Essays

The Limits of Art in One of Mexico’s Most Violent Cities

The city where I grew up, Culiacán, is home to three generations of drug lords — and a peculiar outdoor garden filled with contemporary art.

Allora & Calzadilla, “Untitled” (all photos courtesy Culiacán Botanical Garden unless otherwise noted)

When I was 18, I left home for college and vowed to never move back to Culiacán, the northwestern Mexican city where I grew up. There is a cliché that small towns seem condemned to — that everything remains the same, and nothing ever happens to you unless you leave. My hometown, though small, doesn’t entirely fit into that narrative. The home of at least three generations of drug lords, Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa and one of the most violent cities in Mexico. There, young boys linger around street lights, selling newspapers with headlines that scream the previous day’s bloody murders: Police Unable to Stop the Wave of Assassinations; Panic at a Funeral; El Teo Has Been Captured.    Drivers wave them away, unfazed. Often, bodies appear in bags on the banks of the city’s three rivers. They rot in a perpetual heat that reaches 113 degrees in the summer.

With this in mind, the city may seem a strange home for a vast and ambitious contemporary art project. The Culiacán Botanical Garden is a perplexing, awe-inspiring site that took form in 1986, when Carlos Murillo Depraect, a local engineer and botany aficionado, donated his personal plant collection to the government and spent the rest of his life developing its nearly 25 acres. The Garden itself is meticulously kept, but what’s really striking — what sets it apart from similar public projects — are the artworks you encounter while walking its paths. Like plants, they appear to have sprouted from the ground.

A work by Sofía Táboas in the Culiacán Botanical Garden

The result is a bizarre oscillation between carefully tamed greenery and objects that look like the ruins of a recent civilization. A 1991 Volkswagen Sedan, hood crumpled, appears to have crashed into a parota tree — Francis Alÿs, “Game Over.” A series of cement beds bear an inscription, which explains that the water in the cement once washed the corpses of drug war victims — Teresa Margolles, “Untitled.” A seductive female leg, carved from wood, stretches out from a tree trunk — Allora & Calzadilla, “Untitled.”

Culiacán is the city I’ve flown to for the funerals of loved ones, the funerals of loved ones’ loved ones. It’s the city where I’ve woken up to learn that, the previous night, an armed convoy took a dozen men hostage in a swanky restaurant, where government-enforced curfews hindered the escapades of my teenage years. In Culiacán, terror becomes normal.

One figure rises over the carnage, almost like a religious idol: the infamous drug lord El Chapo. The number 701, representing Chapo Guzmán’s position on the 2009 Forbes list of billionaires, is emblazoned on t-shirts and caps. They are sold outside a small chapel erected in honor of Jesús Malverde, a local patron saint to drug traffickers and admirers of crime-driven generosity towards the poor.

An altar devoted to Jesús Malverde, the local patron saint of drug traffickers, at the Malverde Chapel in Culiacán (via Flickr user David Boté Estrada)

Despite the constant state of insecurity, many residents believe that drug lords are unfairly maligned by the media, creating a schism between those who celebrate the glamor of illicit activity, and those who repudiate it in silence. You’re safe if you don’t mess with them, the latter will assure you, unless you’re really unlucky, and in that case, ni aunque te quites. With time, my visits to my parents’ home have steadily decreased in length and frequency, each one feeling stranger than the last. The city and its inhabitants — once so familiar — now strike me as surreal. So the cliché is complete: I left and can never return, not as anything other than a foreigner.

As the city itself has become unfamiliar to me, the strange art of the Culiacán Botanical Garden almost seems appropriate. Agustín Coppel, a local businessman and avid contemporary art collector, has donated nearly 40 pieces commissioned specifically for the site, by artists one would normally expect to find in the museums of major cities. Under the careful eye of curator Patrick Charpenel, Olafur Eliasson, Anri Sala, Gabriel Orozco, Tacita Dean, and many more have proposed installations for the Garden.

Francis Alÿs, “Game Over” in the Culiacán Botanical Garden

There is no obvious path that allows you to take in the art in sequence, as is common in museums and sculpture gardens. Instead, the works seem to appear sporadically and unintentionally, as if they add up to nothing in particular. I feel that this is the collection’s greatest feat; located in the middle of a city where art is on almost no one’s list of priorities, it does not presume to educate or colonize, but simply offers an alternative experience to the everyday happenings of a small and violent place.

When I describe the morbid events that have happened in my hometown, I don’t mean to sensationalize. I simply want to explain what the Culiacán Botanical Garden means to me. In the past, I have tried to describe its importance by name-dropping the artists and architects involved, but I’ve come to understand that the Garden’s personal significance is different from the significance of its creators.

What I find truly fascinating about this place isn’t what it harbors, but rather everything that surrounds it — all the loss and pain and incessant will to keep going. The Culiacán Botanical Garden lies absurdly in the midst of it. It makes no sense, but there it is, fixing nobody’s problems, promising nothing.

Teresa Margolles, “Untitled” in the Culiacán Botanical Garden

It would be easy to conclude by neatly proclaiming this site a testament to the power of art, or nature, or public space to transform societies — and I admit I have argued as much in the past. But the truth is, in a city such as Culiacán, almost everyone feels small and powerless in the avalanche of crime and impunity. What power can art have in the face of the deep political failures of a broken, corrupt government? How can it enlighten or inspire in a society half-convinced that drug lords are modern-day Robin Hoods?

Public art can only do so much. The Garden is just another symbol in the collective imagination of a fractured city, a modest attempt to compensate for the government’s faults and shortcomings. On its website, the collection describes itself as a “reflection of the conflicts, problems and ways of life of the region’s inhabitants,” with pieces that “invite visitors to modify the rigid social structures and cultural codes that operate in spaces of this nature.” Put simply, this case offers no grand story of redemption, only a collection of detached individual awakenings and small changes in perspective. Maybe that is enough.

I have always found it painfully ironic that Culiacán is famous for its beautiful, blood-red sunsets, as if the heavens offer residents a gift each time they endure another day. In 2015, the Culiacán Botanical Garden installed James Turrell’s “Encounter,” a dome structure that would be completely enclosed if not for an oval opening at the top. It can only be visited during the hour before nightfall and the hour before daybreak, when the sky is ready to perform. This is my favorite piece in the Garden. It is part of a series, but here it seems unique, seeming to separate and protect visitors from the surrounding hardship. It forces them to look up, allowing them to forget, if only for an hour.

James Turrell, “Encounter” (2015) in Culiacán Botanical Garden
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