The City Is Out There: A Mexico City Exhibit Goes Beyond Its Walls

La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera, an ongoing show at the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center, uses art and architecture as a lens through which to explore the Mexican capital’s many realities.

Courtesy Vanessa Quirk

In Mexico City, there is a site—about the size of a football field—where the scars of the city lie exposed on the earth’s surface. This is a place where realities collide, often violently, as in 1968, when hundreds of protesting students were massacred here. At La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, three cultures stand in stark juxtaposition: the ruins of an ancient Aztec temple; a colonial-era, baroque Catholic Church; and plenty of 1960s-era buildings, including hulking affordable housing complexes and a former government building that now houses the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center, a part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

It’s in the Cultural Center where the exhibition La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera (The City Is Out There) has fittingly found a home (until March 26). The exhibit takes Mexico City as its subject, relying on three “conceptual axes”: demolition (destruction and renovation), occupation (the lived experience of the city), and utopia (the ideological narrative of city planning). Curated collectively by 12 students of the Masters in Curatorial Studies and Art History at UNAM, the exhibit suffers somewhat from the sheer breadth of its scope—multiple disciplines are presented and approaches attempted, some with less success than others. However, overall, La Ciudad Está Allá Afuera represents a remarkable effort and succeeds in creating a visually coherent, provocative examination of the past, present, and future of Mexico City.

The view, from the exhibition space, on to La Plaza de las Tres Culturas. In the first image, you can see the Aztec ruins and the Colonial-era church; in the second, the modernist housing complexes are visible.

Courtesy Vanessa Quirk

As you enter the cleanly designed space, two arresting artistic installations greet you. Damián Ortega’s Mampara – Composición concreta (2004-2006) lifts the concrete slabs of Mexico City’s streets, themselves the imperfect products of human tinkering and rearranging, and transforms them into abstract, folding screens. Beside it, Alejandro Almanza’s skeletal structure of fluorescent lights (Change the World or Go Home), shines like a beacon, perhaps acting as an unfussy memorial to the scaffolding that is as much (if not more) a part of Mexico City as any building.

Just behind the sculptures, in a raised bed on the floor that resembles a sand box, lay a series of section drawings from the 1930s to the 2000s representing units of affordable housing. With our birds-eye-view, we can see how units have shrunk over time and so bear little evidence of progress—which is entirely the point (the work is titled Project to memorialize the deterioration of social housing). To the left hang fascinating archival images of a futuristic Mexico City, imagined in the 1960s on the occasion of the Olympic Games, and, to the right, some footage shows high-rises, damaged in the catastrophic earthquake of 1985, being demolished. But the eye is first drawn to a large black-and-white mural that hangs at the gallery’s back end, surrounded by an obstacle course of stones and debris. The image, in which crammed cars and buildings seem ready to practically burst out of frame, is a reproduction of a well-known photomontage by Lola Alvarez Bravo, “The architectural anarchy of Mexico City” (ca. 1950-1953).

Curator Nika Chilewich explains that the exhibit was also about questioning the primacy of the artist’s narration in contemporary curation, about putting art into conversation with other disciplines in order to “bring out new qualities in fields whose truths we aren’t thought to question.” Thus, while the first gallery may begin with an artistic narration, and thus keep the visitor largely in “observation” mode, the second gallery gathers multiple types of media, formats, and research into one space—inviting active interaction (a fitting quality, considering its theme is “occupation”).

A giant yellow web of woven plastic (Núcleo, by José Adrián Monroy López) may be the first and most inviting thing you notice, as you can climb in and around the web as much as you please. But, just to your left, there is a clever construction of concrete blocks, metal, and MDF—designed by Giacomo Castagnola to display the multiple video works in the exhibition—that most deserves our attention.

Castagnola, who holds a degree in architecture from the Ricardo Palma University in Lima, Peru, and a Masters in Science in Art Culture and Technology (SMACT) from MIT, approaches exhibit design as a kind of architecture itself, one intimately related to the kinds of informal architectures that he has studied in Latin American cities. 

The structure Castagnola designed to host the videos, a series of “pods” with beds, is close enough to the gallery wall to evoke an alleyway or the underpass of a pedestrian bridge. It not only avoids the need to create walls/rooms, but, as Castagnola explains, hacks “the body of the visitor and put[s] them in a different bodily relation to the space, breaking the formal status of how one needs to behave in an exhibition, without using any signage or labels, just choreographing the body in a more informal manner.” 

Exhibit designer Giacomo Castagnola designed these “video pods” to echo informal urban environments and provide an intimate setting for viewing.

Courtesy Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM

Courtesy Giacomo Castagnola

The pods are an intimate place to watch the multiple videos on display, many of which deserve sustained attention—for example, Labour in a Single Shot is a beautifully-filmed documentary following different types of laborers across the city. Or Occupation, which follows artist-activist Marcela Armas as she perilously walks through the chaotic streets of Mexico City (not on the sidewalks) with only a backpack that honks like a car.

Other gems that touch on the lived, quotidian experience of the city include a collection of music boxes that play the calls of street vendors (Coro Informal); a wall of polaroids collected by the artist and urbanist Iván Ludens, arranged by subjects like “mobility” and “ruin,” documenting everyday objects and urban moments; a diagram by Sandra Calvo representing the invisible reach of the security cameras on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main avenue.  While there are many more—perhaps too many more—the projects are fascinating, disparate examinations of the complex realities that make up this remarkable city.

Throughout, the exhibit, which offers sweeping views of La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, embraces its context as part and parcel of its curatorial scope. For as interesting as everything within these walls is, this exhibit does well to remind you—the city is out there, after all.

The City is Out There: Demolition, Occupation, Utopia is on display until March 26, 2017 at the University Collections Hall of the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, a museum of UNAM.

Close-up of Damián Ortega’s Mamparas. Composición concreta, 2004-2006. The abstract shapes are inspired by the uneven ways Mexico City’s sidewalks are patched up by residents.

On the wall, archival images of an imagined Mexico City; on the floor, “Project to memorialize the deterioration of social housing” (2012) by Isaac Torres

Courtesy Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, UNAM

“Vote to Demolish” (2007-2016) by Gustavo Artigas

​Polaroids taken by Iván Ludens between 2006 and 2016; they serve as references for the artist’s work in architecture and urbanism.

“Circuito cerrado” (Closed Circuit) by Sandra Calvo. This map represents how Paseo de La Reforma, Mexico City’s main avenue, has changed over time. The blue line represents the avenue as it was in the 19th century.  Since 1982, when the avenue was altered, it is far less convenient for the pedestrian (the current route is represented by the red line). The map also marks everywhere there are visible security cameras along the route.

Courtesy Vanessa Quirk

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