Over three decades, Mexican artist Melquiades Herrera (1949–2003) produced an incomparably vast oeuvre, difficult to break down into individual works. He was one of the pioneers of performative and conceptual art practices in Mexico in the 1970s and ’80s, and part of a generation of artists who embraced the theoretical discourse of No-Objetualismo (Non-Objectualism), a term coined by the critic Juan Acha (1916–95) to describe artistic practices concerned with dematerialization, circulation of information and artistic hierarchies between fine art, popular art, craft and design particular to Latin America, first explored by the ‘Grupos’ of the 1970s in works that critiqued the hegemony of Western art history.
The first comprehensive retrospective of Herrera’s work, organized by the Centro de Documentación Arkheia at Museo Universitario Arte Contmporáneo (MUAC), features a few dozen cabinets and display cases packed with scripts, critical texts, essays, and class syllabi by the artist as well as various collections of mass-produced, colourful plastic commodities, such as ludicrous glasses and kaleidoscopes, joke shop gifts and parlour magic props along with mental agility games and bizarre paraphernalia whose functional purpose is disguised by their shape: a telephone that looks like a hamburger, a pencil sharpener in the shape of a computer, dog and cacti lookalike pens as well as Virgin Mary shampoo bottles and bags in the shape of a bulging blue jean-clad butts or Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup cans. These collections are framed by charts with seemingly scientific diagrams and maps (Expedición en el infierno. Demonstración sencilla sobre el mapa de los cuatro colores, 1994–2002), and a myriad of Polaroid snapshots (Noticias del México surrealista, 1979–89) that document incidental, absurd scenes in the urban landscape of Mexico City. Shop window cases, meanwhile, hold masks typical of the Mexican lucha libre and Batman, as well as silly animal snouts and ears, and different garments with funky Zebra pattern prints, Escher-like graphics, and images of pop cultural or art historical icons such as Mickey Mouse, Da Vinci’s the Mona Lisa (1503) or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe (1962).
Between 1977 and 2003, Herrera – who fellow artist Cesar Martinez once called a ‘professional pedestrian’ – accumulated an extensive collection of products he thoughtfully selected from street market stalls or vendors in Mexico City’s public transport system. The objects he gathered were, for him, artefacts of the social, political or phenomenological circumstances of the era. He compiled many of these objects into ‘suitcase-museums’, that unlike Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise are made with ‘Real-World-Materials’, in the words of Isa Genzken, and exist as autonomous sculptural assemblages of manufactured multiples. These suitcase museums also served as props in Herrera’s parodical performances, in which he caricatured conventional presentation formats – academic as well as popular entertainment programmes – while ‘lecturing’ about the complex social, political and aesthetic undercurrents of contemporary culture.
Always with a satirical tone – he considered humour the highest aesthetic category – Herrera reflected again and again on the cultural condition of Mexico between 1968 and the years immediately following the establishment of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). During that time, in response to repressive political conditions in Mexico and an increasingly dire socioeconomic imbalance, artists began developing alternative means of working, exhibiting and exploring theoretical discourse independently of public institutions. This included a rash of artist collectives, a period often described as ‘the movements of Los Grupos’. Together with Maris Bustamante, Alfredo Nuñez and Rubén Valencia, Herrera formed the infamous NO-GRUPO. In their collaborative actions, for which each member created an individual work under his own name, they addressed the complex structures experienced in daily life by treating the museum as an extension of institutional power and a space for the potential destabilization of assumed qualities and definitions of artistic production. These Montajes de Momentos Plásticos (Montages of plastic moments) (1979–83), as the group called their actions, were defined mostly by the act of parodical intervention or satirical use of conventional media, from art museums to popular TV shows.
The exhibition at MUAC – curated by Los Yacuzis, a reading group of young artists, curators and critics – employs a wide variety of display formats, from shop windows to museum vitrines; some items are mounted as they would be in an art gallery, while others are presented like artefacts in a science museum. This range, as well as the selection of products themselves, reflect Herrera’s democratizing approach to the so-called ‘high-low’ cultural divide and his desire to deconstruct our notional distinctions between the functional and the aesthetic qualities of objects. Appropriately, he often employed optical devices such as kaleidoscopes in his work, ‘to change the perspective’ or even permit multiple perspectives simultaneously, as with his mask and parlour room magic tricks.
For the first time, ‘Melquiades Herrera: Reportaje plástico de un teorema’ (Plastic report of a cultural theorem) presents a deep dive into Herrera’s vast archive. According to its curators, the exhibition is intended ‘to bring order’ to his practice; although this approach in practice serves well to introduce viewers to his legacy, one may wonder if it does not undermine Herrera’s own unruly characterization of the world, and of his art, which so often defied classification. At times, the show’s display strategies lack Herrera’s playful touch; a more satirically modular approach might have reflected Herrera’s own parodic framing of his collection as cultural relics of his time, when consumerism was facilitated by the Mexican government as a means to construct national identity.