Emissaries for Things Abandoned by Gods at Estancia FEMSA / Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City

Gaby Cepeda on what happens when a group of contemporary artists infiltrate the late architect’s house

By Gaby Cepeda

Emissaries for Things Abandoned by Gods, 2019 (installation view, featuring work by Deana Lawson and Danai Anesiadou). Photo: Ramiro Chaves. Courtesy Estancia FEMSA

Almost four years after its first exhibition, Estancia FEMSA / Casa Luis Barragán has cemented its spot as one of the few venues in the city where curators can be adventurous. The place demands it by virtue of being both not a white cube and at the same time a once-lived-in house designed decades ago – in what many, UNESCO included, consider a timeless example of Mexican modernism – by its creator, the venerated late Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Curators are granted permission to experiment with the house and its hallowed objects, continuously invoking and banishing the late architect’s ghost.

For Emissaries for Things Abandoned by Gods, American curator Elena Filipovic was allowed to swap every art and art-adjacent object within the home for current, contemporary pieces by 16 international artists – guided by the question ‘what would Luis Barragán collect?’ if he were alive today and in the mood for shaking things up. The swaps kept a few ambiguous rules in mind: that the new works be related to the original works either formally or conceptually; that they occupy roughly the same space and be of the same scale; and that they not disturb the visitor’s experience of the house. Filipovic’s words in the show’s brochure assure us that the new objects reflect on the previous works’ ‘operational value’ within the very deliberate architecture, while not actually shattering the visitor’s impression of Barragán’s intentions.

This is a bit tenuous. There is no way that every art object picked by Barragán for his own home could be replaced without jarring. But some of these encounters, however clashing, do work. Where Barragán hung a large eighteenth-century painting of the Annunciation in his bedroom, in front of his bed, there now hangs Sons of Cush (2016), a striking image by American photographer Deana Lawson. In its centre, a black man, a father, sits holding his baby and staring straight at the spectator. He is surrounded by framed family portraits, a genealogical tree of the African region going back to the Garden of Eden and an anonymous hand holding a stack of banknotes. Also in Barragán’s room, an ivory crucifix is substituted with Lawsons’s Adorah (2008), a tiny print of a dead foetus resting on the white satin interior of its coffin. These work by their smart substitution of the Catholic divine with human godliness: family and sacrifice intertwined. Danai Anesiadou’s vacuum-packed objects, found at different places around the house, are also a highlight. Works like Deal with It Across All Levels and All Dimensions (2019), in which a plastic bag emptied of air flattens a plastic burger, Chinese rice noodles and a cast-iron skillet into a mishmash of textiles and golden accessories, manage to welcome the clutter and chaos of Mexico City that Barragán struggled to keep out.

The last room on the tour, Barragán’s spacious studio, contains all of the architect’s original possessions, and the revelations it holds mirror the feeling of getting an exam back after grading, when one confronts the errors in one’s assumptions. The system of art-equivalences imposes a constant mental math – try to remember what might have been in a given spot, think of what it shares in common with the new – which seems like it might be fun for a curator, but less so for a regular visitor who has paid 400 pesos and booked way in advance to be awed by Barragán’s well-advertised Great Taste. Perhaps the exhibition’s grave mistake is the assumption that its visitors will come for the art, and not just to bask in the presence of the famous ghost. 

Emissaries for Things Abandoned by Gods, Estancia FEMSA / Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City, 21 September – 15 December 2019

From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview