‘America is a permissible dream,’ wrote Jack Kerouac in Mexico City Blues, his 1959 book of scat poetry. One can imagine Kerouac, the quintessential self-invented American rebel, sitting in a Mexico City bar, furiously writing free-form poems with morphine, Buddhism, death and myths of nationalism coursing through his brain. At the crossroads of these various cultural junctures we find Kerouac stripping the place of its local signposts, barely mentioning his surroundings. It seems the writer had exhausted the exoticism that he had relished a few years earlier in On the Road (1951) and returned to Mexico looking for something else, knowing that the city could act as a fertile ground for broader intellectual wanderings.
Mexico’s capital city has opened itself wide since Kerouac’s wandering generation visited, thanks partly to the country’s entrance onto the global economic stage and to increasing participation in the biennial and art fair circuits, yet the metropolis continues to strengthen and evolve from within. A re-evaluation of its own postwar vanguard movements has begun (see this year’s ‘The Age of Discrepancies’ exhibition at the city’s university), and the traditional absorption of expatriates and exiles alike has contributed to deepening cosmopolitan roots and longitudinal alignments. ‘Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City’ brought together 21 young or youngish artists who have links to the city. Some began alternative spaces together, many studied abroad in renowned art schools and then returned, and for others the binding thread is simply a shared national identity.
Mario Garcia Torres addressed the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti through diary-like letters in which he imagines himself travelling to Kabul and hunting for Boetti’s famed One Hotel, where the Arte Povera artist slept and made art from 1971–9. In 20 missives Garcia Torres relates his search, frustration and wonder. Ultimately we realize that he is sending letters to us, not Boetti. Kabul, in the months after the events of 9/11, was, for Garcia Torres, worth thinking about but not being in, and he never left Mexico. ‘It seems almost as if I were looking for something I had lived myself,’ he writes. Lastly, a calling card connects viewers with an answerphone message in which we detect Garcia Torres’ doubts about the hotel’s very existence, pushing it deeper into oblivion.
Conversely, in his wall painting Exilio (2006), Daniel Guzmán declared: ‘I exiled myself for such a long time that upon my return I didn’t recognize myself’. We don’t know where Guzmán went or why, just that his self-image is distorted, perhaps lost, his identity willingly and regrettably mislaid. Similarly, consider Julieta Aranda’s work from 2006, in hot pink graffiti: I HAVE LOST CONFIDENCE WITH EVERYBODY IN THE COUNTRY AT THE MOMENT. Given that the admission was scrawled on a roll of paper, it can be (and has been) transported and tacked up in any country and easily adapted to any political moment. Sealing the sense of liberation fraught with conflicted disappointment was Stefan Brüggeman’s 2002 text in vinyl on a gallery wall: ‘All my ideas are exported/All my products are exported/(All my explanations are rubbish)’ (Explanations, 2002).
Absent from this show were the usual signifiers of Mexico City: the aerial views of sprawling urban overgrowth, the pushcart flâneurs, the wrestling masks and Mayan gods, the statistics on pollution and violent crime. Instead we find Mexico City’s artists addressing a wider audience, not in a generic voice but in one that is internationally astute, counter-balancing the vernacular. Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest (2006) documents a journey from Alaska to Argentina. At each extreme the artist interviewed the last speakers of their native language, a deeply engaged investigation that returned consistently fascinating results from one location to the next. Likewise Nuevos Ricos, a collaborative group, worked with a sociologist to consider the influence of the cult New York gang movie The Warriors (1979). The resulting work, Los Guerreros (2007), pairs film stills with documentary photos of actual gangs that resemble their cinematic counterparts, suggesting that identification and imitation, not simply deteriorating social conditions, are the impetus for gangs forming. Image is everything, as is the case in the music videos of Los Super Elegantes, who grace viewers with their version of DIY cosmopolitanism, looking hot on borrowed yachts and dancing in Greek temples.
Meanwhile, Boetti’s quilted map from 1989 was again evoked in Carlos Amorales’ video animation Useless Wonder (2006), showing a snow globe atlas, with all the world’s nations unstitched and shaken up, spinning like lost meteorites. After so much political, civic and economic strife, Mexico may be finding a new place to come to rest, and, for now at least, its capital city seems like a permissible dream.