MEXICO CITY — A festival is underway in this megalopolis with the ambitious proposal to impose ephemeral, technology-based public art on Chilangos as they go about their daily lives. The hope is to reassert the potential relevance of public art and entice audience participation — an inclusive and shiny bid for attention the same week the city hosts Latin America’s largest art fair.
With increasingly hybrid practices dominating the field of contemporary art, public art is in an awkward place; so much of it is so permanent, weatherproof, and regulated. It often goes one of two ways: either the city board chooses the safest option, a statue, and everyone hates it, or they embark on an ambitious and expensive project to create something innovative, the project inevitably goes over budget and behind schedule, and people (really) hate it.
Mexico City is full of epic revolutionary monuments and independence sculptures, but the city’s most recent bid at an innovative and illuminated public artwork was a flop. The “Estela de Luz” (Pillar of light), an enormous monument to the victims of kidnapping, has become patronizingly known as “Suavicrema,” the wafer cookies to which it bears a striking resemblance. With an unexplained ballooning budget and long delays in construction, residents have come to see “Suavicrema” as a monument to corruption and greed, rather than victims of kidnapping.
The Visual Art Week (VAW) festival offers a similar proposal to that of the “Pillar of Light”: to stop millions of potential viewers in their tracks by illuminating the city with LED-studded sculptures by an international group of artists and artist collectives. The overly ambitious manifesto to “reimagine the city” inevitably falls short with a mixed bag of hit-and-miss projects.
At their best, the techno-art interventions have had crowds lining up to touch, experiment, and play with the work in a way uncommon to overly sanitized gallery and museum spaces. Art that can entice adults to abandon their grown-up hats and play like children, as some of the interactive pieces at VAW do, is weirdly hopeful. It is a pleasant idea that art can encourage work-weary professionals to use their imaginations and improvise.
At their worst, especially in the daylight, the projects occupy public spaces ungracefully and awkwardly. With sometimes lackluster presentation, the technology behind the animated glowing screens and sculptures feels less impressive in the piercing sun.
Along Mexico City’s historic main artery, Reforma Boulevard, a giant pulsating sculpture by French collective Visual System sits in the middle of a sweeping roundabout. Approaching from the road is hypnotic, as “Potted Palm” changes colors and alternates patterns that cover the piece in pulsing waves and flashing grids. Except for the visibly crude support structure, the piece manages to be almost futuristic. Its foundation, metal that looks like scaffolding, is visible through the translucent, soft material woven with LEDs. The material is frayed around the edges.
The main concentration of the VAW work is situated around the Palacio de Bellas Artes in the historic city center. At Hemiciclo Juárez’s curving monument of marble pillars and gold figures, an awkwardly installed LED screen plays animations by 22 artists. These vary from abstract, eight-bit graphics with Disney-like soundtracks to pieces featuring Adult Swim–style heavy-metal skeletons. The videos could be appreciated equally well on YouTube, but still, more than 100 people gathered on opening night to watch them together, publicly.
A short walk away, two ominous black cubes drew a crowd of people to play with them, caressing the LED matrix to manipulate the bright white animations; when touched, the sculptures respond by bending light around the contact point. The cubes, titled “Control No Control,” by Daniel Iregui occupy the entrance of Bellas Artes and sit in the metaphoric shadow of the iconic building. They look like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a good way. Unfortunately, the presentation again seems random. The imposing cubes are presented in a relatively tight space for their size, between two raised planters, to the left of the main entrance plaza. This makes it difficult to step back and appreciate the work from a distance.
Placement and presentation aside, the project is beautiful. People approach it with wonder and stroke the dimpled LED surface with obvious zeal. The black boxes tower over you and emit terribly wonderful ripping sounds — another interactive element manipulated by viewers’ hands. As more people experimented, the piece became more animated. This and the overwhelming size of the cubes makes for a unique experience.
The most enchanting and arresting of the installations is the interactive projection-mapping work of Portuguese artist João Martinho Moura. The piece sits in the San Francisco Plaza glowing perfectly, digitally cold but warmly lit by the 16th-century San Francisco Church in the background. Called “West/Side” and shaped vaguely like the Wu-Tang Clan’s “W” symbol, the work is a subtle but clever tip of the hat to American hip-hop. The artist took full advantage of current projection-mapping technology and managed to create a piece that does not reveal itself easily. One of the greatest joys is an artwork that makes you ask: how did the creator do that?
Visual Art Week continues at sites around Mexico City through February 8.