PHILADELPHIA — Upon walking into Strange Currencies: Art and Action in Mexico City, 1990–2000 at the Galleries at Moore, you are greeted by an outline of Mexico. It’s a proposal for a piece by Eduardo Abaroa, to wrap the borders of the entire country in cheap gold-colored chain. The piece purposely never came to fruition, and its absurdity — a total cost of US$6 million and length of 13,623 kilometers of chain — is a cheeky gesture toward the futility of the project itself. It serves as a gatekeeper for a show that avoids the obvious, ham-handed pitfalls typical of political art and instead greets the viewer with breadth, humor, and postmodern cynicism.
The works in the exhibition appear in conversation, and in fact, curator Kaytie Johnson informed me that all of the artists present are familiar with each other, despite taking vastly different tacks and sometimes creating works in direct refutation of one another. In the wake of major governmental ineffectiveness following a massive earthquake in 1985, artists in Mexico City began building a vibrant DIY arts movement and searching for less traditional modes of expression. Works in the show often speak inherently to the mass globalization that occurred in the ’80s and ’90s, particularly following the enactment of NAFTA, and mimic tactics used by American and European conceptual artists of the preceding decades, whose work had been largely unheard of and unavailable in Mexico.
Turn a corner in the upper gallery, and you’re confronted by a rusted antique coffin, wrapped in a chain and secured to the ceiling with a meat hook. Hung upside down, the coffin’s crucifix becomes satanic. It’s an actual exhumed coffin, displayed as it was found — a work by SEMEFO, an artist collective and death metal band that took its name from the city agency that removes corpses left behind as calling cards for drug cartels. In the lower gallery sits another readymade, though one less clearly married to Mexican politics: Sofía Táboas’s “Espectro (Spectrum)” (1993). A multicolored grid of framed carpet samples, it simultaneously evokes minimalism and plays on the corporate poeticism of the names of carpet colors — the squares are labeled with such hyperbolic titles as “Palace Gate” and “Sisal Evolution.”
Another wall in the same space is occupied by Vicente Razo’s “Museo Salinas” (1994). In a gesture reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’s “Department of Eagles,” Razo created a museum dedicated to the much maligned former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas, in the bathroom of his apartment. Assembled from objects of political satire bought on the streets of Mexico City, the collection consists of masks, dolls, puppets, action figures, bats, and skeletons plastered with Salinas’s unmistakable bald, mustachioed face, the tchotchkes hovering around a sink, shower, and toilet. In what could be seen as a direct confrontation of Táboa’s poetic appropriated carpet samples or SEMEFO’s coffin, Razo’s slogan for the museum is “Stop doing readymades, start making museums.” In a video that plays nearby, we see an interview with Razo where he states, “If they placed a toilet in a museum, now I place a museum in a toilet.”
It is this sort of astute contrarianism that gives the show its bite and allows the artworks to speak on their own terms. The exhibition doesn’t search for conceptual unity among the artists, but rather attempts to contextualize their individual works within the political and social events of the ’90s.
Strange Currencies is also marked by a deeply postmodern understanding of the American and Euro-centric art world. The best example of this is perhaps Daniel Guzmán and Luis Felipe Ortega’s “Remake” (1994), for which the artists recreated performances by Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy, and Vito Acconci. Due to a lack of available video documentation, the pair worked only from still images and written accounts of the famous performance pieces, transforming their works into reinterpretations rather than reenactments and simultaneously commenting on the privilege inherent in art, including to whom it is available.
Miguel Calderón offers another postmodern treatment of reenactment with his series Empleado del mes (Employee of the month) (1998). Calderon had maintenance workers and security guards at Mexico City’s National Museum of Art pose on the roof of the institution as works from the collection. In one, men in beige and green uniforms make up a scene of the deposition; their Jesus figure sits on a bench, holding a feather duster aloft. On one side, one of the men grasps the mock Jesus’ arm, as if looking through the non-existent holes in his hand. A spray bottle is clipped to the front of the man’s shirt. Another man looks at Jesus’ face in adoration as his hand clasps a vacuum cleaner. The workers know the artworks and their postures by memory alone.
Marxist critiques of class structures are peppered throughout the show. One of the most striking comes in the form of Daniela Rossell’s photographs from her series Ricas y famosas (Rich and Famous) (1999). The works depict a world far from Calderón’s museum workers, of Mexico’s most privileged class. In one image, a tanned woman with bleached blonde hair jauntily places her platform sneaker on the head of a lion lounging like a house cat in front of an oriental rug. She holds a tennis racket, and her Moschino shirt reads “Peep Show! $1” in English. Rossell’s work is especially provocative because she portrays her own class — members of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — with all its trappings of luxury, while millions more live in abject poverty.
Although the art of this period grew out of a politically charged atmosphere, some works in the show are less overtly politicized, functioning in a more metaphorical sense. Thomas Glassford, an American expat, has on view a series titled Invitación al acarreo (Invitation to Portage) (1991–92), which employs the bottle gourds traditionally used in Mexico to transport water. Strapped to a bicycle, suspended from a parachute, and encased in a harness, the gourds are bound in gleaming chrome fittings or leather that reference BDSM and call attention to the struggle between the manmade and natural worlds. Also on view is Glassford’s “Cinture 5: Landscape” (1991), for which pieces of brown, fleshy, porous leather are stretched across three chrome fittings and held in place with hooks. Glassford’s works feel especially fresh. Through their incorporation of everyday Mexican objects, as well as their referencing of the body and bondage, they hold a more tenuous but still powerful relationship to power structures.
The show displays a deftness in contextualizing its work, largely through wall text, resisting generalization and allowing the art to sprawl over many subjects, ideologies, and materials. The work on view recycles gestures that may seem familiar or rote, but Strange Currencies feels like a self-aware, radical political statement on the often closed nature of the art world, its Eurocentrism, and consequently its whiteness. The act of appropriation is here imbued with new weight.
Strange Currencies: Art and Action in Mexico City, 1990–2000 continues at the Galleries at Moore (1916 Race Street, Philadelphia) through December 12.