MEXICO CITY – “America is a big place,” Latin Americans often say in response to American exceptionalism, underlining the US’s perceived reign over the rest of the continent through political and economic domination. From Canada to Chile, the Americas are defined by hybrid cultures, as illustrated by Mexico City artist duo SANGREE in its exhibition at the experimental Museo Universitario del Chopo, Murmurs of Earth. The artists imagined a new hybrid that embraces outsider identities, exploring the role of museum objects in contemporary culture and the way we interpret history.
The exhibition is named for Carl Sagan’s book, in which he documents the development of the Voyager space probes, which are carrying the Voyager Golden Records deeper into the universe than any other human-made object on the slim chance that an advanced alien civilization will happen upon the washing machine-sized spacecraft in the vastness of space. Like humanity’s Hail Mary probe sent into the cosmos, SANGREE calls their work an “impossible time capsule.” The name of the collective comes from the Spanish word for blood, “sangre,” embodying the hybrid languages, identities, and bloodlines that make up the Americas.
SANGREE’s two members, Mexico City natives René Godínez Pozas and Carlos Lara, combine elements from pre-Hispanic and mystical traditions with contemporary aesthetics. A mix of hard and soft materials, such as concrete and inflatables, create hybrid sculptural forms. The duo playfully imagines an alternate history where colonization didn’t involve massacre and indigenous peoples became hipsters like the rest of us. In the exhibition, scale models of pyramid structures are combined with skate parks to create architectural visions of an ideal multiculturalism that never existed. The combined elements in SANGREE’s work represent outsider cultures, both urban and native, such as objects fusing punk and Mexica elements. A life-size sculpture of an indigenous man is marked with punk tattoos. Native patterns and reliefs are printed on plastic and rolled into inflatable columns whose fans fill the gallery with atmospheric noise.
Things that should be hard are soft, and vice versa. At first glance the sculptures, made with earthy concrete and gray scale printed plastic, appear ancient. But further examination reveals that these purported antiquities are not so old. Untreated gray concrete is the exhibition’s dominant aesthetic, alluding to the universal building material of gray urban landscapes — the result of colonialism, as illustrated by the megalopolis Mexican capital stretching across the once-bountiful Valley of Mexico, where Mesoamerican cultures thrived off the land for thousands of years. The works function as antiquities that could be on display in an anthropology museum, and as ephemeral contemporary art objects.
Half pipes and handrails blend in with Aztec-style pyramid structures. The imagined cities or utopias toe the line between sculpture and history museum dioramas. The life-size figurative sculpture, the centerpiece of the show, is based on a pre-Hispanic sculpture of a man housed in the National Anthropology Museum. It could be taken as a replica, were it not for the tattoos etched all across the Mexica man’s body. Rather than any native markings, the sculpture bears stick and poke-style tattoos typical of today’s hipster punks (or hipster potheads). The indigenous sculpture’s engraved tattoos include a skull, the Monster energy drink logo, and even a stylish tramp stamp.
Murmurs of Earth combines the seriousness of anthropology with the experimentation and anarchy of youth. The artifacts are also hybrids of academia and anti-academia, representing the meeting point between grueling research, cultural preservation, and subcultures like skateboarding and tattoos. In this way, the exhibition is a reflection of the institution that houses it. The Museo del Chopo is part of a network of museums run by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The largest university in Latin America, headquartered in Mexico City, has become a key player in the evolution of Latin American contemporary art with projects like the Museo del Chopo and the Museo Experimental el Eco.
In his 1942 essay “The Destiny of the Americas” Alfonso Reyes, one of Mexico’s most important cultural thinkers, wrote: “As soon as the Americas came into view like Neptune’s moon in the maritime eclogue, bookstores began to register an almost perverse production of utopian narratives.” SANGREE’s exhibition speaks to an idealized America, all of it, as an incubator of hope and a safe haven for outsider cultures and outlandish religions. The New World was seen as a haven for impossible cultures, like the imaginary skater-Aztecs in Murmurs of Earth.
Rather than pine for a “land of the free” that never existed or re-open ancestral wounds, the artist duo invented something entirely new by creating a cultural mashup of the kind that truly defines America — not as a utopia, but as a petri dish for imperfect experiments.