MEXICO CITY — Materia estética disponible, Miguel Calderón’s current show at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, which debuted at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey (MARCO), is a perplexing survey of gritty works in installation, photography, and video spanning 30 years. The works play with fact and fiction to shed light on institutional critique and transgressions around class, violence, and corruption with humor and irony. They also draw from La Panadería, an alternative art space that Calderón, an outlier of sorts, ran with Yoshua Okón in the 1990s out of a former bakery in la Condesa. During this period, Mexico City was reeling from the aftershocks of Zapatista uprisings, the peso crisis, economic hardship, and kidnappings.
What first caught my attention was “Moribundo” (1999), a giant blue mural of a globe with the eponymous title scrawled across it in big, bold red letters. It turns out, in a witty play on words (a riff on a local mattress store called Dormimundo), the artist was evoking the death of the museum. Once I got to see empleado del mes (1998), a series of unassuming color photographs, the irony made sense to me. The cleaners are pictured reenacting scenes from classical paintings that were temporarily not on view at the Museo Nacional de Arte. These images felt like a parody of the distance between “art institutions” and those who scrub them clean. Ironically, Calderón recently slammed the Tamayo in an open letter for not paying its custodians for months late last year.
The video El balance de las improbabilidades (2021) offers a glimpse into the life of Pedro, an affluent insurance adjuster turned art collector who tries to escape the drudgery of his work by acting in a violent play that takes an emotional toll on him. The tension between melodrama and the adversity of real life is quite disturbing. In the end, it’s the play that makes him fall apart, not the real human cost of corruption. Pedro, cold and detached, tells it like it is, eventually going back to his old life.
Materia estética disponible is macabre, and a bit tongue-in-cheek. Seeing how some US media has flattened Mexico into a place of danger is a far cry from Calderón’s brilliantly complex visual landscapes of comedy and tragedy clamoring all at once. This survey’s flippant title reminds us that aesthetics, which can also be crude and random, are always there for us to see. Calderón lays bare what’s sinister and corrosive about life in Mexico City, including his place within it. So, we can choose to face all this clever provocation head on or simply look the other way.
Materia estética disponible continues at Museo Tamayo (Paseo de la Reforma 51, Bosque de Chapultepec, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, Mexico) through March 5. The exhibition was curated by Taiyana Pimentel, director of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO).