Miguel Calderón, installation view of Caída libre (2017) (all images courtesy  the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City)

MEXICO CITY — Miguel Calderón’s latest 25-minute video work paints a haunting portrait of a predator, the murderous main character and narrator, Camaleón (Chameleon), a falconer born with an evil pedigree, pursued by violence, and, like a falcon, always returning to roost in Mexico City’s sleazy underbelly. What tender force of nature draws the falcon back to the falconer’s glove? Projected in a soaring offsite warehouse space, presented by Kurimanzutto, Calderón’s Caída libre (Free fall) shrouds the difference between documentary and fictional narrative, sending uncomfortably real shivers down the spines of viewers.

The unfinished space opens behind black curtains to reveal a collection of falcon perches covered in droppings but absent the avian hunters. The perches extend across the impromptu gallery space from the curtains to the screen. In the video cast across the darkened space by a projector, Camaleón coos that over his falcon like a lover. “What happens to me is always violent,” he says in a deep smoky voice, recounting to the camera the story of killing four would-be assassins with a knife. He tells the camera matter-of-factly about his gunshot wounds, the 274 scars covering his body, and “the 15 or 17 surgeries” he’s endured after 29 years of working as a bouncer. He equates his own sexual conquests to his falcon’s capture of prey, comparing the stains of menstrual blood on his bed sheets left by the women he brings home to the stain of his bird’s prey on its feathers.

Still from Caída libre (2017)

The video switches between scenes at the nightclub where Camaleón works as a bouncer, looming over the crowd, expelling belligerent drunks by their belts, to Camaleón cruising the city on his moped, weaving between Mexico City traffic, to his dungeon-like apartment where grime drips down the walls, and to the outskirts of the city where he brings his falcon to hunt in misty grasslands. He never speaks directly the the camera, but his disembodied voice is edited into the composition, recounting ambiguous anecdotes of a life in the moonlit underworld — a life outside of regulated society. Inside the exhibition, sounds of passing airplanes and traffic permeate the space, making the viewer ever aware of the monstrous city rumbling outside.

Installation views of Caída libre (2017)

Falconers, usually outsiders and introverts, often compare their falcon’s hunt with the way they meet women, Calderón tells Hyperallergic. How true their stories are is up for debate, he says. Conceived from a genuine interest in falconry, the portrait of Camaleón went beyond the imagination of the artist. The candidness of one falconer, coldly laying out his vulnerabilities for Calderón’s camera — nightmares about losing his bird, his absent secret-agent father — humanizes the man who could otherwise be seen as evil. Camaleón himself insists he’s done evil things due to circumstance, because trouble always finds him, and from a young age he learned there wouldn’t be consequences for the blood on his hands.

Still from Caída libre (2017)

“I’ve always had this obsession with understanding how animals live and hunt, and how they’re guided by instinct,” admits Calderón.”Even as a kid, it made me question my own instincts.” His obsession with falconry— begun when the artist won a hawk in a childhood bet — led to the discovery of Camaleón, a human predator raised and caged in this city where his illicit life often caused red blood to flow. He lurks in the nightclub; he hunts for women, and he acts on his animal instincts. His story is a story of domination and survival. As in the old adage, “Everything in the jungle wants to kill you,” Mexico City is depicted as a glowing techno jungle full of creatures possessing the same aggressive instinct to survive at all costs.

Installation views of Caída libre (2017)

But there’s a hidden sophistication to Camaleón, as revealed by Calderón’s video. His affection for his bird contradicts his tendency for violence. This man, covered in tattoos up to his neck — a real, living monster — is engaged in an ancient ritual that has become rarefied. Falconry was originally used for hunting in the Middle East and Asia, but later became a bourgeois pastime during the Romantic period. Camaleón is the sort of contradictory character only possible to capture via the infrathin breath left in the video register — to borrow Duchamp’s idea. The falcon, the falconer and the artist together suggest a wild and poetic freedom, within the oppressive smog and stress of urban chaos.

Installation views of Caída libre (2017)

The show represents a sort of homecoming for Calderón. The space harkens back to La Panaderia, a seminal DIY space that Calderón co-founded and ran with other artists of his generation who all led the emergence of Mexican contemporary art in Mexico City in the 1990s. The warehouse were the video is presented was actually the artist’s former studio. The HD production quality of the video and audio is in stark contrast with the roughness of the space, and the morbid subject matter.

In a side room that has the same style of decayed tile floor as La Panaderia, Calderón also included a suite of photographs where urban spaces and nature collide, for example, an image of rattlesnakes strung up in a chain link fence. Images of Camaleón’s bedroom look like they could have been shot in the same space where the photographs hang. “With these projects about falconry, I’m interested in the conflicts between the city and nature,” Calderón explains.

Still from Caída libre (2017)

There are many ways to interpret the layers of meaning in the video. Synonymous images attach to each other creating a sticky network of cross-references with no direct assertion of an intellectual hypothesis. Camaleón is dangerous, like his falcon who knocks pigeons out of the sky and shreds their flesh with its powerful beak; a swarm of Mexican police choppers (helicopters) stalk the city below, showing that the state is also predatory. While the choppers drift across the screen, Camaleón’s voice recollects his father’s stories of torturing suspects by hooking a car battery to their genitals during his time in the Mexican secret service. And the megalopolis contains it all, tenderly, violently, like a dominatrix’s dungeon.

Miguel Caldarón’s Caída libre was on view at Gral Manuel F. Loera 42, col. Daniel Garza (Mexico City) until February 16. It was forced to come down before its original February 26 end date.

Devon Van Houten Maldonado lives and works in Mexico City, by way of Portland, Oregon and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He has contributed to Paste Magazine, OZY, Terremoto and Aesthetica Magazine....