The Aztecs revered a sinkhole at the centre of Lake Texcoco (the now-dry bed of Mexico City) they called Pantitlan – Nahuatl for ‘between two flags’, after the set of markers that warned passing fisherman of its deadly whirlpool. It was also a shrine of Tlaloc, the god of rain, responsible for floods and droughts – and a site of human sacrifice to appease his wrath.
In the 17th century, conquistadors toppled the painted pyramids of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that floated on reeds and shallow islands in the lake, and began to dredge its waters to make room for the seat of New Spain. Heavy rainfall constantly frustrated their efforts, and the city’s streets repeatedly flooded. In 1630, a Jesuit priest named Francisco Calderón, believing Pantitlan the key to colonial expansion, organized search parties to hunt for it; the drain remains elusive. Now one of the world’s largest metropolises, Mexico City has drunk Texcoco dry.
Perhaps it was because it rained that morning, but I thought of Pantitlan when I visited Pablo Vargas Lugo’s exhibition, ‘Cenote’, at LABOR. The darkened gallery held just one titular artwork, an installation mystically illuminated by the sun: a four-metre manhole in the concrete floor and a skylight of the same size in the ceiling above it. The skylight exposed the gallery’s interior to seasonal daily rain, which pooled like a mirror at the bottom of the pit.
The work’s title refers to another subterranean body of water, a limestone aquifer common in central Mexico. Revered by the ancient Maya and the modern eco-tourist, cenote are often sources of fresh groundwater and apertures that capture and enhance natural light. The Maya believed them gateways to the afterlife, and so Vargas Lugo has designed an iron manhole cover, its interlacing patterns reminiscent of a mandala or a Tibetan Buddhist thangka. A press release describes the heavy lid as ‘a representation of the aspiration to enlightenment and the unity of consciousness’.
Like Buddhists, the Maya believed in reincarnation, though there’s no evidence they shared a notion of nirvana. It was Enlightenment science that drained Texcoco and advanced the violent conquest of the Aztec empire. As the Spanish stone architecture of Mexico City slowly sinks, it’s tempting to imagine Tlaloc – who lords over earth and afterlife – exacting his revenge on a history of intolerance towards indigenous plurality. The manhole’s alluring arabesques make no identifiable reference to specific religions, but it rests on the floor just askew of the hole, granting passage to gods both above and below.
Cenote would’ve been impossible were the gallery not located in the affluent neighbourhood of San Miguel de Chapultepec, on Texcoco’s sturdier banks. The barrio was largely spared the 2017 earthquake that struck Mexico City almost a year to the date of the exhibition’s opening, flattening large patches of nearby Condesa, which sits in a bowl of soft clay. And this June, a 14-year-old boy was swept into a drain on the Puebla-Mexico City highway near the low-income, fast-sinking neighbourhood of Iztapalapa. The incident again summons the myth of Pantitlan in tragic terms. Mexico City, riven by the legacies of colonialism, is in the midst of an ecological – and architectural – crisis. Nature takes its vengeance blindly. Is Cenote an escape hatch, or a grave?
Pablo Vargas Lugo, 'Cenote' runs at LABOR, Mexico City, until 17 November 2018.
Main image: Pablo Vargas Lugo, Cenote, 2018, cast iron, excavation on site. Courtesy: the artist and LABOR, Mexico City; photograph: Daniela Uribe