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The Dancing Dead

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Ofrenda por Caballero

Robert Loescher, 2008, by Shay DeGrandis, Brain Sykes and Bibiana Suarez

“La Vida Sin Fin: Day of the Dead 2008,” at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

By Anna Kryczka

“One thing I do know is that for a time, we did get to experience a little bit of heaven on earth with Professor Loescher in our presence. Something magical, something otherworldly, something filled with light and music… with cherubim. And seraphim. And all those gorgeous things of antiquity that some art historians only have a kind of knowledge about, but certain ones, in every great once-in-a-while, are utterly surrounded by.” (Excerpt from Golden Thoughts on Mother, Home and Heaven, 1878 by Shay DeGrandis and Alex Jovanovich.)

Each year the National Museum of Mexican Art mounts a thematic exhibit to coincide with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This year’s exhibit commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Tlatelolco Massacre.

On October 2, 1968 a large crowd of citizens amassed in Mexico City, taking advantage of the media presence at the Olympic Games to call attention to the human and civil rights abuses perpetrated by the corrupt Mexican government. The crowd of thousands that flooded the streets of the capital was perceived by the government as a serious threat to their standing as a powerful nation on the world stage. The army swiftly dispatched tanks and soldiers to disperse the crowd. The troops opened fire, killing and injuring unknown numbers of unarmed students and protesters.

The cover-up was nearly instantaneous; the Mexican government framed the measures the army took as an act of necessary self-defense for the sake of maintaining civil order. As a result of their propaganda and misinformation regarding the manner in which the events unfolded, the massacre is largely absent from discussions of that tumultuous year.

This year’s Dia de los Muertos exhibition seeks to correct this historical omission by culminating in a room dedicated to exposing the depths of this tragedy. The installation’s centerpiece is a replica of the memorial erected in 1993 at the site of the massacre, festooned traditionally with marigolds and surrounded by films, images and media clippings from 1968. The room was designed by current students at Universidad Nacional Autonoma (UNAM), where the massacre took place.

The room works well in the context of the broader themes associated with the Dia de los Muertos holiday, visually connecting with the ofrendas, prints, paintings, and sculptural objects by artists from all over Mexico and the United States that comprise the rest of the show. The works deal with the inevitability of death as a natural part of one’s life experience and rejoice in the memories that those lives leave behind. Communal celebration and commemoration stand at the center of the activities associated with this holiday, and the UNAM installation seeks to aggregate another community of remembrance here in Chicago. The restorative power of this sort of active form of collective memory is wonderfully palpable throughout the show.

Dia de los Muertos affords one the opportunity to share memories of those who have passed in a tangible form by creating ofrendas: collections of items that recall the deceased, arranged as altars along with food, flowers, candles and incense. The organization of one’s grief and love into an interactive visual form allows for the expression of such feelings that are unable to be harnessed verbally. This year’s exhibition not only allows for the correction of an historical indignity through commemoration of and education about the Tlatelolco Massacre, but also allows visitors and contributors a chance to meditate on and celebrate their own lost loved ones.

More Info:
On view through December 14, 2008. 1852 West 19th Street.

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