Tag Archives: Jose Roca

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.



This report from ARTBO 2015 and Bogotá Art Month appeared on flashartonline.com:

“Colombia is having a moment,” says MoMA’s Director of Adult and Academic Programs Pablo Helguera, echoing the upbeat mood at the Corferias Convention Center, where the ten-year-old ARTBO — Bogotá’s most prestigious art fair — is held at the start of October. The fact that at least four other fairs are taking place concurrently in the capital city and beyond to coincide with the start of the “Art Month” provides a measure of local artistic and cultural activity. Bogotá alone boasts sixty art galleries and fifty-eight museums.

The capital’s burgeoning art scene reminds Helguera of Mexico City — where he hails from — in the 1990s. The New York-based artist and educator is here to give a lecture-performance as part of Foro, a series of talks and discussions curated by José Roca. Formerly adjunct curator of Latin American Art at Tate Modern and artistic director of FLORA ars + natura, which wins my vote as the most alluring of Bogotá’s new contemporary art spaces, Roca seems to have no trouble getting his pick of curators, artists and museum directors to fly halfway around the world in order to join him for panel discussions at the fair and, while they are at it, do some studio visits and get to know the local artists.

In return, ARTBO has introduced the Prodigy Award – FLORA Grant for the most promising emerging artist or collective from Colombia featured in the non-commercial Artecámara section of the fair. The grant comes with the opportunity to do a year-long residency at FLORA ars + natura and to put on a solo exhibition at ARTBO the following year. This year’s prodigy, Sandra Liliana Rengifo, was chosen from among thirty-three artists for her wistful video projection Pil På Himlen (Flecha En El Cielo) (2012–15), full of dusky skies and birds flitting across them.

Colombia is home to over 1,850 recorded bird species, the largest number in the world. Unsurprisingly, an avian theme crops up in displays by local artists around the city, not least at Roca’s FLORA, located in the working-class San Felipe neighborhood. In addition to a sound piece, which greeted visitors with bird song upon arrival, and an installation that had the central spiral staircase engulfed in yards of cord as part of her Nido, 2015, Maria José Arjona’s entrancing durational performance saw the artist sit perfectly still for hours with her head nested inside a cage inhabited by live canaries; she originally wanted it to be an eagle.

Apparently used to catch jungle birds, a delicate net, whose torn fabric had been mended in places with gold thread, was suspended throughout a booth in Luz Angela Lizarazo’s red de niebla (2015), a solo presentation in ARTBO’s new SITIO section designed with more experimental and interactive projects in mind. Gold is another persistent motif in a city that is home to the stunning Museo del Oro and whose main airport is called El Dorado. Collector José Darío Gutiérrez’s newly opened space by that name joins more established gallery spaces, including NC-arte and Valenzuela Klenner Galería, in the arty neighborhood of La Macarena. Espacio El Dorado’s inaugural show “Nudo ciego” [Blind Knot] by Bogotá-based Eduard Moreno focuses on the Magdalena River and its threatened biodiversity.

Bird calls imitated by humans resonated in the courtyard and garden of Casa Museo Quinta de Bolivar, against the backdrop of jungle-clad mountains, in Alberto Baraya Gay’s offering for the Luis Caballero Prize, one of eight solo projects shown in art spaces, museums and less-expected venues such as the tomb-like interior of the Monumento a los Héroes in the case of Juan Fernando Herrán Carreño’s sculptural and filmic installation titled Héroes mil (Thousand Heroes) (2015).

No survey of Bogotá’s contemporary art scene would be complete without a mention of the Instituto de visión, run by an enterprising all-female trio of curators out of their gallery space in the San Felipe area, a short walk away from FLORA. Curated by Maria Wills and Beatriz López, their gallery show paired Fernell Franco’s hand-painted photographs of interiors and dwellings in Cali (Colombia’s third city with a thriving art community of its own) taken in the 1970s with recent sculptural works by Felipe Arturo, made using concrete and ephemeral materials such as coffee, brown sugar and other foodstuffs. The contents of three bottles displayed on a shelf thus replicated Coca Cola’s original formula: a mixture containing bourbon and coca leaves.

Made with foreign visitors in mind, the homemade “Bogotá survival kit” — handed out to fair goers along with a party invitation or two at Instituto de visión’s understandably popular gallery stand in ARTBO’s main section — contained abundant supplies of coca tea bags and candied fruit paste to cope with altitude sickness and other fair-related ailments.