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Turn off the Sun

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By Julio César Morales

AlysFrancisCuandoLaFe

Francis Alÿs. Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains), Lima, Peru, April 11 th, 2002, multi-media installation. Courtesy of the artist and La Colección Jumex, México

In 2002, I took a group of graduate students from the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco to Mexico City, where I was teaching at the time. The class, titled “Multiplicity,” focused on the issues and history of contemporary Latino art and Latin American-based movements. For one week, we did studio visits with artists and curators, as well as viewing current exhibitions in galleries and museums in Mexico City. We visited Museo Rufino Tamayo, the Modern Art Museum, Museo de la Cuidad and some galleries not then known, such as Kurimanzutto. After a studio visit with visual artist Miguel Caldéron, he mentioned that we should visit this new space called Colección Jumex; it was on the way to the Teotihuacán pyramids anyway.

We made an appointment (as it is a boutique museum) and visited the “fresa” Colección Jumex. The first thing that hit me when we arrived at the location was the smell of mango, tamarindo and guava, then a mix of jalapeños with spicy picked mystery veggies. It was as if I had walked into a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the Food Network’s Iron Chef competition, where the secret ingredient was habañero peppers. La Colección Jumex is located inside the industrial plant that produces jugos Jumex and canned spicy products from La Costeña, both intertwining family fortunes. If you are unfamiliar with Jumex, just visit your neighborhood Safeway or Fry’s and you will spot the juices at the end of the American colas and Arizona ice teas; they are the Minute Maid of Latin America. 

What is the connection between fruit juice and art? The answer is Eugenio López Alonso, heir to the Jumex fortune, who started to collect art in the early 1990s, following a private passion. López decided to make this passion public in the spring of 2001 and opened the space he created inside the juice factory. The museum has existed for more than 11 years now, and the collection showcases over 2,700 artworks representing the production of more than 700 different artists. The oldest piece in the collection is a painting by Alfred Leslie dated 1953; most of the artworks in the collection were produced after 1995. 

Today Fundación/Colección Jumex is the largest and most important contemporary art collection in Latin America, a spectacular collection of renowned and established contemporary artists from Mexico, Latin America, the United States and Europe ranging from Gabriel Orozco to Andy Warhol. Perhaps even more important than the collection, Fundación/Colección Jumex supports the development of contemporary art in Mexico, spending more than $1 million annually in support of art and educational projects. 

The exhibition, Turn Off the Sun: Selections from la Colección Jumex, which opened March 9 at the Arizona State University Art Museum, presents 36 major pieces and installations by artists rarely or never seen in Arizona, exploring diverse media and practice. The works were selected by the curators of the show, myself, Heather Sealy Lineberry (ASU Art Museum Senior Curator and Associate Director) and Michel Blancsubé of Jumex, to reflect the complex relationship between our state and Mexico, with broad references to borders, labor, movement and site. 

The earliest work in the exhibition, and very much related to the theme of site, is Upside Down Tree (1969), by American artist Robert Smithson, who traveled throughout Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and documented the landscape using 35 mm transparency film. Smithson temporarily placed square mirrors into the ground, grass, stones and branches, and named these interventions “mirror displacements,” visually shortening the distance between earth and sky, and developing a new kind of horizon line made by the artist. Another work, made in the same year just months apart from Upside Down Tree, is Dan Graham’s From Sunset to Sunrise, a spectacular installation of 160 photographs shot from the United States looking directly into Canada mounted in a single line measuring 82 feet. 

Another work related to site and labor is Santiago Sierra’s 2002 3000 huecos (3000 holes), which explores what Sierra calls “non-places” – phantasmagoric locations where hope and deception collide. Conceived in Spain, this project looks at the rise in immigration, both legal and illegal, from Africa to Spain. The 3,000 hand-dug huecos (holes) also became a temporary monument to the deaths of people searching for a better way of life. In Cádiz, Spain, on a lot facing the coast of Morocco, Sierra hired workers to dig 3,000 holes in the soil (each measuring 180 x 50 x 50 cm). The work was performed by a group of African day laborers, most of them Senegalese, the minority Moroccans and a Spanish foreman. They worked with shovels for a month, receiving a salary equivalent to the one stipulated by the Spanish administration for workers – 54 euros for eight hours. From an aerial view, the work reads disturbingly like a graveyard. Every day, African workers like these risk death and board small boats to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Europe in search of work and better living conditions; their corpses are often expelled by the sea onto the southern coast of Spain. Here, Sierra reveals the laborers’ disconnection from the work they do and from the product that is its ultimate result and uncovers the conditions of marginality promoted by an exploitative system of which everyone is a part – including the artist. The large-scale triptych photographs in the exhibition have an uncanny effect that mirrors that of the current social climate of SB1070 in Arizona, as African participants in Sierra’s project experience ongoing racial profiling against them as immigrants in Spain.

An obvious link between the Sierra piece and another work by Francis Alÿs completed in the same year, When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas; 2002), is a shovel, which appears in both pieces. As a European living in Mexico City, Alÿs assumes the role of a foreigner and an urban dweller. This role, along with a post-surrealist ability to see the beauty in the everyday, fuels his creativity. Trained as an engineer and architect, he produces paintings, sculptures, works on paper and video, but his primary medium is a form of performance art, a kind of acted-out metaphor produced by a body or bodies in motion, often his own. He enacts “walks,” or paseos, in which he takes long strolls through city streets. He has pushed a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted away to nothing, trailed a line of green paint from a leaking can through divided Jerusalem, and chased tornados while filming his attempts to run directly into the eye of the storm. In When Faith Moves Mountains, a group of 500 volunteers armed with shovels formed a line at the end of a 1,600-foot sand dune in a desolate landscape just outside Lima, Peru. Together, one shovel-full at a time, they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few centimeters. Though the physical displacement was short, this collective act is a powerful allegory, a metaphor for human will that has the potential for contemporary myth-making. 

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