Twenty million is the number of Mexicans (a) living in the United States; (b) living on one dollar a day or less; and (c) living in Mexico City. All three statistics are more or less statistically true, but the title of this show, '20 Million Mexican Can't be Wrong', has a historical heft too, in that it recalls the epochal 1939 slogan for Corona beer - updated in 1949 to '30 Million Mexicans Can't Be Wrong'.
This use of bald stats to push a totalizing agenda (MoMA's '20 Centuries of Mexican Art', for example) is something that the show's curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, is masterful at subverting, as well as being a conscious diversion from the default curatorial strategy of city, or worse metropolis, as theme. The uncertainty that the stats generate is valid because Mexico has had a more than slightly ambiguous relationship with reversal and delayed or postponed social change; indeed, Mexico's history over the past decade has handed Medina an unfeasibly rich stack of material, and he has sensibly waived the oral exam for the gift horse.
As was revealed by his work for the exceptionally provocative 'Políticas de la diferencia' (Politics of Difference) exhibition, which toured Argentina and Brazil earlier this year, Medina is not happy to settle for an old school nation-state view of Mexican art, and his arguments are both nuanced and ambitious, showing the global reverberations of Mexican artists working in their local contexts.
Teresa Margolles' Burial (1999) is a bale-sized lump of rat-grey concrete containing the remains of a friend's miscarried baby. The work follows a ceremony (Bathing the Baby, 1999) in which Margolles washed the foetus before encasing it in concrete and sending it off on a Fedexed trajectory to the outer reaches of the art world, where it continues to orbit with an ever-growing file of customs papers in its wake. Harrowing and respectful, Burial undercuts traditional stereotypes (from Under the Volcano (1947) through to Carlos Fuentes) of Mexico as one big Day of the Dead party, one big death-loving necropolis. Margolles' work, much of it created with the help of the Mexico City Coroner's Office, is a unique and staggering look at the institutional management of death in Mexico, but also a demonstration of human remains as corruptible, negotiable and as mobile as anything else in the commercial world.
Mexico's integration into the global mêlée of sports-shoe manufacturing through its border town sweatshops is well known, but Carlos Amorales has an alternative, which exploits the art world visitor instead. Flames Maquiladora (2001-2) invites visitors to cut cherry red vinyl panels for wrestlers' boots, which will later be re-circulated and sold as art objects or - and this is less likely - used in wrestling performances.
Vicente Razo's Museo Salinas (1995-2000) is probably the most concise recollection of a trippy period in recent Mexican history. President Carlos Salinas had promised to accelerate Mexico's drive for membership of the club of developed nations, but in 1995 Mexico woke up from his term of office to face a big hangover - the Zapatista uprising, a series of corruption cases and economic meltdown. One of the outlets by which the Salinas effect was collectively exorcized was the rampant street production of Salinas iconography - as vampire, Judas, prisoner, rat, devil, puppet, monkey. Like a showcase of Richard Nixon memorabilia, Razo's Museo Salinas has Marcel Broodthaers' Département des Aigles (Department of Eagles, 1968-72) written all over it. Subsequently Broodthaers wisely signed himself up as 'general director, founder and honorary life member' of the Salinas museum when, in 1996, the museum was downgraded and moved, in a Duchampian swerve, to Razo's toilet. Not one of the Mexican TV crews that showed up to feature Razo's museum ever sought to portray its contents as other than valid social commentary.
Francis Alÿs' own hand-crafted icon of Salinamania, his Narcosalinas Doll (1995), carved from a seven-gram rock of cocaine, could have made it into Razo's museum but for the fact that its owners in New York snorted it. Instead Alÿs' work was represented less well with Rehearsal 8 (2002), an all too easy-to-miss sound piece at the entrance.
Instead Pedro Reyes' Psychoforum (2002) dominated the gallery space. The prefabricated structure, made of football-style hexagonal cells, houses videos and cheap romance novels and sound recordings, and will travel from site to site gathering an archive, but it also mocks David Alfaro Siqueiros' final work, the overblown and over-muralled Cultural Polyforum (1964-71). With Psychoforum and with Melanie Smith's extravagantly finished Painting Installation (2002) you get an idea just how far Mexico's aesthetics have sharpened.
'20 Million Mexicans Can't Be Wrong' pumps with the high levels of irony and interventionism that are now a given in Mexico's ride through the wash-and-spin cycle of global capitalism.
First published in Issue 72