to be new, it is very old. This came into focus at an exhibition called Proxímo, held in the Museo Británico Americano en México, an old Anglican church whose roof had collapsed during an earthquake.Inside the church, the works of several young painters had been hung on provisional racks. The rain began to drum on the tarp roof and the faithful pushed through the heavy wrought-iron gate. These paintings were hedge-fund Shrouds of Turin: they indexed the passage of the flesh into spirit, from labor to commodity. All of the work was process-based abstraction—minimal paintings that looked nice, but only became truly present when someone was there to tell you how the artist made them. Ryan Estep, one of the artists in the show, dunks his hands in lidocaine so they’re completely numb before he makes some of his gestures on the canvas. The artist can be both present and absent.
That evening, as my friends and I left one of the VIP parties, a beautiful Spanish woman told me to follow her to a secret after-party. We arrived with a large group at an unmarked building in Centro Historico. A man banged on the door and nobody came. People started to trickle off. He kept banging, a bit nervous now, and embarrassed. Just then a police car drove by and stopped. Out came two cops. The man had been drinking a beer on the street, which was illegal. They dragged him into the car.
This was what I had heard about Mexico—corrupt police, dark cars at night. People disappearing. But then, the crowd started to chant. In Spanish, naturally, they were chanting: “How much for the bribe? How much for the bribe?” It doesn’t sound too special in English, but Spanish is a more passionate tongue, so you have to believe just how exciting this was.
The police pushed the man from their car and sped off just as an older gentleman opened the heavy door to greet the crowd. He led us down the stairs. It was pitch dark. Once again, it got very tense. We stood there, feet shuffled, the door clicked shut. The only reason I didn’t run away is because I wasn’t really paying attention; I was thinking instead of what it would be like to remember the moment later on. But then the lights behind the bar went on. It was the old man. “The beer is free,” he yelled, motioning to a row of sweating chrome taps.
* * *
The next morning we may or may not have been ripped off on our drive to the airport. I was too tired to care. As the plane took off, I half-listened to a retired American woman go on and on about how Mexico City was filthy—“You think everywhere is filthy,” her husband countered. “You thought Paris was filthy!”
“It was, except the Louvre. The Louvre was educational and beautiful.”
Which city was Paris the Paris of? I needed to fall asleep, but since my seat didn’t recline, I leaned forward, my forehead resting against the back of the seat in front of mine, smearing skin oil and al pastor grease on Spirit Airlines’ already smeared interior. I felt like the last sentence of Under the Volcano: “Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”
Hunter Braithwaite has written for Art in America, The White Review, and The Virginian-Pilot. He lives in Miami, where he edits The Miami Rail.