Defining national identity is precarious in any language
In advance of the “Globalism in Art” series of lectures and panel discussions hosted by SAIC this summer, James Elkins published an article in the May issue of Chicago Artists’ News exploring what exactly makes Chinese art Chinese. Is it automatically Chinese because the artist is Chinese, or must the artwork embody something identifiable as Chinese, whether in content, concept, concern, intent, or aesthetic style? How does the audience perceive the work as Chinese? Similarly, what makes Mexican art Mexican? What does it mean to curate exhibitions through the lens of national identity? Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City at the MCA and Women Artists of Modern Mexico: Frida’s Contemporaries at the National Museum of Mexican Art, though stylistically quite different, are both survey exhibitions of artists working in a specific time and location and are dealing with issues of identity.
Escultura Social contains work produced within the last five years by artists based in or originally from Mexico City, and centers on Joseph Beuys’s concept of social sculpture, “How we mold and shape the world in which we live: Sculpture as an evolutionary process; Everyone an Artist” (Beuys, 1979, quoted in the exhibition pamphlet). The exhibition includes such diverse media as video installations, performance, photography, sculpture, painting, appropriation, architectural models, fiber, and conceptual work using text and language. Four related structuring themes of “language and text,” “music, popular media, and performance,” “social engagement,” and “the transformation of everyday materials,” are used to organize and categorize the artwork. Given the range of media and looseness of the concept of social sculpture, these four themes are desperately needed to make sense of the exhibit as a whole.
The exhibition strives to be global and transcendent of nationality. The atmosphere is more like a miniature version of an international biennial than an exhibition meant to create a new vision of Mexican art. This violation of expectations is deliberate, as the exhibition is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of contemporary Mexican art or to define a Mexican artistic sensibility. Interestingly, many of the pieces utilizing text and language were in English rather than Spanish, and the issue as to whether the text was originally intended to be in Spanish or English is not addressed. In an interview with Bad at Sports podcast hosts Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland, Escultura Social curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm spoke about how themes of national identity and nationalism are not explored in the exhibition. Instead the exhibition investigates art production in a specific time and place that is exemplary of an international trend in art practice of revisiting conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s. Through limiting the scope of the exhibition to a single metropolis and strictly limiting the time period, Rodrigues Widholm gained great curatorial freedom to challenge notions of Mexican art and what it means to curate a show through the lens of national identity while avoiding the trap of defining an aesthetic sensibility.
To take one example from the exhibition, Pablo Helguera’s nomadic public art project The School of Panamerican Unrest was perhaps the closest work to literally fit the exhibition’s unifying concept of social sculpture. Described as a “hybrid project [including] a collapsible and movable architectural structure in the form of a schoolhouse, as well as a video collection component” offering “alternative ways to understand the history, ideology, and lines of thought that have significantly impacted political, social and cultural events in the Americas,” The School of Panamerican Unrest traveled from the northern point of Anchorage, Alaska to the southernmost city in the world of Ushuaia, Argentina, over the course of four months. While museum visitors are offered photographs coupled with diaristic narrative text, video, and an installation of the mobile “schoolhouse” as documentation of the project, it is clear that the piece was mainly intended for the communities visited during the creative process of travel and dialogue: the participants were simultaneously collaborators and audience, embodying the notion of “everyone an artist.” Through performances, screenings, discussions, and public forums, Helguera and his collaborators fostered dialogue about pan-continental issues on a local scale while attempting to create inter-regional cultural exchange. The unique characteristics of each location were honored, but the project’s aim was to promote cultural integration and unification in the Americas rather than to celebrate or define discrete national identities.
Women Artists of Modern Mexico: Frida’s Contemporaries takes the lifespan of Mexico’s most celebrated artist (at least in the United States) as a reference point. The exhibit is comprised largely of painting but also includes photography, printmaking, and sculpture. All of the artists were women working in Mexico during Frida Kahlo’s lifetime; two paintings by Frida Kahlo are also included. Stylistically the work is overwhelmingly rooted in Modernism, as to be expected of the time period, but it also breaks the usual seriousness associated with Modernism with wit and humor, as in Remedios Varo’s surreal painting Papilla Estellar, which portrays a serious young woman grinding stars into a paste or powder to spoon-feed to a miniature caged moon. The show is aesthetically more unified and more concerned with the art object than in Escultura Social, perhaps lending it a more “Mexican” feel.
This exhibition holds up not only the lens of national identity, as naturally inherent to work shown at the National Museum of Mexican Art, but also holds the lens of gender. The purpose of Women Artists of Modern Mexico is to draw attention to women artists who lived and worked in Mexico during the twentieth century who are not as well known as Frida Kahlo. In the process the exhibition defines aesthetics and concerns to be associated with this group: a warmer palette, a concern with representation and the figure rather than abstraction, social consciousness. The exhibition also remarks that most of the artists were involved in theater, dance, music, literature, or cinema in addition to visual art. Notably, several of the artists were not Mexican but Europeans who had relocated to Mexico for various reasons ranging from political crises to romantic involvements. This inclusion seems to subvert definition by national identity and instead links the exhibition to the curatorial structure of Escultura Social through surveying artists working in a specific time and place. In this case, is the artwork Mexican by virtue of being produced by artists living in Mexico? Was the stylistic unity intentionally created through a carefully edited exhibition or inherently present in the majority of work already?
Defining or seeing art as possessing characteristics of national identity becomes more complex in an age of globalization, migrant populations, electronic media, and mass communication. Julie Rodrigues Widholm was quick to point out in her podcast interview that the work in Escultura Social is not about borders or immigration. The work in Women Artists of Modern Mexico was produced in a time prior to globalization and the Internet, but the way we see and interpret the work continually evolves, as does the way museums categorize and contextualize work. Perhaps it is unavoidable to classify art as “Mexican” or artists as “women,” but exhibitions such as Escultura Social and Women Artists of Modern Mexico help to challenge our preconceptions of these categories while bringing still needed recognition to under-represented artists.