Cuauhtémoc Medina is currently Chief Curator at MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo) in Mexico City. Between 2002 and 2008, he was the first Associate Curator of Latin American Art at the Tate Modern in London; in 2012 he curated MANIFESTA 9 in Genk, Limburg, Belgium. He is an art critic, curator and historian with a PhD in History and Theory of Art, University of Essex.
This interview deals with Mexican art, rising elites and unpredictable futures.
Entertainment for the rich or longing for the revolution?
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: Thank you very much for this interview, Cuauhtémoc Medina. I would like you to discuss the Mexican art scene with particular regards to more or less emerging artists involved in some of your recent projects.
Cuauhtémoc Medina: In the last two decades, Mexico City has become a very visible centre for contemporary art. It has grown and developed well beyond what I expected. There is a very significant growth in terms of production of institutional structures that both accompany local practice and bring the national practice in the locality. There is also a very significant development of discourse and, of course, there is also a very significant number of artists active in this scene.
Plus, for the first time in a hundred years, there is also a significant connection between contemporary practice and a certain market, because of an elite that creates an interesting tension between the market and the issues that relate to the public.
At the same time, as you probably know, this is an especially conflictive area for contemporary capitalism. I would like to make a very simple generalisation about what this place is. This is a place where geography clashes: north, south… This is the space where the prohibition of drugs produces violence in the Americas. The economy here is probably one of the most paradoxical economies on Earth, because it appears as a significant player in the global market but it is based on an enormous level of exploitation and inequality. At this very moment there is also an incredibly complicated and failed democracy with a very significant local tension.
The local art world is a very complex ecology: it is an intersection of artists that already have a very significant name – and, probably, an appeal for a certain “plutocratic” taste, if you want to put it in clear terms – with an emerging scene that is very much traversed by a political anxiety and an expectation of having a very significant effect both in public opinion but also in making it possible to create a radical change and a very wide development of specific ways of producing readings of this society and beyond.
Then, there is a certain generational tension between the very active, very present, and very visible artists from the 90s, such as Francis Alÿs, Carlos Amorales, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Gabriel Orozco, Enrique Ježik, Teresa Margolles… These are artists that everybody knows but at the moment there is effectively also a very significant number of artists that are trying to “push the door” and try to break the visibility of that generation. From very good conceptual artists like Fritzia Irizar, who works in the fringe of invisibility of contemporary economy, to groups of activist artists like Tercerunquinto or the Teatro Ojo collective, but also other people that are making a very interesting meditative work in relation to the condition of this society and the violence in it, like Edgardo Aragón, just to name a few people. It is really a very vibrant and conflictive scene and I think that those two things probably make it particularly interesting. There is a relationship between productivity and conflict.
MA: My attention was attracted by a term you used: elite. How is this notion of elite articulated within the system, and within the art system in particular?
CM: It is taken for granted in the West that art is, to a great extent, a privileged space of representation for high classes. In a place like this, during the 20th century there actually was a divorce between the high classes and contemporary production – partly because of the revolutionary character of muralism but also because of a sort of reactionary taste of the elite after the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920. It is thus very clear today that there was a shift, and eventually the high classes, those high classes that were integrated into financial capitalism, now belong to the production structure of the art world. They collect art, also internationally, and there are also international collectors that are buying from many places that used to be part of the periphery.
The fact that we have now an integrated high bourgeoisie scene that is basically related to the growth of the financial markets, tapping both into buying art and in representing itself through art events and institutions, is a very central part of what the contemporary art world is about. It is also the case that such dominance of certain “plutocratic” structures is a source of energy and the reason why there is also a significant anxiety of a critical kind. An anxiety for a pulse of a different social encouragement and a different significance for contemporary art, that goes beyond the spectacle of prices and the spectacle of high class leisure. It is also clear that, in the present time, there is a constant tension between the expectations from the general public and those from the artists, who are willing to achieve social significance and to accompany the moment of insurrection; these are also part of the contemporary world with such a dominance of the market.
I don’t like to talk about the market as if it were depending only on will and power, because this basically cancels, for example, the real reason why prices in contemporary art are so high. This is because we have a significant gap between classes. There is a small elite around the world that is accumulating a significant part of the product and of the capital. Such elite is also a player in the acquisition and promotion of contemporary art. This is also the reason why this is an area where a conflict between the values of artistic practices is very much alive. But this is not a local case. What is, in a certain way, new in this country is that we are now an integral part of the general condition of contemporary art as a whole.
MA: I would like to know what is your forecast for the future. What do you think is going to happen in the near future in Mexico, in the art scene?
CM: I was trained as an historian and I’ve learned that you don’t forecast anything. The way we live the future is by going in it, and intervening. It’s not really useful to have any prediction because the prediction is normally accompanied with passivity. What you can have is an analysis of the present that locates the sphere of possibilities of your action and can give it a certain direction, a certain intentionality. For the moment I’m very busy in accompanying the development of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the National University in Mexico, MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, editor’s note) as an attempt to make it a public institution that is actually based on the intersection between intellectual time for the very production and the push of significant audiences, and on bringing together the academia and the excitement of the art world. That also relates to the possibility of connecting different classes and different powers in a problem that includes international artists like Hito Steyerl, Harun Farocki or Raqs Media Collective with a very significant attention to representing the history of this place while also introducing contemporary artists in here. For instance, we are working with graphic designer and painter Vicente Rojo on reconstructing the work of Proceso Pentágono in the 1970s. And trying to understand that as an attempt to bring complexity into our understanding of what is contemporary culture. That is a sphere practice and I can offer a certain assessment of what it is that we need to defend, the space of that complexity, as well as a certain understanding of why it is important to have a public sphere where a complex interweaving of intellectual aesthetic and effective conditions produces a space of reflection.
I would be very wrong in suggesting that we can develop an argument about what is going to happen into the future, both locally and internationally, partly because it’s clear today that we are living in a moment of enormous conflictivity. It is not only visible in terms of the brutality of a certain spectacle of violence, but also in the huge transformation of the industrial structure and its moving to the East. The conflicts that are developing from the decay of Europe and the USA as central economic powers, the accumulation of possibilities of violence coming from those imperial structures when they are under threat, and also the changes that are occurring in terms of culture in a globalised world that is globalised, precisely, because nobody shares the same values and nobody has the expectations to arrive to a common space of good.
I can’t forecast what can happen there because nobody can. It’s clear that we are in a moment of transition in what we used to call modern production. It is very clear that we are in a situation where the structures of economy and material life have been brutally transformed, also in terms of the way we understand our thinking and relate it to our possibilities of living. The only thing I can probably say is that contemporary art is important because it addresses these issues, even in its being sometimes torn between becoming the entertainment of the rich and the longing for the revolution. These two contradictory aspects are part of sharing the tension of the times.
MA: Thank you very much!
CM: You are welcome!