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Art in Mexico City

by Linda Yablonsky
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No art fair is just about the action under its roof. Relationships are really forged outside its doors. During Zona Maco, Apr. 6-10, 2011, social networking opportunities abounded at gallery openings, collector dinners, cocktail parties and lunches at places like Contramar, a seafood house in the Roma district popular with the art crowd. On any given day of the Mexico City fair, its tables were filled with so many dealers, collectors and artists, it was hard to imagine anyone was left at the convention center.

Zona Maco director Zelika Garcia -- co-founder of the fair with her ex-partner Eugenio Rubio -- deserves credit for many things, but one of them is for instituting the now-standard VIP program at her first fair in Monterey. The program this year included studio visits, the openings of exhibitions at several galleries and just about every museum catering to contemporary art, extravagant, tequila-laced dinners at Eugenio Lopez Alonso’s Jumex Collection and at the homes of collectors like Elias Sacal Cababie and Ramiro and Gabriela Garza (whose array of works by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Cy Twombly suggest they often shop at Gagosian), a garden party at Casa Barragan for Doris Salcedo, and a performance in a parking garage by John Bock.

Getting to all of these events was not easy. At an altitude of 7,350 feet, the air in Mexico City is thin and the traffic so congested that patience -- never a norteno’s strong suit -- becomes a primary virtue, especially when the going is slow, the breathing is shallow, and the venues can be miles (meaning hours) apart.

Undaunted, everyone went to everything. The early crowd collected for a brunch at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) for Gonzalo Lebrija (represented at the fair by New York’s I-20 Gallery, one of the few that sold everything in its booth). More came to openings at OMR for Gabriel de la Mora (who co-opts Mexico’s black market for artworks by faking the provenance of his own), and Julieta Aranda (who recreated a defunct pirate radio tower).

At Projectos Monclova, Christian Jankowski posed on opening night with a German actor who could be a double for Jesus (a blue-eyed Jesus, anyway), the winner of auditions for the role in Jankowski’s new, telenova-type videos. A group show upstairs, curated by Chris Fitzpatrick and Post Brothers, featured a wall-sized vinyl text piece by Anthony Discenza, marking pop-culture signposts with wildly juxtaposed phrases like, "It’s Pokemon meets Brokeback Mountain," and "It’s Terminator 2 meets the US Senate").

At Fernando Mesta’s House of Gaga, the gallery-to-watch next door to Contramar, Fernando Palma Rodriguez created a kinetic dying-horse sculpture of plywood and table oil cans that raised its head at programmed intervals and stood in for a Mexico City that keeps growing new appendages.

To get to New Mexico artist Nicola Lopez’s old Mexico debut at Arroniz Arte, I had to cross the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, where a tall replica of Michaelangelo’s David stands at the center. At the splendiferous Kurimanzutto, Damián Ortega presented his first solo show with the gallery. Its several parts combined his experience of living in Mexico City and Berlin in works resonant of both cities and alien to each.

For one, he counted (and numbered) all the kernels on an ear of corn present in the gallery and built an adobe stone wall to represent it. The show also included an hour-long video, the tools of his trade hung from the ceiling like marionettes, and several concrete "knots" resembling vacuum-cleaner hoses that were spread out on the floor. Trust me: together it all looked beautiful.

The Museo Tamayo had a tepid show of abstract what-nots curated by Maria Lind, and a giant folded fire escape by Monika Sosnowska, but the best show there was a new iteration of the height-measuring, audience-participation-drawing project that Roman Ondák had at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year, "The Exhibition Vanished Without a Trace." Guards marked the wall at a visitor’s height by noting the date and his or her given name. By show’s end, the gallery will have a nearly solid and indecipherable black bar running around it -- impermanence made visible.

An hour (if you’re lucky) outside of town at Jumex, where Eugenio Lopez Alonso holds the largest, and most cutting-edge, private collection of contemporary art in Latin America, curator Osvaldo Sanchez put 69 works on view in "Glimmer." They included a Louise Bourgeois spider, a sexy pair of medicine balls by Miroslaw Balka, a great photo of a matador by Denise De La Rue, a gourd wrapped in plumbing hardware by Thomas Glassford (evidently a Mexico City favorite), and an exquisite jigsaw puzzle painting wrapped in plastic by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

The show’s generally black-white cast gave it the look of a sleek bachelor pad, in direct opposition to the tropical colors that lit the tent for the opening dinner next door, where artist DJ Slater Bradley brought the crowd to its feet.

For the more serious-minded, there was Salcedo’s Plegaria Muda (2008-10), which is traveling to six cities in six countries that do not include the United States. Its debut was at the Museo Universitario de Arte Conemporaneo (MUAC), a magnificent concrete and glass building designed by Teodoro González de León.

The installation consists of 162 doubled gray tables, each pair consisting of one inverted over the other with a thick section of adobe sandwiched between them. Blades of grass sprout through the top tables and continue growing throughout the show, watered by an irrigation system embedded in the adobe.

The work clearly evokes a mass grave, an emblem of atrocities committed across the globe over the last 100 years. Salcedo began her research for it in Los Angeles in 2004, when she learned that more than 10,000 young people had died from violence there over a 20-year period.

For Salcedo, the parallel with genocidal murders in her native Colombia was striking. "The death of each young person generates an absence and each absence demands that we take responsibility for the absent," she wrote in a statement, "since the only way they can exist is within us." Seen in broad daylight, her work wasn’t as grim as it sounds, but it was more profound to think about later than it was to experience.

It was certainly a far cry from Bock’s Jumex-sponsored performance, Lost-EGG in desert, on the same evening, during which he concocted an artwork out of stuffed clothes, foam, bicycle wheels and a car before an audience that included Ortega, Al˙s, collector Alberto de la Cruz, Lopez and Beyeler Foundation director Sam Keller. Reportedly, it was his last performance ever.

Not to be missed was the special "dinner" (there wasn’t one) at Carlos Slim’s bizarre Museo Soumaya, where he is showing part of his collection of Rodins -- the largest in private hands, supposedly -- along with a full-scale bronze replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta. (No comment.)

From the outside, the six-story building, which is clad in hexagonal aluminum plates, looks something like a 150-foot high, twisted silver corset, or maybe a torqued hourglass. It sits atop a pyramidal rise of concrete steps and is a spectacular sight after dark. Going up the steps, I couldn’t help feeling like one of the aliens returning to the spaceship in E.T. But I wasn’t going home. I was entering Slimworld.

The nearly windowless building was designed by Slim’s son-in-law, Fernando Romero, whose mentor was Rem Koolhaas. Inside the soaring, white-on-white rotunda, a long pole that cuts diagonally across the space from the floor to the ceiling shoots over a tall pedestal supporting Rodin’s The Thinker. "That’s very Rem," a friend commented later about the pole. The ramps leading to the top floor, however, are totally Frank Lloyd Wright, but with horribly cheap bleached floorboards.

The rest of the museum was closed, though I did get a gander at Slim’s motley installation of pre-Columbian objects, 19th-century western landscape paintings and Mexican murals. Slim is said to own some 66,000 works, none contemporary. "It’s a collection all right," said New York connoisseur Adam Lindemann, gazing at all the Rodins and Dali bronzes surrounding us. Frankly, it looked as if Slim had ordered everything from a mail-order catalogue. Nothing looked real. All of it was a hoot and a half.

And the fun wasn’t over yet. Dinner at Cabbabie’s 1960’s modernist home in tony Lomas featured five silver-wigged Andy Warhol look-alikes who stood aloof, apart from the guests, while Mexican Beatles band called Help, dressed first as the mop tops and then in Sgt Pepper garb, played the band’s entire song catalogue. And they were great.

Dessert came first, at long tables laden with pastries and chocolates. Dinner, as I heard later, was served at 3 am, which is definitely Mexico time. But by then I was back in my hotel, dreaming of tuna tacos at Contramar. There’s nothing like a week at an art fair to keep you hungry for a new vision.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.