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Head over heels

The art world's new darling is Mexico City. But how long will the affair last?

October 20, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — Contemporary art is a hard-to-crack profession that involves irregular hours, offers no pension plan and, as practiced at the moment in Mexico's capital, may entail posing pouty princesses in palatial homes, organizing tiny bits of reflective tape or collecting runoff from the city morgue. But if you persist in making such art here, you have this consolation: The whole world seems to be watching.

For the last year, curators have been arriving from abroad, hatching theories and hunting work for a flurry of exhibitions in museums from Southern California to Rotterdam, a boom that has raised spirits and suspicions among those who make, sell and collect art here.

"Here we are, the school of Mexican guys doing things," says artist Inaki Bonillas, pleased and perplexed. "We're all going to Berlin, we're going to San Diego, we're going to New York.... "

The organizers of these ventures say they've come because these artists have shown such wit, energy and international perspective -- the sort of sophistication that the conventionally wise expect from art capitals like New York and Berlin. But these are artists schooled in skepticism, and some can't help but wonder: What if it's really just Mexico City's turn to be the art world's flavor of the month? Or worse, what if all this attention isn't really about art at all?

Capturing images of self-absorption

"We're the new Cuba!" announces photographer Daniela Rossell, her voice dripping skepticism.

Rossell, 29, is one of perhaps two dozen artists who are getting most of the attention. On a steamy afternoon, she slouches in her studio amid secondhand furniture, stacks of paperwork and assorted photos of nude women posed with raw fruit and vegetables.

These are the photos that got Rossell noticed by museum and gallery people in Spain and New York, among other places. But her newer photos -- a few of which sit over there on the old couch -- have far more people talking. These shots, just printed in book form by a Madrid-based publisher, show some of Mexico's most privileged citizens, many of them Rossell's friends and relatives, at play in their vast and fanciful homes. The book is called "Ricas y Famosas."

The images are meticulous in their documentation of the good life and the astonishing props that people choose to help them live it (stuffed lions, for instance, and a hundred-foot turquoise Eiffel Tower). Now Rossell is caught up in a thinking-class controversy over whether she has skillfully indicted the self-absorption of Mexico's nuevo rich, betrayed her friends and family, or both.

"She's from that class," said one local curator, "and she's documenting their own decadence."

Rossell won't quite say that. She began, years ago, by photographing houses, then superimposing names on their facades to more explicitly express the owner's identities. Then, she recalls, "I began to think about this whole idea about using mass-produced objects to make yourself unique." Soon, she was shooting environmental portraits of family members.

"As I started getting into it," she says, "something curious happened. A lot of people started offering to be photographed, and it started a ball rolling. A lot of people helped me out."

She says now that her project was intended as an investigation of this social landscape, not an indictment, and that "when we were doing it, it was very much about fun. It was cathartic, to me and them."

But now that the images are in print, it's all more complicated. Some of her subjects, Rossell admits, "feel they are getting attacked personally." And one element in the controversy is the fact that the images are being seen, and judged, by so many people outside Mexico -- people who might forget that Mexico isn't the only country on Earth where a coddled upper class sequesters itself from blue-collar realities.

Rossell says she really doesn't understand the inner workings of the art world, but she acknowledges that international exposure has put her career on a different trajectory. Her publisher is in Madrid. As for dealers, she nods significantly toward the laptop in the corner.

"I don't work with a Mexican gallery right now. I work with a New York gallery through that little iBook over there," she says. "I think in the past, I would have been a miserable, ambitious artist."

Toward a more universal outlook

Whether you credit the Internet or the passage of North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 or the end of the PRI party's seven-decade domination of national politics in 2000, says art dealer Jaime Riestra, it seems clear that for the first time in a long time, Mexico is in on some of the art world's most interesting conversations.

"The artists are moving from problems that are more local to more universal problems," says Riestra, director of the Galeria OMR in the Roma district. But as he watches the march of the foreign curators, he wonders if that's all they're thinking about.

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