Letter from Zacatecas

This piece appeared in the February issue of Art Monthly:

Image result for FEMSA bienal zacatecas images

Opened in 1979, the Swiss-made funicular gliding above the silver-mining city of Zacatecas in North-Central Mexico, was the first of its kind in the country. The short ride on the recently refurbished cable car took me up to Cerro de la Bufa – the shapely hill named after a pig’s bladder (bufa) – past or rather over a sea of whitewashed and bright-coloured houses staggered on the slopes of a narrow valley that contains the city centre. Zacatecas owed much of its prosperity to El Edén, the silver and gold mine located beneath the hill, which closed in 1960 but can still be visited (the way to El Edén is sign-posted.) Since 1993, the old town of Zacatecas, with its well-preserved colonial architecture and a wealth of Baroque churches built of cantera rosa, the local pink sandstone that gives the city its character, has counted among UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the agency even has one of its regional offices here. This is a mixed blessing, I am told, because it has turned the city centre into something of an open-air museum.

For a town its size – the capital of a state whose total population, at 1.6 million, is a fraction of Mexico City’s own – Zacatecas has an enviable cultural infrastructure and more than its fair share of museums. Titled ‘We Were Never Contemporary’ in a nod to Bruno Latour’s more often quoted than read 1991 book We Have Never Been Modern, the XIII Bienal FEMSA was spoilt for choice when it came to exhibition spaces. Spread across seven venues – and that’s not even counting the interventions in public spaces – the biennale was presented within and at times grafted onto the most prominent art collections and museums in the city, often housed in former monasteries, as in the case of Museo Pedro Coronel and Museo Rafael Coronel, bearing the names of the philanthropically minded Zacatecan artist brothers who had donated their large, eclectic art collections to the city. The collections reflect the brothers’ respective artistic leanings: whereas Pedro was an abstract painter of the Generación de la Ruptura that distanced itself from Mexican muralism, Rafael owned drawings and sketches by his father-in-law Diego Rivera.

Zacatecas has a museum entirely dedicated to abstract art, built around the private collection of Manuel Felguérez, the nonagenarian pioneer of digital art whose captivating ‘The Aesthetic Machine’ project, which he worked on in the 1970s at Harvard, is displayed in one of the rooms. The colourful abstract geometric patterns, featured in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 psychedelic cult film The Holy Mountain, migrate in stages from two- to three-dimensional forms in a sequence of machine-generated works. Artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci responded to this work with her biennale commission The Dystopian Machine, 2018, a series of geometric drawings and a map of scattered meteorites that fell in 1978 north of New Mercurio village, apparently attracted to the mercury mined in the area.

While scouting around for a city that would host the next edition of the itinerant biennale, which had previously been held in bigger and no doubt better-known Mexican cities, artistic director Willy Kautz saw the potential of a place rich in artistic and educational institutions open to the idea of ‘museological collaborations’, as well as craftsmen and artisanal workshops that would make it possible for artists to produce work there, should they wish to do so. What swayed him in the end was the generous offer of Zacatecan artist Alfonso López Monreal, known to all as ‘El Poncho’, who made his cultural space El Santero available to biennale artists, local mediators and the curatorial team for the duration of the exhibition and beyond, free of charge. Located in a narrow lane leading down to the main square, Plaza de Armas, the multi-level house with its warm congenial atmosphere and a huge terrace overlooking the cathedral became the biennale hub.

Under Kautz’s direction, over the past two editions, the corporate biennial financed by FEMSA – a Coca-Cola bottling company based in the northern city of Monterrey – gradually shifted from an outdated salon model harking back to the 19th-century French Salon des Refusés to a biennale with a curated programme, unusual for Mexico. Geared towards a prize-winning contest in which all participating artists took part, the former bred competitiveness and individualism; in contrast, the new format aims to foster, in the words of Kautz, ‘shared generosity in a context larger than art’ by putting the emphasis on a public programme of talks and workshops, supporting innovative editorial ventures and educational activities, and creating links within a given community. A case in point was the exhibition within the exhibition, ‘We were always contemporary’), showcasing works by 51 Zacatecan artists of different generations. Kautz wanted to give them more visibility by staging the show in the central San Augustín temple and to explore what is ‘contemporary’ from their vantage – hence the play on the biennale title. Inevitably uneven, the show had the merit of creating unexpected connections between artists working within different traditions and media.

What brought me to Zacatecas in mid-November – sometime after the opening on 26 October – was a two-day symposium held at two outlying venues, Teatro Hinojosa in Jerez and the convent library of the Museo de Guadalupe, which had to be reached by bus and felt a little like going on a field trip. An hour’s drive from Zacatecas, the pretty town of Jeres at the foot of Sierra de Cardos is chiefly known for its orange groves and Banda music, a folk tradition artist Mario García Torres explored with his sound piece staged amid the vast mask collection at the Museo Rafael Coronel. ‘After the Biennale’ as the symposium was titled, dealt with the aftermath of a biennale – what stays behind once the event is officially over and the infrastructure gone. The speakers, including José Roca, Mônica Hoff and Sofía Olascoaga, drew on their own experiences of curating and directing various biennales in Latin America as a wider context for the XIII Bienal FEMSA. Roca, for instance, spoke about Casa M, a cultural and educational centre set up in downtown Porto Alegre as part of the 8th Mercosur Biennial in 2011. By all accounts a success with the local population, it did not outlive the biennale, raising the question of how such projects subsist and continue once their initiators and those are gone.

On both occasions, some of the most affecting testimonies came from the mediation group, a committed body of seven local artists, activists and educators, who spoke about how attached they had grown to El Santero as a meeting place and described the approach they took to mediation, namely not to explain the artworks to anyone but instead to share their personal stories of the city in, for example, a series of ‘affective walks’ led by Mônica Hoff. Since the educational programme started with a year-long lead in, they had already formed a tight-knit community by the time the biennale kicked-off and seemed intent on carrying on meeting as a group once the event that brought them together came to an end. To them, Bienal FEMSA now felt like their own project. The symposium, what with its title and all the summing up, brought on in some the onset of post-biennale depression, barely two and a half weeks into full-biennale mode. Yet, judging by the emotional response, this biennale stands a good chance of having an afterlife.