Category Archives: Art

Art for love or money: Latinos and politics, but also, just a bit of a rant

Art for love or money: Latinos and politics, but also, just a bit of a rant
ArtBasel2014 Blog entry
Martha W Rees
December 2014

See Mel Chin on this, much more fun: [http://creativetimereports.org/2014/12/18/mel-chin-miley-cyrus-eric-garner-miami-basel-art-fair/]

In December, I went to ArtBasel Miami Beach, but didn’t get everywhere, I missed out on Aqua Hotel, and Autobody, but went to NADA, ArtBasel, MiamiProject, ArtMiami and Pinta. I did see a lot of pieces that intrigued and pleased. But I went looking for Latino and/or political art. While I might well have missed it, I found little political art, no Mexican American, (almost) no immigrant, art.

What is art? The question that interests me as an anthropologist is the place of art, as a form of production, in society. While the common view—by artists and society in general—is that art is an individual, idiosyncratic, unique activity–autonomous, Becker argues the opposite: that there is very little artistic production that isn’t the work of a group of people working together. Rather than being outside of society, art is part of society, in this view (1992:14). Becker (1992:7-9) regards art as work that some people do, and this work is social, in that it involves cooperation between a group of workers, with different forms of division of labor, specialists and otherwise, carrying out different tasks.

How is capital appropriated in art, if it is truly autonomous (Garcia Canclini 1986)? ArtBasel certainly shows how some art does represent capital. And class mediates this representation, or circulation through the market. In his book, Distinction, Bourdieu looks at taste (aesthetics) through the optic of class (1984), showing how social class ‘colors’ the perception of beauty (the middle class thinks a cabbage is beautiful; working classes think it is food). Art is a way of organizing class distinctions symbolically, although only in the ‘modern’ West is art constructed as ‘autonomous.’

So, autonomous art is above history, and politics. But, of course, an apolitical position is, in fact, a political position. Reflective (or belly button) art looks at the inner self, aesthetic art plays with form. These last two are important, and made up at least 80% of the pieces shown.
As a caveat, I note that it is likely that there was, and is, much that I missed. Political content doesn’t have to be blatant, but sometimes the unschooled (such as I) may miss it!

Aesthetic Art
One way of defining aesthetic art is in the negative: most people wouldn’t put it in their living room; you couldn’t ask the artist to make you a version in another color! I’m not saying that I don’t like technique and form, but only that it is not sufficient for art as cultural critique.

IMG_0432 3

I saw lots of pieces that were aesthetically pleasing in color, form and design. This example (Figure 1) is a mirror with acrylic paint (see Helen and me, blurry in there)—isn’t reality fun?

Figure 1. Harrogate by Lavier

(Kewenig, ArtBasel)

Lavier's Harrogate

Incredibly elegant and beautiful, Hu Xiaoyuan’s Vortex (Figure 2 (Beijing Commune, ArtBasel) is not political, how could it be? But it is certainly beautiful.

Figure 2. Vortex beneath the Vortex. by Hu Xiaoyuan (Beijing Commune)

Hu Xiaoyuan Vortex

Political art
But art, like other intellectual production is, in my book, a form of cultural critique; a commentary on daily life. That is political art: art that comments on power relations in the larger social, rather than individual, condition. Not how I feel, but what happened (and how I feel about that, maybe).

An example of political art is Live/Work by Brad Troemel of Tomorrow Gallery at NADA (see Figure 3). I like NADA anyway because it seems edgiest and less commercial. There was certainly a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t put on your wall! But this piece is aesthetically pleasing, alive and it makes you wonder. What happens to the ants?

Figure 3. Live/Work by Brad Troemel (Tomorrow Gallery, NADA)

Tomorrow Gallery Ants Nada14 abmb

Another piece (Figure 4) at NADA also wasn’t aesthetic art, but made no overt political statement, although certainly an urban condition overrun by rats might be seen as a political conditions. Chim Pom of Mujin-To Production Gallery in Tokyo displays a video capturing and killing rats, followed up by a stuffed bright yellow dyed rat! Definitely not for the coffee table!

Figure 4. Real Times by Chim Pom

(Mujin-To Production, NADA)

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I sought out galleries owned by Latin Americans (and concentrated on Mexican galleries), and Latin American Artists. NADA had one Puerto Rican and one Guatemalan artist (who I could never find). None of this work was political or very edgy.

There was some art that was political. This piece (Figure 5), at ArtMiami, was at an unattended booth with no information or gallery representative. However, the work was technically excellent and pleasing to the eye. I just stood by this desk and saw a young artist suffering through the bonds of education, to express him/herself, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Figure 5. Enslaved Desk (?, Art Miami)

desk

Of course, Kara Walker’s very political, and controversial, pieces shock and remind (Figure 6)—probably the essence of the political art form.

Figure 6. Kara Walker’s Confectionary (ArtBasel)

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Possibly a migrant, too, Sarkissian (Figure 7) built, and destroyed, a heart-rending replica of his parents’ apartment building in war torn Damascus.

Figure 7. Sarkissian’s Homesick

(Kalfayan Galleries)

Sarkissian Homesick

Of course, Mel Chin is a major political artist, whose work, most of it only referred to at the Jonathan Ferrara booth at the Miami Project, was reviewed in an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art (Lash 2014). Technically perfect, deeply researched, his work is often huge. One piece here, Cabinet of Craving, is beautiful polished wood (ebony veneer on oak) sculpture with an English antique tea set inside a ‘spider’ with an ancient Chinese mask (gluttony). This sculpture is not in fact a spider, but the story of how English craving for Chinese tea was (literally) fed and fed by the craving for opium. Cabinet, was a favorite spot for art selfies (see below, Figure 12).

 

Latino galleries and artists
I guess if you have enough resources to show at ArtBasel Miami, your clients are not immigrants, or activists, but folks looking for art from Latin America, often an essentialized representation of Latin America.

Olaya (Figure 8) takes traditional papel picado, the paper-cut-out decoration of Mexico and makes auto-body picado in a beautiful memory of fluttering flags across the streets at holidays.

Figure 8

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This tire (Figure 9, or map, with glyphs was not identified—at least I couldn’t find the label at the show or on the web. It shows Latin American (Mayan? Or pseudo Mayan?) content, or derived content, apparently a turtle glyph on paper on a map of the world (see paper under the tire), and other glyph-like representations carved into a tire.

Figure 9. Juan Ruiz Galeria

(Miami, Venezeula)

IMG_0427 4

 

Perhaps Nizenbaum is a migrant, and certainly her piece (Figure 10) contains references to Mexico, with images of indigenous weaving under letters to/from home. Here, the Latin American content is background for a personal story.

Figure 10. Nancy’s Dragon

by Aliza Nisenbaum

(Lulu Gallery, Mexico City, PINTA)

Nisenbaum

Finally, I come to Labor Gallery, who I first saw at NADA in 2011, since then, they’ve moved into ArtBasel. They consistently show pieces with political and Mexican content. None of these peace heroes (Figure 11) are Mexican, as I noted as the Gallery represented point out that it was a sad day for Mexico (as the body of one of the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa had just been positively identified). Where are the Mexican peace heroes?

Figure 11. Pedro Reyes’s Heroes of Peace (Labor Gallery, Mexico City, ArtBasel)

Pedro Reyes Peace Heroes

People
Of course, there was plenty of opportunity to watch people at ArtBasel, Miami. I was surprised at all the folks taking pictures of themselves with art (is it contagious?), and not just in front of this sculpture (Figure 12), but many others, too.

All of Mel Chin’s art is political, and it is all aesthetically perfect, and requires a careful reading to understand—from Katrina, conquest, superfund sites, guns, to terror and more. While beautiful and perfect (I’d certainly put any of it on my wall, or in my room), Chin may be too big and too political for a place like ArtBasel.

Figure 12. Mel Chin’s Cabinet of Craving (Miami Project) satisfying a craving for….?

IMG_0281

Conclusions
A lot of the art at ArtBasel wasn’t worth the effort, especially with the general confusion and lack of signage about transportation shuttles, and the masses of people. People at ArtBasel (artists, dealers, galleries and buyers) are looking for money, not art. One example was Nahmad gallery.  They had Picassos and more.  And a chain across the space to keep the riffraff out!

An anthropological analysis of art, and political art, immigrant art, Latin American art, shows that ArtBasel is not a space where the critique of culture through art takes place. Rather it is a place where value (capital) is created and circulated in the form of class-based symbols of aesthetics and taste. Is this cultural critique?

SOURCES

Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press (1991).
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge. (orig. 1979).
Garcia Canclini, Nestor. 1986. Desigualdad cultural y poder simbolico. La sociologia de Pierre Bourdieu. 1. Cuaderno de Trabajo. INAH.
Garcia Canclini, Nestor. 1995. Hybrid Cultures. Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1989. Culturas Hibridas. Grijalbo. Mexico).
Lash, Miranda, ed., 2014. Mel Chin. Rematch. HatjeCantz.

Cueva del El Rey Kong-Oy

Que es el arte mexicano?

Que relevancia tienen los restos arqueólogicos?

These are the questions that archeologist Marcus Winter [1] of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Oaxaca asked at the beginning of his presentation of findings in the Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy in the Mixe (or Ayuuk) ethnic region of Oaxaca, Mexico:

What is Mexican art? When we think of art in Oaxaca we think of Francisco Toledo, Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales, he says.

And,  what is the relationship between archeological finds and Mexican art, he asks?

In this presentation, Winter took us to the Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of Mixe speakers, showing at the same time how invasions and migrations must have separated a once contiguous group into isolates.

Oaxaca Mixe
Figure 1. Mixe Map [http://www-01.sil.org/mexico/mixe/00i-mixe.htm]
Winter recounts how cavers Jason and Tamara Ballensky (co-authors of the article this presentation is based on) explored a horizontal cave, and half a kilometer in, they came upon 65 human and 15 animal figures, some life-size, in the clay-dirt of the cave floor (see Figure 2).

Oaxaca Mixe Map Cueva Rey Condoy Ballensky
Figure 2 Cueva Rey Condoy [http://www.amcs-pubs.org/maps/2708.pdf]
The largest and first, a male and female couple, are naked with exposed genitals (Figure 3)—the Rey Kong-Oy?

Oaxaca Mixe Cueva rey+condoy figures Ballensky Marcus+Winter
Figure 3. Jason Ballensky [https://www.flickr.com/photos/elliot_stahl/6682922781/in/set-72157628837564457]
 Winter and his team took up the archeological research in this amazing find  [2].

Dating these figures is difficult, with only one potsherd from the Monte Alban II period (100 years BCE – 200 CE), and that near the entrance of the cave, Winter explains.

But similar work in other caves may shed some light. John Pohl and Javier Urcid describe millenarian movements that sound like cargo cults in the post classic period (starting after 1000CE, and obviously, later) in which sacred leaders stored goodies from trucks to radios in caves, a transformation of earlier texts that tell of mountains as depositories of food [3].

There are other versions, in Zapotec, Mixe and other groups, of the legend of this king, giving him attributes related to the pan Mesoamerican icon, the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl in central Mexican Nahuatl, Kukulan in Maya) [See for example–ps://coceno.wordpress.com/category/leyendas-mixes/].

The figures in the cave, male and female, may represent more recent or more ancient culture heroes, seeking to expand territorial claims over other groups, or taking refuge from Spanish and Mexican expansion and conquest. Or not.

What is the cultural context of the area where this cave is? The Mixe or Ayuuk are a language and culture group of over 120,000 speakers in the 2000 Censos [http://www.redindigena.net/ser/pueblomixe/demog.html].

The language is part of Mixe-Zoque family, which may be the language of the Olmecs, as Pardo and Acevedo document, who built the first monumental structures in Mesoamerica—La Venta and others [4].

The Mixe/Ayuuk continue to maintain, if not increase, the number of speakers and, due to poor communication throughout the mountainous region, have kept outsiders at bay at least as much as other groups, if not more. They have a cultural and linguistic integrity rare in Mexico today.

They are proud of never having been conquered by the Spanish. Certainly oral histories and linguistic evidence indicates that their boundaries have changed over the years.

The Mixe/Ayuuk region lies to the northeast of the central valleys of Oaxaca—flat, good agricultural land that became more and more valuable as agriculture became more important–and the focus of more struggle as empires grew. Regardless of when the figures were created, the borders between the Ayuuk peoples and other groups—Zapotec speakers mainly, has moved back and forth over the centuries.

Maybe they hid their ‘king’ in a cave for safety with the expansion or migration of Zapotec speakers, into the neighboring mountains with the fall of Monte Alban starting in about 700CE. Or maybe, the mountainous area is what Aguirre Beltran [5] called a region of refuge from the Spanish conquest and colonial expansion.

Or both.

Regardless of whether these amazing figures represent a culture hero, Cong-Oy, part of the Mesoamerican iconic origin myth, a post-empire millenarian movement, or a post-conquest refuge, the figures are amazing and beautiful. Which brings us back to Marcus Winter’s initial point: What role do they play in Mexican art? As he suggests, they are, they must be, and they will continue to be part of the richness of Mexican cultural production.

NOTES

Thanks to Linda Landig for editing help!
[1] Conferencia Magistral “Las esculturas prehispánicas de la Cueva del Rey Cong-Oy, Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca.” Marcus Winter (INAH). Imaginería y Poder Político en Oaxaca y más allá. Ciclo Anual de Conferencias de Arte Indígena en Oaxaca y Áreas Vecinas. Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca. (3 Feb 2015).
[2] Marcus Winter, Tamara Ballensky, Jason Ballensky and Javier Perez Guerrero. 2013. “La Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy” pp. 293-320. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH.
[3] Pohl, John M. D. and Javier Urcid. 2013. Cuevas Sagradas y Sagas de Migración: Peregrinajes, Alianzas y Redes de Intercambio en el Suroeste de Mesoamérica durante la Época Postclásica. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH [https://www.academia.edu/8104019/Cuevas_sagradas_y_sagas_de_migraci%C3%B3n].
[4] Pardo Brugmann, María Teresa and María Luisa Acevedo. 2013. La Dinámica Sociolingüística en Oaxaca: Los Procesos de Mantenimiento o Desplazamiento de las Lenguas Indígenas del Estado. Tomo I. Mexico: Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Superiores en Antropología Social, 148.
[5] Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzálo. 1968. Regions of Refuge. Human Organization 33:1-74.