Defying Stability: Artistic Process in Mexico 1952–1967

MUAC, Mexico City, 27 March – 3 August

By Gabriela Jauregui

Defying Stability: Artistic Process in Mexico 1952–1967 is divided into six thematic rooms and reflects a period in time that is not necessarily well known abroad, yet begins to pique people’s interest: Mexico’s late Modernism, specifically in Mexico City. At that time, as is well portrayed here through numerous aspects and media – from small poetry publications, to large-scale architectural models – there was a tension between a blossoming ‘new’ and modern, perhaps more international culture along with a tight interrelationship between all the arts and the darker side of the economic period politically called ‘stabilising development’, with its conservative, repressive and/or traditional aspects.

For brevity’s sake I only highlight what felt like small revelations: several short and not-soshort films dealing with parties, some ironically and some in a more straightforward way of documenting a ‘scene’: for instance, the film that opens the show depicts a party full of artists and intellectuals to celebrate Carlos Fuentes’s birthday; or conversely, social gatherings and relationships take an ironic or bizarre turn in Juan José Gurrola’s 1965 Tajimara (based on a short story by Juan García Ponce),or in José Luis Ibáñez’s Un Alma Pura (1965, script by Carlos Fuentes and photographed by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa), both of which become a critique of modernity and/or bourgeois ideals. Perhaps the presence of so many excellent and sometimes unknown films in this exhibition is due to the fact that in 1961, several young cinephiles, filmmakers and critics formed the group Nuevo Cine (‘New Cinema’), which helped refresh and develop an experimental film scene at a time when Mexico’s ‘golden’ film era had fallen into decadence.

A similar kind of radical need to shock the bourgeoisie and shake people out of their comfort and complacency can be seen in the many filmed and photographed documents of early Alejandro Jodorowsky plays and ephemeral performances such as Melodrama Sacramental (1965), featuring naked men and women moving about as if possessed, wearing masks and paint, and the 1962 La Ópera del Orden, which was censored even before it opened, and featured panic transgressions and parodies of religion and good manners as well as set design by painters of the period (also included in the show) such as Alberto Gironella, and Manuel Felguérez, whose stunning abstract mural for the Diana Cinema (1962), which calls to mind some of Lee Bontecou’s works – on steroids – is featured in the same room.

But a critique of the status quo was not the only raison d’être behind these avant-garde works of a period that has come to be known as ‘La Ruptura’; there was also a very specific push towards a linkage of life and art and amongst the many arts, embodied at its best by Mathias Goeritz. His works are present in most all of the rooms in the show, as his range spans from concrete poetry-murals (Pocos Cocodrilos Locos, 1965), to many sculptures, geometric paintings and architecture, notably his 1953 building El Eco, inspired by the Bauhaus notion of a ‘total art’.

At the same time, there was a strong suburban expansion in Mexico City, as well as numerous large-scale architecture projects – from the university campus of the UNAM, to the housing projects of Tlatelolco or the Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper (all featured in photographs by Armando Salas Portugal and Nacho López). There are several films here that both reflect upon, sometimes to celebrate, others to critique, this industrial-mechanicarchitectural minirevolution of the time, most notably Gelsen Gas’s Anticlímax (1969), where the desertlike suburbs and their paranoid architecture finally turn into imaginary psychedelic moments to the tune of Wild Thing. And in keeping with this last aspect, there is also a good measure of psychedelia, as in Carlos Velo’s almost music video-like 5 de Chocolate y 1 de Fresa (1967), or in works such as Pedro Friedeberg’s detailed paintings and drawings of kabalistic follies.

Of this giant buffet I have only given you a small sampling. I close by mentioning the small jewel of a 16mm less-than-a-minute absurd Beckettian short film by Archibaldo Burns, Un Agujero en la Niebla (1967), where two men, one obese the other skinny, walk in a posturban wasteland. I hope to have whet your appetite.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue