Adios DF, Hola CDMX — The transforming state of Mexico City’s creative scene
Mexico City today isn’t quite as it was depicted in Francis Alys’ Re-enactment series in 2000, in which he casually strolls around the city with a loaded gun in his hand for a painfully long 12,5 minutes, before anyone actually notices something’s up, leading to his (very brief) arrest. Across the city, the numerous advertising panels read “Adios DF. Hola CD MX”, proudly announcing the transition of Mexico City from Federal District to City State, granting it greater autonomy. This shift also coincides with the recent announcement of the creation of a Mexican Ministry of Culture to oversee cultural policies and budgets, which until now were managed by the Education Ministry. “An emphasis on design and culture is instrumental to the improvement of everyday life and this is something that the city government seems to have taken to heart” Material Art Fair co-founder Brett W. Schlutz, tells me at the busy opening of his gallery Yautepec.
Since the launch of Latin America’s first art fair Zona Maco in 2003, Mexico City’s cultural offering has gone from strength to strength, placing the city at the centre of international attention. In 2011, Museo Soumaya launched its swanky new building, designed by Fernando Romero, housing the greatest Rodin collection outside of France. In 2013, Fundación Jumex – the private foundation of juice box mogule Eugenio Lopez, and the most important modern and contemporary art collection in Latin America — just a stone’s throw away, inaugurated to international acclaim their new Chipperfield building. In 2014, the emerging art fair Material kicked off its first edition and has been growing ever since. Last year, it was announced that Mexico City would be the World Design Capital in 2018. The peso may be down, but CDMX’s ambition isn’t.
Zona Maco, Latin America’s first contemporary art fair
At first glance, Zona Maco doesn’t strike as much different than any international art fair. The slightly sterile feel of the site, the structured alleys and the inevitable presence of Anish Kapoor’s round sculptures and Damian Hirst’s butterflies make for a relatively generic experience — save from the tacos available in the VIP area. But after a more attentive look, the prevalence of Mexican galleries, Latin American artists, and a strong emerging section, make the visit worthwhile.
“The fair has done a lot to improve everything surrounding it, along with developing stronger relationships with international collectors, curators, and museum participation,” explains Joseph Ian Henrikson, Founder of New York-based Anonymous gallery, which now also has a branch in Mexico City. “What drew me to Mexico was the warmth of the people, the chaos of the city, and the ingenuity of life everywhere you turn. In the 90s, Mexican artist Miguel Calderon co-founded La Panadería, a non-commercial art space where a group of like-minded artists could speak their own voice. The sense of DIY, opportunity and availability is still reflected in today's scene.” says the gallerist as he shows us around their bright, yellow booth in the ‘New Proposals’ section of the fair. “Bananas", designed and conceived by Puerto Rican artist Radames ‘Juni’ Figueroa functions as a site-specific setting for artworks, talks and events throughout the duration of the fair.
“Cheap production and living costs, as well as a great source of inspiration make Mexico City an amazing place for young artists. There is a community who are very active and inclusive, it’s easy to meet people here,” says Debora Delmar, known under her alias Debora Delmar Corp. The work of the young Mexican artist dominates Maco, with two solo presentations at DUVE Gallery and LTD Los Angeles’ booths — the most interesting displays we have seen at the fair. Her work explores the languages of mainstream culture, advertising and ownership, and is getting an increasing level of attention internationally, with a residency coming up at Space London and a solo show at DUC in Berlin.
Material, a contemporary art fair promoting emerging practices
Meanwhile at Expo Reforma, in the Juarez neighbourhood, Material has kicked off, the contemporary art fair dedicated to emerging practices. A young and arty crowd flock outside, while loud, unidentified noises emerge from inside of the building. Far from the traditional art-fair model, Material is disorienting, slightly rough around the edges, and unconventionally lively.
“There’s a general air of risk-taking at the fair, with a strong presence of artist-run spaces and small galleries that might not be able to make the gamble on other costlier fairs,” says co-founder Brett W. Schultz, who moved to the Mexican capital from his native US nearly a decade ago. Initiated in 2014, Material has grown by 50% this year, featuring nearly 200 artists and 64 exhibitors from 15 different countries. Material has established itself as an alternative model of art fair, which is inclusive of non-profit organisations and projects spaces, offering a platform for emerging local and international voices.
New York-based gallery Queer Thoughts has an installation of found objects by Puppies Puppies, with as central element a life-size, four-walled cubicle. “The artist was here this morning, performing in the cubicle, dressed up as Shrek. You could only see him through the peephole” explains gallery co-founder Sam Lipp as he swipes through images on his iPad. “We have participated in Material since its inaugural edition. We do manage to sell here, primarily to international collectors”.
Towards World Design Capital 2018
The space at Material was designed by Mexican architecture studio, APRDELESP (Apropriación Del Espacio; or ‘Apropriation of Space’). It is non-linear, kind of like a labyrinth, and booths vary in sizes, creating a disorienting spatial experience which, like the rest of Material, challenges our ideas of what an art fair is or should be. APRDELSP are amongst young practitioners who are shaking up the architecture and design scene in the country. MoMA PS1 just announced the winners of their 17th Young Architects Programme: Escobedo Solíz Studio, two recent Architecture graduates from UNAM, Mexico City’s main public university, will transform the New York museum’s courtyard.
The annual Design Week México started in 2009, as a celebration of Design in the city, not unlike its UK counterpart the London Design Festival. Every year, Design week hosts a guest nation to display and promote their most innovative design. Last year, Mexico City won the bid to become World Design Capital in 2018. Taking place in March, it will be the most ambitious, comprehensive platform for Design ever organised in the city.
CDMX: From grass-root to institutional transformation
In just over ten years, the cultural landscape of the city seems to have completely transformed. The country’s economy faces turbulences, including oil prices close to all-time lows, and a drop in value of the currency, but projections are showing growth and commentators increasingly forecast a shift in economic power in Latin America from Brazil to Mexico.
From establishment through to experimentation, the creative community of the city has successfully developed a comprehensive infrastructure for artists, gallerists, designers and other forms of enterprises to thrive and receive the international attention it deserves.
Somehow, this only just seems the tip of the iceberg, and as the city rebrands itself, one might wonder where Mexico City is headed.
“The name change of ‘CDMX’ feels like a fresh start” says Schlutz. “Something that can help the city collectively look toward constructing a better present and future and shed much of what held the DF back. Despite the problems Mexico is facing as a nation, Mexico City feels optimistic and driven, and the creative energy we are experiencing is why there’s also now more international interest. It’s magnetic.”