“Like watching your parents have sex”

Mexico City's art week 2016 both fascinated and appalled -- but there was genius, and there were tacos.

ART LOOKS I harbor a sick love for art fairs and have been known to travel across the country on my own dime to cover Art Basel for alternative newspapers whose readers care more about local housing politics than what the elite art market is up to in Miami this year. I have my reasons.

I spent my 20s finagling escalating levels of VIP access at music festivals, and am now too old and spoiled for them. Art fairs, I find, are like music festivals for seniors, with air conditioning and less lines. Both feature free alcohol in the VIP section and offer easy buffets of content for culture journalists like myself. Also, lots of fun people with no clear connection to the subject matter (drag queens, nightlife people, members of the Dazed 100, me) show up to hang. Art fairs are a good time, like.

Miniature art hidden away in a back room at Material Art Fair, curated by Alison Kuo and Stina Puotinen.
Miniature art hidden away in a back room at Material Art Fair, collection curated by Alison Kuo and Stina Puotinen. All photos by Caitlin Donohue.

Last week Mexico City hosted its annual art week, anchored by the 13-year-old Zona Maco in Centro Banamex, a far-flung convention center attached to a horse racing track. We went to its inauguration on Wednesday and celebrity spotted Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia, a few days before he was barred from boarding his Aeromexico flight because of his turban. Ahluwalia rather bravely refused to leave the country until the airline apologized and pledged to provide training on Sikh beliefs to its employees, and though he warned fans that he might be delayed, it now seems that he will indeed make it for his New York Fashion Week opening of his jewelry line.

I thrilled to the solo exhibitions of local geniuses Debora Delmar Corp and Manuel Solano in Zona Maco Sur, the fair’s young artist section that somehow also featured the work of 50 year old artists. I can’t explain the attraction that DD Corp’s meticulously arranged DUVE Berlin booth held for me — her generic Ugg boots stuffed with cigarette butts vigorously resisting right angles whispered something to me about commercialism’s askew appropriation of feminine reality. Solano’s full body portrait of Alanis Morrisette — presented by DF’s Karen Huber Gallery — that the blind artist had created with help from a guiding hand of another painter hung alongside a TV playing loops of Solano’s performance work from before he lost his vision. For a painter whose work deals in themes of suffering and vulnerability, the context is incongruously inspirational.

Debora Delmar (left) and Manuel Solano (right) at Zona Maco.
Debora Delmar (left) and Manuel Solano (right) at Zona Maco.

In another corner of the fair, four workers meticulously placed reflective hexagons on ceramic, en route to finishing a toilet designed by Yoshua Okón and Santiago Sierra to take the shape of mega mogul Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya, a newish institution in town built to house the monopolist’s own art collection. A near-critical consensus held this shitty commentary on art and labor to be the most controversial piece of the week. I’ll concur, but the use of the workmen as human props still makes my skin crawl, regardless of social significance.

Bjørn Melhus, Y Gallery at Zona Maco

In our stoned Zona Maco wanderings, I bumped into German-Norwegian Bjørn Melhus, who had schemed with New York’s Y Gallery to bring a retrospective of more than 20 years of video work to Mexico City. The retrospective made abundantly clear that Melhus is a total freak, having spent decades fashioning himself into hundreds of characters that often interact with each other on screen. I chatted Melhus up while this video of him spying on another version of him played, the latter video-Melhus singing Janis Joplin to a guinea pig on a rope swing. Photo portraits of Melhus’ other incarnations adorned the Y Gallery space.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Melhus told me, happily. “You only take in what you can.” I find it wildly satisfying when artists are as bizarre as their work in person.

Was also into: This look, Rapunzel at home with a light BDSM touch.

Do not want to know what it was like to navigate a convention center in that floor length leather skirt, but am here for this hair color.

Three-year-old Material Art Fair focuses on emerging artists and takes place in Colonia Juárez, a central neighborhood known for its federal government buildings and car tire stores nonetheless showing increasing rates of organic coffee and rent inflation. Past years of the fair, which was founded by local gallerists Daniela Elbahara and Brett W. Schultz with consultant Isa Natalia Castilla, have been the best of any such art mess I’ve ever been to based on the originality and boldness of the artwork, youthiness and general sense of the fun that everyone’s having.

This year the layout was slightly rabbit warren-like (you can see architectural office APRDELESP‘s mockup of the space here), making for a breathless circuit of the art that a friend politely suggested was meant for serious collectors rather than dilettantes like your author. I had to come back a couple times so that I could take in the pieces without being overwhelmed by the hip society swell around me, but eventually I came away with some faves.

"Flex (ooh ooh ooh)" by Juán Sebastián Peláez, Galería Carne de Bogotá
“Flex (ooh ooh ooh)” by Juán Sebastián Peláez, Galería Carne de Bogotá at Material Art Fair

At Bogota’s Carne Gallery booth, Juan Sebastián Peláez’ police shields adorned with decals from your standard corporate bro magnates as Monster, Nike, Apple and Mustang seemed particularly relevant here in a country where armed forces have been bought by narco-corporations. (You can see unadorned versions of the same Plexiglas billboards out in force on any day in the government-heavy Juárez neighborhood.) The title of the piece is a nod to Rich Homie Quan, in particular a song of his that was made to listen to whilst tax evading in your Oakleys.

Another stand-out assemblage of pieces was U.S. trans artist Caroline Wells Chandler’s crocheted “cowbois” and other genderqueer characters. The collection made its debut in the artist’s homeland of Texas, where Chandler was struck by the “but if we let them gay marry, people will want to get hitched to their horses,” line of debate. In response, he created a rainbow of leg-spreading, assless chaps-wearing FTM creatures, most sporting the top surgery scars that Chandler hopes to have one day on his own body.

“Cowbois” by Caroline Wells Chandler, Roberto Paradise Gallery at Material Art Fair

I was, as always, infatuated with LA/Guadalajara Eduardo Sarabia’s “Desert Dreams” ceramics (a piece of which was presented by Artspace at Material.) Sarabia’s work with traditional talavera motifs and narco imagery messes with notions of souvenir and legal/illegal trade in Mexico.

Material assembled a really attractive group of creative movers and shakers from across the globe, and was hailed by some publications as the most important art event of the year. But I have to say that the 20- and 30-somethings pledging that they’ll be back to Mexico City — maybe to move here! — after spending time in 1. their hotel room in the Roma neighborhood 2. the inside of cabs 3. the art fair and official after parties … was a little disturbing. New friends, what you saw/partied with was the international art scene, not Mexico City. (I ranted more about this on 48 Hills last week if you’re interested in an alternative perspective to the New York Times’ “52 Places to Visit in 2016” list.) Material’s crowd is young and I expect it to make efforts to stay more woke.

"Xo.enZYm" by Luis Hidalgo, Materia
“Xo.enZYm” by Luis Hidalgo, Materia and Janet40 group show “Liquify/Retract”

The antidote for this, of course, is to focus on local artists who have a deeper understanding of the capital, even if their work isn’t explicitly geo-tagged. This is what I tried to do outside my convention center treks. On Friday night we watched Chinese New Year fireworks out the windows at Materia, a project space/gallery/occasional acrylics salon on the second floor of a downtown apartment building founded by DF art school grads Alina Mendoza and Matías Reding. Their group show “Liquify/Retract” in collaboration with design site Janet40 focused on digital artists, sight-bending projections and nods to 3D printing dominating the space.

One of the shiny art week things I was most excited about was the fact that Absolut would be giving a shit ton of money to DF’s epoch-blending sculptural duo Sangree to create the first Mexican edition of their art bar series. I snuck into Los Carpinteros’ Miami Beach orb during Art Basel 2012, died for the photos of Mickalene Thomas’ colorful edition in Switzerland (where Solange popped up to perform) and am a huge fan of Sangree’s time-hopping forms. But despite pyramid bars and wall figures that illuminated only when you turned your camera flash on them, this edition seemed a little more minimalist than prior incarnations. Chalk that up to Sangree’s clean aesthetic, or maybe the fact that Absolut thought they could get away with spending less money in Mexico (bastards.) The photos I took in the space turned out gorgeous, though. And besides DJs from the phenom NAAFI collective, we also got to hear from up and comers like reggaeton group Los Xxxulo$ and DJ Phaedra at the bar. And drink cacao cocktails out of gourds, sold.

DF sculptors Sangree were tapped to design an art bar for Absolut.
DF sculptors Sangree were tapped to design an art bar for Absolut a few blocks from Material Art Fair.

Bikini Wax Gallery is another well-known alternative art venue in DF, located in an apartment in the Escandón neighborhood since 2011. It nurtures a frat house vibe, a nice contrast to the fact that its an important venue for fresh contemporary art in Mexico City. That rep was vindicated by its ambitious three-day (non-stop, Jesus Christ) “Eternal Telethon” performance art event last weekend. I came through at the very start — so early I beat the first performer — to see Spanish visual artist Natalia Ibañez Lário‘s presentation of her Instagram gallery project @BEFOREANYONEELSE_ANTESDENADIE.

Natalia Ibañez Lário and DJ Rosa Pistola peform at Bikini Wax Gallery as part of Ibañez Lário’s @BEFOREANYONEELSE_ANTESDENADIE project

I’m fond of paraphrasing a classic John Baldessari via Sarah Thornton quote about art fairs, the one that says that for an artist, attending them is like seeing one’s parents have sex. You know it’s why you exist but that does not mean you want to look at it.

To conclude, art fairs are annoying because art people are annoying. It’s cool when fairs are in developing countries because the local artists are smarter and more relevant and when things go well they get paid off that shit. It’s problematic when they are in developing countries because they provide white people with a comfortable bubbles where they can sample local cuisine (even Zona Maco sold tacos on the convention floor) without having to speak the local language or even expand their musical tastes.

But fairs are also important because to a large extent, their participants are the people who are getting and giving money to create new aesthetics, to make the visuals that in our society are considered the most precious of all. More people should know about art than art people because its effects go past the convention center floor.

Finally, there is an excellent chance that you will get a bunch of free tote bags and, at some point, find yourself at an open bar.