THIS MONTH, MEXICO will commemorate the bicentennial of its independence and the centennial of its revolution with a massive, pull-out-all-the-stops celebration. The extravagant festivities have been preceded by a year of projects and events, ranging from historical exhibitions to television shows to a bicentennial flame traveling around the country a la the Olympic torch. In Mexico City, the Bicentennial Tower will be officially unveiled on the evening of September 15 at the main entrance of Chapultepec Park along the historic avenue Paseo de la Reforma. But the accompanying urban plan designed around this structure--which would have connected neighborhoods via pedestrian walkways and helped alleviate the heavy traffic flow--was indefinitely deferred when funding dried up. The city is left with a mostly symbolic monument, while the functional part of the scheme has evaporated.
The fate of these grand plans points to a general lack of stability underpinning civic structures in Mexico generally and in Mexico City in particular. In the capital, the outlook for political change is so grim, the inequality so entrenched, and the corruption and crime so rampant that the city's twenty million residents live in a permanent state of vulnerability. But precarity tends to heighten awareness of one's circumstances and to encourage resourcefulness--effects visible in the city's art community, where creative forms of micropolitics are emerging as artists take on new models of language and urban research to respond directly to conditions in Mexico. One key instigator of these developments is the itinerant nonprofit organization Pase Usted, run by a small group of young curators, architects, and designers. Since its formation in 2008, Pase Usted (the name means something along the lines of "Welcome") has been organizing public debates in many venues around topics such as education and sustainability. Speakers range from artists to politicians to public intellectuals. The collective's audience is, in the organizers' words, "unsatisfied and ready to build a better country." These vibrant discussions are among a number of examples one could cite to illustrate the fact that much of the strongest and most insightful work (artistic or curatorial) being done in Mexico City directly engages social and political conditions. Consider, for instance, Teresa Margolles's performances, minimal sculptures, and jewelry created with materials drawn from crime scenes (many associated with drug kingpins) and derived from in-depth investigations at forensic labs and public morgues. Evincing similar concerns a bit more obliquely (and a bit less gravely) are Pedro Reyes's Baby Marx, 2008-10, a TV puppet show that introduces children to the ABCs of property and labor, and Claudia Fernandez's social art projects such as, most recently, an exploration of possibilities for alternative trash-collecting and recycling systems.
While such projects and initiatives are creating a dynamism in the city's art community, things are a bit more complicated at the institutional level. Publicly funded institutions, whose acquisition programs have for the most part been halted for decades (although recent federal policy changes may improve matters), are now set in relation to a new kind of art space: museums built by private individuals. (The Museo Tamayo, where I work, is an early prototype of the latter type of institution: It was created in 1981 to house the contemporary art collection of artist Rufino Tamayo, but it was financed by corporate philanthropy and built on land donated by the state.) Fundacion/Coleccion Jumex is the biggest and best known of these private museums: Founded in 2001 by Eugenio Lopez Alonso, it collects and showcases contemporary art through exhibitions guest-curated by notable practitioners in the field, such as Jessica Morgan, Adriano Pedrosa, and Philippe Vergne. The foundation also supports the local art scene, offering project grants and scholarships for graduate study abroad. …