The most intentionally funny moment in the cinematic masterpiece known as The Day After Tomorrow occurs when the Mexican government closes its border to stem the tide of illegal immigrants flooding across the border to escape the coming ice age. At least it got the most laughs when I saw it; maybe seeing the Dick Cheney surrogate say “I was wrong” got more belly laughs back East. But in these parts, as they say, “If not for Santa Ana, where your feet are planted would be Mexico,” such considerations inform all cultural references regarding our neighbor to the south.
The same holds true for “Made in Mexico,” a newly opened survey show at the UCLA Hammer Museum that originated improbably at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Not to be all regional, but most of the work here — contemporary Mexican art plus international work with some Mexi-connection — while perhaps a revelation to Beantown blue bloods, is pretty much par for the SoCal scene. This has been particularly true over the last five years, during which we have seen MOCA’s laudatory but unexciting retrospective of Gabriel Orozco’s conceptual-lite sculptures, ACE gallery’s satellite in Mexico City regularly beaming back startling work such as Teresa Margolles’ Tongue (amputated from a dead street junkie in exchange for enough money for his funeral) or Santiago Sierra’s 24 Blocks of concrete constantly moved during a day’s work by remunerated laborers, and the San Diego Museum of Art’s “Axis Mexico” — another survey show with many of the same players and essentially the same central conceit as “Made in Mexico.”
At first the idea behind the Hammer show seems a little scattershot. A male Japanese artist who’s never set foot in Mexico decked out in elaborate Frida Kahlo drag, a quartet of machines blowing bubbles made from what turns out to be sanitized water from the Mexico City morgue, a vitrined display of notes and models describing topological permutations intended for larger sculptural realization, grids of abstract urban-landscape photos, portrait photos of rich ladies in their finely appointed homes, photos of a truck blocking traffic: What argument could possibly tie such disparate elements into one neat package?
The answer is, of course, none. The thesis at work here, and in all the recent spate of high-art Mexican imports, is that Mexico City has a thriving, sophisticated, cosmopolitan art scene equal to that of any American or European metropolis. The inversions of stereotype, hybrids of European modernist formal strategies, and whiffs of social engagement and class politics don’t add up to much more than local color, nuances of Otherness in what is essentially a homogenized international Kunsthall vernacular. Which is fine. What you wind up getting is a bunch of professional art like that you’d see in any other museum group show — some good, some bad, and a couple of exceptional pieces that stick in your head.
The stickiest piece for me is Eduardo Abaroa’s Ancient vs. Modern (Mastodon With Yellow Cupcakes), an inexplicable sculpture that may well have some intended metaphorical reading vis-à-vis cultural clashes or consumer culture, but whose sheer peculiarity stops any such cogitative niggling cold. I’d only seen Abaroa’s work as half of “CaliMocho Styles” with the strangely absent Rubén Ortiz Torres. His other piece in the show, Soda Pop Coral Reef, is constructed entirely of cut-up drinking straws and is almost as good, while drawing an odd lateral connection to the curatorially unrelated but physically adjacent Vault Gallery project by Tara Donovan — another artist who sometimes uses drinking straws — which produces a similar biomorphic effect through the accumulation of thousands of tiny lengths of monofilament into a sort of glittering bed of moss.
I also like the idea of the morgue-water bubbles, though they weren’t blowing when I visited the Hammer. The artist responsible turns out to be none other than Teresa “Tongue” Margolles, who has explored the use of forensic detritus as a solo artist and as a member of the SEMEFO collective, and has filled liter bottles with morgue water, filled galleries with its vapor, dipped paper in it to create “paintings,” mixed it with cement dumped in a gallery entrance, and, as seen in her other “Made in Mexico” piece (a video), used it to supply a car wash. I’m not sure how much longer she can explore these permutations, and the more successful she becomes, the creepier it gets. It’s one thing to be a young, street-smart artist from Mexico coming out of nowhere with this stuff, something else to be making the jet-set circuit from Miami to New York to Frankfurt to Basel, producing editions of it.
Still, Margolles, along with the Madrid-born Sierra (whose contributions to “Made in Mexico” are documentation of the aforementioned intentional traffic jam and a video of 11 elderly indigenous ladies paid to memorize phonetically and speak the Spanish phrase for “I am being paid to say something the meaning of which I do not know”), represents some kind of continuity with late Modernism that has been lost in the mainstream axis of complacency. In particular, they seem to have picked up the ball that Chris Burden dropped when he retreated to Topanga to play with his Erector sets. Most of the art world has been in retreat since Burden’s early-’70s heyday with works like Shoot (when he had himself shot) or Through the Night Softly (when he writhed through 50 feet of broken glass), backpedaling to more quotation-mark-bracketed forms of transgression. But you don’t get much more post-ironic than corpse trimmings and wage slavery.
Maybe that has something to do with working in Mexico. Maybe the political control mechanisms that reined in the most subversive strains of Modernism aren’t possible in the chaos of the Third World. It seems like more than mere coincidence that all this American and European attention is being paid in the wake of NAFTA’s “reforms” and the 2000 elections, which saw Mexico’s Coca-Cola party sweep into office after 71 years of quasi-socialist government. Artists and their work deserve to be taken at face value, in honor of the hard-wired, trans-historical human needs they serve. Once you start trying to tease out their roles as pawns and tokens of the metastasizing global-culture tumor, and the seeming untenability of gestures of resistance, it just makes your head hurt, and leaves you longing for another ice age.
MADE IN MEXICO and TARA DONOVAN | UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through September 12