Suffice it (barely) to say that this show, curated by Adam Szymzcyk, functions simultaneously as a Benjaminian thesis on history, a solid but debatable treatise on curating and a historical drama, this last replete with a breathtakingly beautiful heroine, so rich and compelling that one leaves eagerly awaiting the Hollywood biopic. Who is this magnificent creature? A certain Nahui Ollin (Carmen Mondragón) – a muselike provocateur of legendary beauty who, during the 1920s and 30s, was a poet and a painter of the Mexico City art scene. She was also – briefly – the mistress of Dr Atl, renowned Mexican painter of volcanoes, who gave her the tumultuous Aztec sobriquet Nahui Ollin (meaning ‘four movements’ and symbolising earthquakes). And despite its title – Olinka (also ‘movement’, ‘earthquake’ in Aztec), which was Dr Atl’s name for an imagined utopian city of culture – this exhibition’s muse is clearly Nahui Ollin, on both intellectual and symbolic levels. And that’s because she, something of a force majeure, could be said to embody the notion of history as a nonlinear phenomenon generatively formed by volcanic events, which disrupt and reconfigure the past, thus gesturing to its fundamental instability.
The notion of history as a nonlinear phenomenon generatively formed by volcanic events, which disrupt and reconfigure the past
This inspired reading of history features a heterogeneous selection of works by a handful of Szymzcyk staples – among them Paulina Olowska, Thea Djordjadze and Danh Vo – who have all produced works specially for the show; by several Mexican artists, such as Mariana Castillo Deball and Tercerunquinto; and by European artists based in Latin America; as well as historical paintings and ephemera by Dr Atl and Nahui Ollin herself (in the form of paintings, watercolours and books of poems – not to mention photographs of the woman). Discreetly interspersed among the works are A4-size wall quotations culled from philosophy, poetry and literature (sampling the likes of Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Bolaño and Emily Dickinson), which contextualise as much as they distract from the viewing experience. A series of original typewritten pages, in which Dr Atl describes his utopian vision of Olinka, can also be read on the wall.
I have mixed feelings about this exhibition. That it took me basically half my word count to get through its imperfectly told premise is distinctly symptomatic of the extent to which the curating dramatically overshadows its contents. The conflation of research and art is equally disconcerting, for the simple reason that aestheticisation of the former does little but exalt the author of the exhibition.
Now, to contradict myself, I like this show for the same exact reason that I find it problematic: rarely has curating felt as thoughtful, personal, totalising and – I dare say – like a work of art. This is by no means to imply that Szymzcyk does not seem to love the art on display here, but that it is anything but in the service of his curatorial vision cannot be doubted for an instant. If the last Documenta marked the absolute apotheosis of the curator, then this exhibition could be said to function as an epilogue, potentially ushering in an age of curatorial decadence.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue.