Dispatches from Mexico City’s Art Week

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After a year-long almost hiatus, Mexico City’s art fair week returned to almost normalcy earlier this month.

For many in the art world, the February 2020 editions of Zona MACO, Material, and the myriad satellite fairs and events in their orbit marked one last big hurrah before the COVID-19 pandemic closed a big chunk of civilization. Last year, both of the main fairs remained cautiously shuttered while Mexico’s vaccine program slowly rolled out—although Zona MACO organized a somewhat chaotic attempt at a socially distanced gallery crawl, sprawling across various brick-and-mortar home bases or pop-ups in places such as parking garages. It was an interesting approach toward de-densifying an art fair, if not always successful at preventing crowding. In the vacuum left by the major events, a smattering of cool curatorial projects sprang up in disparate locales, from factory rooftops to historic mansions. 

I often remark that Mexico City’s annual February art week, with all its experimenting and risk-taking, is the best place to catch a preview of the emerging artists, concepts, and artworks that will end up hitting the US and European art worlds a few months or years later. And I sometimes think that CDMX—with its problems of poverty, postcolonial inequality, population hemorrhaging to the suburbs leaving behind empty gorgeous architecture and ecological disaster, gentrification, and eccentric creative spirit in spite of it all—is like Baltimore’s bigger, cooler, distant cousin she should be watching because she’s got her shit just a little bit more together. 


Offerings from Oaxaca-based Polvoh Press at Zona MACO’s exceptionally well-curated publications section

This year, art-week-staple fair Zona MACO returned to the cavernous Centro Banamex convention center. Sadly, the younger Material Art Fair (arguably the true highlight of the week) was forced to postpone its 2022 edition until April due to a scheduling conflict at its usual host venue. Similarly, the pop-up fair Clavo Movimiento announced an 11th-hour cancellation, which was a bummer—its artist-centric takeover of a dilapidated but grand mansion at Versailles 113 was one of the best things to happen in 2021. But what took its place at said venue, a collaborative show between some of Mexico City’s smartest galleries known as Arthouse Project, proved to be a nice distillation of quality curating with room to breathe. And around the corner on Calle General Prim, Salón ACME returned to an even more dilapidated (and at one point, even grander) former mansion for its crowd-pleasing, artist-centric fair. 

And yet I’m not sure “crowd-pleasing” is a term one can use to describe a week that wasn’t quite “crowded,” at least in terms of audiences at most exhibitions. What was crowded, however, was the calendar—even without Material as a secondary anchor fair. I’m pretty sure I once described Mexico City as “the capital of FOMO,” and the past week-plus was definitely evidence to that claim. Perhaps the sheer volume of competing events and their massive geographical spread across the megacity’s sprawl are to blame, but there were noticeably thinner crowds this year at most shows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially with lingering COVID jitters hanging in the air like so many sneezed aerosols. 

Really, it’s usually the disparate pop-up performances, site-specific installations, and thoughtful exhibitions at galleries that steal the show from the bigger fairs anyway (read our interview with Beth Frey, partly about her solo show at local gallery Acapulco 62). My “Art Week” technically started off a week early with a series of intimate art-viewing experiences which, in retrospect, I treasure more than a blue-chip painting I hypothetically would’ve bought in a convention center if I were rich. 

The performance “Cuando calienta el sol” by En giro y a la olla, a collaboration between Madrid-based Laura Szwarc and Suraia Abud, especially stands out as a moment of generosity before the commercial spectacle landed in full effect. The duo, who had been researching traditional culinary practices in Mexico while here for an artist residency, paired spoken observations about agriculture, ingredients, and food rituals with choreography and installation in a progressive dinner for a handful of participants. 

We gathered in the foyer of an apartment in Centro, and then were led into a room with a table covered in nopales. Abud explained the history of the cactus—long a staple food for the indigenous inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico—and its preparation, offering us a sample of pickled nopal. All of a sudden, Szwarc slid out from under the table and popped up into a dance, mimicking the fractal growth of nopales with her limbs like slow-motion voguing and rotating slightly like a plant seeking sun. It was kind of frightening/surprising, humorous, and utterly endearing all in quick succession. 

We followed the performers on a circuitous scavenger hunt through the rest of the home and garden, similarly hearing about frijoles, jicama, corn, et al. with corresponding movements and artistic interventions. It culminated in a delicious plant-based meal in the dining room, followed by a found-object puppet show and traditional hot chocolate in the kitchen. The evening veered from performative to conversational and back again—sometimes goofy, sometimes informative, but always fun and engaging. It was probably the high point of all the art-viewing that followed it. 


Poncili Creacion performing

A close second was likely Poncili Creación’s farcical, anarchic performance in a pizzeria/skate park in the stabilized ruins of a colonial building a few blocks north. The Puerto Rican punk puppeteer collective (here comprising just the core members, twin brothers Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro) emerged from an upper story of the crumbling structure inside of a wonky foam-and-fabric horse costume. They made a nerve-wracking descent in the cumbersome getup down a rickety fire escape and plopped into one of those skateboarding bowls that looks like a dried-up swimming pool, all to an oscillating soundtrack of rhythmic noise music. The foam horse ran around, ramming into audience members, gyrating, and at one point gave birth to the performers out of its big blue butt hole. While woofing down mediocre pizza, I realized how telling it was that this was only the second-most surreal “dinner and a show” experience I’d had in Mexico City’s art scene that week. 

While shows involving art you can eat will likely always hold a special place in my heart, there’s plenty of room for more conventional art objects. Below are some of the other sights that caught my eye last week.

If attendance felt sparse elsewhere, it might be because everyone was at the opening for Salón Silicón’s tribute to the late, great queer photographer (and all-around Mexico City icon) Alan Balthazar. Balthazar left behind an archive of dreamy experimental film negatives and probably more friends and fans than most people will meet in a lifetime. It seems like all of them were crammed onto the sidewalk in front of Salón Silicón’s tiny storefront space, sharing drinks and memories of the artist’s larger-than-life presence in the city’s cultural scene. I even ran into a fellow Baltimore-to-Mexico transplant, writer Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey, who was DJing the event.

Zona MACO:

Meanwhile, at Centro Banamex, lovingly crafted fiber and mixed-media works again dominated many of the fair’s curated sections, such as Patel Brown’s booth in “Ejes” (“Axes,” a section skillfully curated by Direlia Lazo). The Toronto-based gallery featured Nep Sidhu’s mixed-media sculptures and Rajni Perera’s equally craft-tastic tapestries. Both artists use a broad range of embellishment techniques and look so good next to each other I wanted to give Sidhu’s figure a congratulatory hug. 


Speaking of things that look good together, I’m continually impressed by Gagosian’s ability to wrangle compelling, cohesive fair booths out of a catalog that ranges from reliable, dead secondary-market crowdpleasers to living artists in their roster. At Zona MACO, these Barragan-pink-tinged nudes by painter Tom Wesselmann and sculptor Rachel Feinstein look like they were made to be friends. The whole booth fit into this color scheme, from a small, lovely Rachel Whiteread to one of those giant Damien Hirst “spot paintings” everyone loves to hate (personally, I like them and don’t think they’re as “vapid” as the consensus reads). 

The curatorial logic here seemed to be that there’s an aesthetically similar piece for every conceptual taste—so if a collector likes a Helen Frankenthaler, you can sell them a Warhol that matches the color palette? Hell, I’d probably buy the whole booth as a package deal! And yet, for all this extremely high-end, decor-oriented thinking, I’m also continually baffled (and weirdly distracted) by Gagosian’s recurring decision to bring tacky laminate flooring seemingly straight from the clearance rack at Home Depot to convention centers with perfectly fine polished concrete floors! 


A few booths down in Hashimoto Contemporary’s booth, I was struck by these maximalist paintings by Emilio Villalba, whose paint application is buttery and textured but manages to cram a surprising amount of detail between the ridges of his brushstrokes—rendering collage-like compositions of day-to-day objects and pop culture in a style that’s equally graphic and painterly. 


In the Zona MACO Sur section, Bucharest-based Anca Poterasu Gallery showed paintings by Iulian Bisericaru and sculptures by Alessandro Brighetti. Their work is about the collapsing distinction between “natural” and “urban” landscapes, as humans continue to ruin everything in our path. I almost worry these Pepto-Bismol-pink landscapes, bordering on the sublime, might be a bit too pretty to serve as a biting critique. My boyfriend and I looked at each other and immediately quoted a scene in the haunting documentary about Mexico’s manmade water crisis, H2O-MX, “bonito pero contaminado”—“pretty, but polluted,” spoken with resignation by a woman living downstream from the city after dreamlike footage of industrial waste foam blows through her village. 


Salón ACME:

“Bonito pero contaminado” was very much the vibe of the 9th annual Salón ACME, a fair that’s a somewhat unpredictable mix of commercial galleries, ambitious curatorial projects, and artist-organized installations vying for attention with its spectacular setting—the labyrinthine ruins of a mansion and its patios smack-dab in the middle of the city. Curiously, the ruined house is a little more “cleaned-up” every time I visit it, almost losing its patina in some places. I’d love to know the surely byzantine story of its death and life. 

But for all the more “polished” corners of the complex now hawking overpriced cocktails, the collective “Nueva Sucursal” brought a decidedly de-gentrified aesthetic to the space—mimicking Centro Histórico’s discount fabric stores and the ubiquitous print-on-demand vinyl banners slowly consuming the neighborhood’s streetscape. The group of Ángela Ferrari, Cosa Rapozo, Enrique López Llamas, Hernán González, Paola Mosqueda, and San Gil sold “art by the meter” in the form of digitally printed fabric, displayed on bolts like a showroom. 


These detail shots don’t really do justice to Alejandro Galván’s enormous, detailed paintings. Each is wall-sized and crammed with delicate illustrated scenes at various scales. They’re an almost claustrophobic millefleur of disasters, political violence, and youth subcultures that capture the past few decades of uncertainty. 


These backlit bas relief panels by Andrea Carillo Iglesias looked so good against the patina of the walls at Salón ACME.



Larissa De Jesús Negrón, presented by REGULARNORMAL, with a tiny dog for scale 

Arthouse Project:

A few blocks away, some of the city’s best galleries got together and took over the slightly less-dilapidated mansion that formerly housed Clavo Movimiento for a collaborative show called Arthouse Project. It seems like they didn’t attract as many crowds as their predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a less jam-packed show, I had the chance to speak with several gallerists and curators, including the painter Michelle Sitton, who made the above series as a new way of thinking about space from the confinement of quarantine during the height of the pandemic. I especially love the abstracted map of Mexico City with her face (inspired by endless Zoom meetings) at the center. 


But predictably, this bonkers assortment of sexual ceramics and propaganda-like posters by Renata Peterson in Pequod Co’s room at Arthouse stole the show. 


Similarly, this piece by Aurora Pellizzi charmed the pants off viewers at Laguna, a former textile factory that has been repurposed for a mix of light industrial and creative uses. It’s probably one of the best examples of an old industrial space where various types of making and displaying objects happily coexist. 


One of the most clever approaches to site-specific art-making: artist/designer/dancer María Cerdá Acebrón and her scarves. She makes collages of layered craft paper in bright colors to fit the windows of her studio at Laguna, allowing the sun to bleach the exposed surfaces. When the top layers of paper are removed, the “background” ends up with faded patterns like a primitive form of photography. These disassembled collages are then scanned to become fabric prints. Of all the novel approaches to fiber arts on view during art week, of which there were hundreds, this was likely my personal favorite for its novelty and simplicity. 


Commentary and Photos from International Art Fairs in Mexico City by Michael Anthony Farley

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