Venice Biennale: Attack on Mexico, with Mexico’s approval

MEXICO CITY – If a work were to sum up Mexico’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2022, it would be Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s dark allegory “Vermin Sonnet.” The 20-minute video shows a bat, a snake, a scorpion and a chorus of frogs desperately moving into a futuristic world ravaged by environmental ruin and social disorder.

Rejected and isolated, these outcasts manage to communicate via radio signals and establish their own alternative community – until a crocodile eats them all.

In an interview, Ms Rincón Gallardo described her project as a “manifesto for unwanted species” and said she hoped viewers in Italy would capture its “queer, cross-border, subversive messages.”

With works like “Vermin Sonnet” setting the tone, the Mexico Pavilion is likely to be colorful this year, though not exactly cheerful. Four artists will present artifacts that somehow explore how the Spanish conquest of Latin America disrupted the region and established oppressive social systems that continue to affect the country. Widespread violence, racial discrimination and the exploitation of land and people in the name of progress – these are not the themes that the Mexican Tourist Board may have included in a show that was supposed to represent the nation.

But Mexico’s cultural agencies are different. Like many countries in North and South America, Mexico is in the midst of an expanded account of how the civil and religious structures established in colonial times contribute to today’s inequality – and all too often to the danger of women, minorities, indigenous communities and the which distances itself from the political order.

The country’s leading cultural authority, the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature, aims to play a primary role – formally and officially – in advancing these difficult discussions and letting the world know that Mexico is staring down at its internal demons.

“In Mexico, during this reign, we face these challenges as public policy,” said Lucina Jiménez, director general of the institute, which oversees 18 museums and coordinates the Venice Exhibition.

This government-sanctioned agitation has led to its own disturbances and even violence, especially in December 2019, when an angry mob came down to the Palacio de Bellas Artes Museum here to protest the exhibition of a painting that feminized an iconic image of Emiliano Zapata on horseback and presents the revolutionary hero of the early 20th century naked except for a pink sombrero and high heels shaped like pistols. The crowd was eventually reassured, but some were injured in the melee.

Mrs Jiménez, whose office is one floor above the museum’s exhibition space, quickly took to Twitter to explain the government’s support for the controversial work of artist Fabián Cháirez and the show that included it: “In defense of creative freedom and expression, in the exercise of justice to diversity, our democracy is resolved, ”she wrote in Spanish.

That background is crucial to understanding how the institute came to embrace the biennial proposals of curators Catalina Lozano and Mauricio Marcins. As Ms. Lozano described it in an interview, they sought to bring together artists whose work “explores other ways of doing, being, thinking,” which contrasts with common perceptions of how the country sees itself, what language it speaks, and how its government and companies operate.

There are two Mexico, she said: “Mexico, which has embraced modernity, and Mexico, which resists the colonial impulse of modernity.”

The exhibition, “Until the Songs Spring,” aims to promote a “rich diversity and heterogeneity over a single way of seeing Mexico,” said Mr. Marcin. In other words, it presents not only a Spanish-speaking country with 400 years of history after the conquest, but also a collection of geographies dating back more than 20 centuries, in which 68 languages ​​are spoken, each communicating a distinct way of seeing the world.

In this way, “Until the Songs of Spring” – the title is borrowed from a poem written by the native ruler Temilotzin, who died in 1525 – builds a bridge between different periods.

For example, Mariana Castillo Deball’s “Calendar Fall Away” covers the entire floor of the 2,700-square-foot exhibition space with symbols evoking official documents generated by both the early Spanish colonialists and the pre-Columbian civilizations that already inhabited the space now called Mexico. The mash-up confirms conflicting ways of governing and timing, even though the European appeared to be dominant. Ms. Castillo Deball also makes prints from parts of the work that serve as a template for display in Venice.

Santiago Borja’s “Talel” is a response to today’s textile trade, which, he claims, uses the ancient craft of weaving, but overlooks the human presence in the manufacturing process. Consisting of 23 large wool panels woven on traditional back strap weaves by female workers in Chiapas, it is designed to interpret the way science represents the human genome. The weavers were encouraged to create their own methods of sewing and patterns and to incorporate small, personal items into their final work.

“The idea was to make each piece completely different because it was made by a different woman, but it’s a very subtle thing,” the artist said.

The fourth artist, Fernando Palma Rodríguez, who is a trained engineer and known for making low-tech robot objects, contributes “Tetzahuitl”, a motion-activated work that incorporates 43 children’s dresses hanging from a wooden structure. The word “tetzahuitl”, which comes from the native Náhuatl language, refers to deities whose appearance serves as a harbinger of events.

The play aims to raise awareness of violence against women and minorities, although its significance is broader than that. The number 43 resonates deeply in Mexico and revives the memories of the 43 “desaparecidos”, the male students at a teacher training college in the state of Guerrero, who were kidnapped and “disappeared” in 2014, sparking years of protests against official corruption and organized crime.

The contradiction of “Until the Songs Spring” is that it contains anti-establishment messages, even though it is organized and funded by the federal government, the largest of all Mexican companies. It is not lost on the curators or the team led by Mrs. Jiménez, who said they were determined to support challenging art while still seeming a little battle-weary over the incident at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Several people involved in the creation of the exhibition expressed concern about how it would be received in the home country. They will probably find out when the show ends in Venice and then begins a national tour, starting in the liberal-minded Mexico City and then heading to more conservative places like Monterrey and Guadalajara.

The artists involved feel a distinct unrest. All four have built up a reputation as underminers and government critics, and yet, here they are, under Mexico’s green, white and red banner, a fact that Mr Borja described as “troublesome”. However, it can also be an extraordinary opportunity to rewrite the country’s history on the artists’ own terms.

“I think it’s always important to make cracks in every system,” said Mrs Rincón Gallardo, “and I try to give a crack in that narrative on the National Pavilion.”

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