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Axis Mexico: Common Objects and Cosmopolitan Actions
by Olivier Debroise

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Born in Madrid and voluntarily expatriated to Mexico in 1995, Sierra (born as a lumpen in Madrid) is "playing lumpen" in his art and represents an engineering of the status of an artist assimilated to a lumpen proletariat exploited by forces that overwhelm him and that he is unable to control or hold back. Sierra is much more violent than the Italian Maurizio Cattelan, who operates on cultural imagery and historiography. And, he is much more radical than Minerva Cuevas, whose "utopia light" MejorVida Corp. (Better Life Corp.) seems to have inspired president Vicente Fox to institute a program for easing the life of Mexican undocumented immigrants in the United States. Fox's program issues "real" identity cards to the immigrants, thus enabling them to open bank accounts and wire funds, and thereby sidestepping the exorbitant fees charged by Western Union's globalized profiteers.4 By underlining the "Mexican condition" of an artist subordinated to a nation-state that generates cheap labor, Sierra exposes an "international" status of the Mexican artist "treated like an Afghan woman" (the phrase is Betsabée Romero's), which has echoed deeply within the art world. The notion has infiltrated both the title of the last FITAC, Critical Merchandize/Mercantile Aesthetics, organized in Monterrey by Cuauhtémoc Medina in April 2002, and a Mexican art exhibition disguised as something else, Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values. Curated by Klaus Biesenbach for P.S.1 in New York and Berlin's Kunst-Werke, Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values bore a title that in it self implied the unavoidable idea of excess supposedly inherent to Mexican culture.

The notion also applies to the recent works of Francis Alçs. Until recently, Alçs's work was a subtle analysis of the condition of artists and the purity of the creative act. The series The Liar and the Copy of the Liar (1994) speaks of the hesitation of artists, rather than being a critique of the all-encompassing notion of copyright. The piece Alçs designed for the Lima biennial of 2002, La fe mueve montañas (Faith Moves Mountains), is related to and demystifies Sierra's acts. It is also perhaps one of the first interventions that tackles the commotion of the September 11, 2001 attacks: a dislocated remake set in a dusty Lima suburb sharing a teleological approach to the mystic of "voluntary labor," as imagined by the "estheticians" of the 1960s' Chinese Cultural Revolution, plus the spectacular clean-up operation organized by firefighters and volunteers at Ground Zero.

Magali Arriola is probably right when she declares that the key to the change in the configuration of the Mexican art world is the notion of excess, which conceals the modernist notions of monstrosity and deviation. This idea is perhaps very hard to apprehend living in Mexico. Even so, it can easily be found in a comparison between the notions of "monstrosity" that marked the modern art discourses of George Bataille, Sergei Eisenstein, and André Breton, and the excess of signs generated by the icon of Aztec "bloody condition," the Coatlicue of the National Museum of Anthropology, or by the vehement murals of José Clemente Orozco, if not by Frida Kahlo portraying herself masturbating or embracing one of her female lovers. Because of their terrorist strategies and their violent charge, the works of Francis Alçs, Santiago Sierra, Miguel Calderón, and especially Teresa Margoles, question the levels of permissibility of art. They may be inconceivable in countries that could be ironically termed more "civilized"(although the term to be used here should be "police state-controlled") and are drowned by the weight of civil coercion and the power of lawyers.

The works of Teresa Margoles, like those of the former group SEMEFO (Servicio Medico Forense [Forensic Medical Service]), that took the acronym from the state's morgue-run system, to which she used to belong, are products that are proportional to the level of corruption of the authorities that offer its raw materials, corpses and body fluids from the morgue. The rascuache baroque, bordering on gore of Miguel Calderón and his insistence in representing street violence; Santiago Sierra's actions on the limits of the legal; Carlos Amorales's "sporty sacramental plays" the ludic, fascio-pedophilic, coprophagous configurations of Miguel Ventura, or the demented reconfigurations of "morphed" and "coatlicuazed" contemporary idols of Rubén Ortiz Torres and Eduardo Abaroa-that take us back, also, to the waltz of the idols choreographed by Sergei Eisenstein in October (1927)-are all actually unthinkable at any other latitude. In this sense, art still functions in Mexico as transgression, and in the recent reconfiguration of the relationship between audience and museum space, the museum, the gallery and the alternative space are established as "free territories" in an otherwise culturally rarified ambience.

It would not be the least of the paradoxes, then, that these works now provoke an international curiosity that can be confused with the changes sweeping the country after the expulsion of the PRI and the election of Vicente Fox. What is happening here is similar to what occurred in the latter years of the Soviet Block when hidden, but active, artists were suddenly "rediscovered" only because their existence was a proof of the disaster of a whole system. The same can be said of the current focus on Chinese artists and China as the country undergoing the most spectacular post-Cold War transition to a market economy.

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