From a swarm of black paper moths to an invented typeface, a retrospective at MUAC reflects the Mexican artist’s shape-shifting practice
'This text is an interface' reads the opening line from Carlos Amorales's artistic statement for his new exhibition at El Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City. Entitled 'Axiomas para la acción' (Axioms for Action), the touring retrospective, which opens tomorrow, is articulated around a core text of the same name, which interprets 22 years of the artist's work along conceptual axes, rather than chronology. Operating at the intersection of film, animation, graphics, performance and sound, Amorales's work has oscillated between abstraction and figuration, reality and fantasy, with little constancy beyond the underlying notion of the 'interface', or a system that connects graphic devices, often adding layers of metaphorical significance.
'I trained as a painter, but I never really liked it,' explains Amorales, as he lights up a cigarette outside of MUAC's exhibition space, while installing his show. The multi-disciplinary artist tweaked his last name from Aguirre Morales to Amorales (Spanish for 'without morals'), in a manoeuvre seemingly as dadaesque as it was pragmatic (he didn't want to be confused with his father Carlos Aguirre, a pioneer of conceptual art in Mexico).
Amorales took to performance art while a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1996, after spending a brief period as a painter, a practice he found too solitary. Around that time, he developed a wrestler alter-ego, simply named 'Amorales'; for the series ‘Amorales vs Amorales’ (1997), he hired pairs of professional lucha libre wrestlers to face off, wearing masks bearing his own mug. The performances, which touched on notions of identity and role-play, took place in various settings, including art museums and wrestling arenas. According to Amorales, the Mexican lucha libre is one of the only places where the embodiment of a fictional character becomes reality. The mask, too, functions as a kind of interface, allowing both wearer and witness to access a particular fantasy.
Amorales's dive into fantasy continued in 1998, with his creation of the Liquid Archive, a digital bank of vector graphics that might seem culled from Goya's 'Caprichos'. Masks, wolves, spider-webs, birds and planes: the figures, usually rendered in black or red, are carefully filed, ordered and repurposed in various works, creating a visual lexicon. The artist operates as the interface between the forms and their possible meanings.
Traces of the Liquid Archive are discernible throughout different works on display in 'Axiomas para la acción'. The installation Black Cloud (2007) – a swarm of 30,000 black paper moths, individually glued to the walls – infests the gallery at MUAC. (The piece is concurrently installed at the Phoenix Art Museum, reinforcing its principle of multiplicity). Over time, through their constant reconfiguration, the archive's various silhouettes began to lose their figurative quality, a process the artist likens to early printing methods. This shift, which recalls the encoding and evolution of language, marked the end of the Liquid Archive. 'Of course, the language is still made of vectorial images,' the artist explains, 'but I no longer archive them.'
For La Langue des Morts (The Language of the Dead, 2012), Amorales created a graphic novel by collaging images from Mexican tabloids documenting the violence of the country's drug war. Across the series of 15 silkscreen prints on paper, the figures of victims are adorned by speech bubbles filled with letters from an inscrutable alphabet, suggesting both the voicelessness of its subjects as well as the impossibility of rationalizing violence. This language play also points to the politics of censorship, referencing the text-based strategies of other Latin American artists like Mirtha Dermisache, León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, who confronted their countries' dictatorships in the 1960s and '70s.
Silence and illegibility were also central to Amorales's Life in the Folds (2017), presented last year at the Mexican Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, curated by Pablo León de la Barra. The intellectually-rigorous project, which takes its name from a book by the Belgian-born, French poet Henri Michaux (who was known for drawing incomprehensible signs, reminiscent of a writing system), combines animation, graphics, sculpture and music. Now installed at MUAC, the piece is centred around a silent, black-and-white film that narrates the story of a migrant family who is lynched by the community to which they've migrated – a timeless scenario which, according to the artist, metaphorically points to the breakdown of the state, and the rise of vigilante justice.
In Life in the Folds, the film's visual components have been fashioned from the individual characters of an invented alphabet, from human silhouettes to trees and birds, that are animated by a puppeteer in a miniature theatre. 'It contradicts the whole thing,' Amorales jokes of this unexpected twist. From its origins in figurative graphics through its transmutation into abstract code, the artist's encrypted textual interface returns once again to the realm of the figurative. Meanwhile, these same signs have been cast into functional, ceramic ocarinas – an ancient wind instrument, of particular importance in Mesoamerican cultures – used to create a score, further transforming the typographic to the phonetic. Amorales invites us to consider the relationship between form and content, communication and visual abstraction. This invitation appears less like a critique than like a gentle disruption, in which the artist merely mediates our interaction with the multiple layers of his language.
Read Magalí Arriola’s Critic's Guide: Mexico City for highlights of the current shows to see.