Art

A Museum Show Makes the Case for Art Institutions as Graveyards

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex (all photos courtesy Museo Jumex)

MEXICO CITY – Drawing from its massive contemporary art collection, the Museo Jumex has turned introspective for The Natural Order of Things, a flawed and biased critique of the function of art museums. Rather than making the case for the museum as a cultural laboratory or catalyst, the overwhelming presentation suggests that museums are graveyards where once relevant ideas are catalogued and entombed within the appendices of art history, at once immortalized and stripped of their relevancy. Considerable effort went into homogenizing an impressive plethora of unique pieces, resulting in vintage museum or art fair optics, with much to be ogled, but also curatorial laziness that takes away from individual works.

The Jumex has undergone a dramatic curatorial evolution. It used to be that specific, sparse, and minimal programing left the viewer wanting more and each piece enjoyed ample real estate. The most recent shows the museum has presented — I’m thinking specifically about Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, which preceded The Natural Order of Things — have sought to encompass enormous collections and complex ideas within simple gestures, filling the space without leaving breathing room between works. In this case, I think less would have been more.

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex

According to the show’s text, the exhibition “reflects the desire of artists to seek fields of agency outside the boundaries of the institutional-gallery framework and the art-historical canon.” Which is great, except that the composition of the show looks more like a natural history exhibit than a proposal for redefining the limits and capabilities of the traditional art institution. I hope the curators were trying to be ironic, but I doubt that’s the case.

Another possibility is that the show is unapologetically diabolical and the Jumex is reveling in its old-school institutional power. The title, The Natural Order of Things, was taken from the 1976 film Network, which is about globalization being defined by “the international system of currency, which determines the totality of life on this planet,” according to the exhibition text. Imagining the totality of all life (and art) on earth being defined by capitalism is incredibly depressing. Furthermore, the suggestion that rampant inequality, refugee crises, and climate change — the results of unbridled capitalism — are part of “the natural order of things” makes me nauseous. “As these artists are collected, their market value increases and this makes them both more visible and more collectable,” reads the exhibition text. Is this show about the possibilities of the museum or is it about building a valuable art collection — a cabinet of curiosities with the shiniest and rarest jewels from around the world?

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex (click to enlarge)

The homogenization of individual pieces goes against the proposal of the museum to align itself with artists who are reconsidering the role of the institution and the canon of art history. There is nothing unexpected in the exhibition. All the usual names are featured: Mario Garcia Torrés, Yves Klein, On Kawara, Abraham Cruzvillegas, John Baldessari, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Orozco, Paul McCarthy, Francis Alÿs, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, Minerva Cuevas, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Damien Hirst, and so on. Many of the works are excellent, but they’re corrupted by the lackluster composition of the show. The Natural Order of Things implies that the logical resting place of art is the museum, where the work is quantified as a financial asset, gaining market value while losing cultural relevance. The art institution is where radical ideas become outdated and are embalmed for future generations to browse.

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex (all photos courtesy Museo Jumex)
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex

The idea of the museum as tomb is enforced by the presentation of pseudo-anthropological art objects throughout the exhibition. They include, to name a few, “Ancient and Modern Foods” (2002), a sculpture by Eduardo Abaroa that depicts a wooly mammoth covered in hostess cakes; Pettibon’s miniature recreations of famous artworks; and McCarthy’s “Propo — Miracle Whip” and “Propo — Daddies Ketchup” (both 1991), photographs of condiment bottles that appear to have been unearthed from an archeological dig. The exhibition is divided into sections that echo the organization of a natural history museum: Order of Material Culture; Order of People and Emotions; Order of Assets, Flows, and Networks; Order of Capital Systems and Information; and so on. While some of these overarching themes do serve to unify certain groups of works and offer insight into the Jumex Foundation’s collecting practices, many sections are held together by nothing more than spatial proximity. The conversations between works are often forced, especially in the second floor gallery, which seems particularly cluttered.

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex (click to enlarge)

The Natural Order of Things creates the sense of utopian nostalgia through objects that idealize a fetishized and stratified capitalist history. At its best, the exhibition is self-critical, but more often it feels masturbatory — look at all this expensive art together in one place! The suggestion that traditional power structures naturally define museum spaces and art practices leads to anti-curating, where artworks are arranged according to their dollar value rather than composed according to critical conversations. While the Jumex seeks to assert its cultural relevance, it’s arguably sabotaging itself by celebrating traditional taxonomies, binaries, and hierarchies.

The most interesting parts of The Natural Order of Things are the empty spaces, beyond the art fair booth-style structures designed by architects Pedro & Juana to form galleries within the museum. The walls create an intermediary between the artworks and the viewer, so that the exhibition must be reentered purposefully in each new gallery. The outside edges are left unfinished, with exposed drywall beams and studs. The design of the exhibition further underlines the idea of the museum as an elite and rarified space; it reminds us that urgent and relevant work is happening outside of traditional institutional and corporate structures.

Installation view of 'The Natural Order of Things' at Museo Jumex
Installation view of ‘The Natural Order of Things’ at Museo Jumex

The Natural Order of Things is on view at the Museo Jumex (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Mexico City, Mexico) through May 8.

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