Narcos, Feral scapes and Art on the Radio: Edgardo Aragón; “West is More”; Xavier Cázares Cortéz; Radio Break: Pedro Reyes, Brandon LaBelle, & Arnoldo Vargas
Many Mexican artists are tackling the theme of drug trafficking in their work, often by portraying the violence and aggression in ways that are sensational and direct. One artist who is attempting work in the complete opposite way is Edgardo Aragón, whose first solo-exhibition in the US is on view at Cal State LA’s Luckman Gallery, in collaboration with LAXART.
Aragón, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, takes on the subject of narco-trafficking in a way that is subtle and simple. The solitary landscapes, which reoccur in his vidoes, indirectly portray the cruelty of these impoverished narco-agricultural regions.
The exhibition consists of a video-trilogy. In Efectos de Familia, several screens show kids, or chiquinarcos (children recruited by the cartel) in what seem like theatrical staged maquettes. The kids are playfully imitating what the narco does to his victims. In one video, a little boy stands in the middle of a desolate, dusty landscape. A truck goes around him in a circle creating a huge dirt cloud, which is meant to suffocate; this act reveals an actual form of torture. In a second video, two young boys imitate a violent encounter between two enemies; one boy opens the truck door and pretends to shoot a gun, the other boy pretends to get shot over and over. There is no blood, no bullets just two kids mimicking a common spectacle. In another video a boy’s feet are buried in the sand. He stands in the middle of a deserted, dirt road. A truck’s lights blind as it then races toward him, in what looks like a game of chicken. The truck violently stops before reaching the boy and then reverses. This happens over and over until finally, the boy in the sand runs free, possibly rehearsing for the real thing.
Matamoros is a documentary narrated by a narco during one of his trips preparing and delivering drugs to the US. He travels throughout México: Tehuacán, El Seco, Perote, Cerro Azul, Altamira, Ciudad Victoria, San Fernando. The narco drives through serene landscapes and talks about the hardworking people of the farms and the fresh air of the countryside. He notices the snow-capped volcano Popocatepetl in the distance. He passes a lake full of ducks, places where he would like to have raised his family, the ocean. The audience begins to realize that the narco is not just a few evil men but a huge structure that involves entire villages whose residents are simply born into it or given no other choice. Although the narrator is a narco, he’s not thinking that he’s doing something illegal or bad, and the viewer also forgets that he’s committing a crime and focuses on his human and emotional qualities. He is no longer a figure of violence or aggression but a person whose life of poverty took him down that road. And at the end of the day he was just trying to get a better life for his family.
La Trampa, the third and final work of this video trilogy, consists of three video projections that makes reference to a mythological place called La Trampa (The Trap), that supposedly existed in the 70s in a small, remote Oaxacan village, where planes dropped off “merchandise” and did exchanges. In the video two men perform a narcocorrido, a song about the legends of this narco-landing zone. A ghostly airplane lands and takes off in the secluded, lonely landscape of mountains, open fields, dirt roads, cactus and wild flowers. In the song the man sings out “Never forget this friend that sang to you this corrido.” It is a reminder that he’s not a ghost, he did exist and that although there are legends that surround this place, narco is reality.
In Aragón’s trilogy, the isolation and silence reveal how Mexico’s officials have ignored and abandoned these areas and its inhabitants. The stories become tales and myths, an easy way to deal with the truth.
La Trampa/The Trap will be on view until June 2, 2012.
While in Downtown LA’s Fashion District earlier this month, I made sure to see West is More at Upstairs At The Market Gallery on its closing day. Mexican–born artist Veronica Duarte curated this exhibition, which focuses on the “West” and what this loaded term can represent within American culture historically, politically, culturally, geographically, and even psychologically. By arrogantly announcing “West” is “more”, Duarte also ironically hints at the phrase “less is more” and therefore questions what “more” is, as in “better” or “worse”. It is this reoccurring debate that ties the show together. On view were works by April Banks, Xavier Cázares Cortéz, Karla Díaz, David Eng, Carmina Escobar, Kio Griffith, Jim Ovelmen, Joaquín Segura, Gabie Strong, Matt Wardell, and Los Cybrids: John Jota Leaños, Rene García, and Praba Pilar.
I immediately recognized Karla Diaz‘ work Hip Hop Imaginary: The Bucket Brigade Part I. If you can remember, Diaz showed this piece last year at Cerritos College as part of Sur: Biennial. If you missed my write up on this, you can check it out here. I’m still looking forward to Part II.
In the same room as Diaz’ piece were two works by Mexican artist Joaquin Segura. Segura’s conceptual piece, Take a leak in some gallery corner, is a pile of sawdust in exactly that, a gallery corner… and yes, somebody did pee. This critique of the institution and gallery made me wanna take off mis pantalones y hacer chi…but then I felt that would be disrespectful to Diaz’ work, which had to share the room…and the smell.
Matt Wardell‘s Potatohead Blues, Pt. 1 consists of detailed drawings based on Anheuser-Busch’s lithograph from 1884 of Cassilly Adams’ Custer’s Last Fight. Wardell’s project consists of two parts. Each detail becomes one drawing, which totals 90 drawings in its entirety. In this exhibition, only a few drawings from part I were on view. The figures, which are taken from the foreground and mid-ground of the original lithograph, are very graphic and outlined in black. In one drawing, both sides are dead after a war in the west. Nobody won…Nobody wins. According to the artist, the drawings from part II are depicted without detail and reflect the dust and tumult.
April Banks’ photographs Mass Nausea are both humorous and disgusting. They are charged politically as they act as a visual protest of the Mars Corporation’s stake in Cote d’Ivorie’s conflict produced cocoa. The portraits of bright candy and sweetness are also poison and vomit.
Jim Ovelmen‘s animation Queens of Sorrow shows an expressionless guitar player at the window of a Gilded Age mansion of Astor/Vanderbilt era. His partner stands next to him and shoots toward the sky with his rifle. It is meditative and intriguing. According to the artist, “the animation shows the interplay between self-isolation and mindless celebration of characters trapped inside the mansion…The fin-de-siecle aspect, the narrative, and the musical etude, point out our attachment to the promise of wealth while reminding of our neglect and abandonment of interpersonal relationships.” After watching this video, I was sad that I had missed Ovelmen’s outdoor animation projection Western Skies, You Are Forgiven on the building of the gallery, in which 7 strange floating objects drifted by.
Unfortunately I also missed Symbol at the opening by Carmina Escobar in collaboration with Kio Griffith, a two channel sound performative installation that took place in the narrow hall facing the gallery. The sound material was composed of 100 audio files downloaded from YouTube videos, 50 related to the East and 50 to the West. The files were overlayed and stretched creating a mass sound that was then mixed and processed during the live performance. Another sound piece that took place at the opening was David Eng’s The California Nebula, which was composed entirely from source material extracted from four iconic songs about California: Hotel California, California Girls, California Dreamin’ and California Love.
One artist’s work I could not miss even if I had tried was the large green installation Here’s to five miserable months on the wagon, and all the irreparable harm that it’s caused me… by Xavier Cázarez Cortéz. Like an obsessive compulsive social anthropologist, he collects, accumulates and organizes objects in ways that seem methodical at times and contradictory or arbitrary at others, and then displays them on a two layered table. His work might begin with a series of objects, but then those lead him to go off on another tangent, and then another, until an entire universe of chaotic order and tangled networks is produced. Just like in conversation, Cázarez Cortéz’ objects connect, branch off and then reconnect, creating an imaginative narrative.
Some objects are playful, some are humorous and some are more serious. It was appropriate for this show to have a herd of horses galloping West, which offers a very specific dialogue to this exhibition. There were also landscapes of the West, which included objects such as leaves, acorns and palm trees.
If you missed West is More, don’t worry because you can still see Cázarez Cortéz’ exhibition SUDDENLY WE HAD nothing on view at the Vincent Price Museum on the East LA College campus. The room is bright, full of all of his collected ephemera. And no matter how hard I try to describe this work, I can never give it justice. They are completely open to interpretation and the best way to understand these works is to experience them. During a walk-through with the artist, Cázarez Cortéz described his tables as “feral scapes”, rather than landscapes, as they are “an untamed, wild, savage, free place.”
This large-scale installation is mesmerizing as it also incorporates brightly colored wall collages that plays with the notion of the multiplicity of meaning within language. The walls catch your eyes like advertisements. In this space you are stuck in a world of excess, mass consumption and information overload… but somehow the order and disorder all makes sense.
SUDDENLY WE HAD nothing is on view until April 27th…so apúrate!
If you were listening to your radio in strategic spots for the last two weekends, you may have encountered Radio Break, an on-the-air exhibition that presented 12 artworks through low-powered radio transmission. If you missed it, don’t worry! This exhibition, presented by USC Roski School of Fine Art’s MA Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere Program, class of 2012, is on view (or rather, on the air) at ForYourArt this week.
Mexican artist Pedro Reyes‘ VMR: Voice Mail Radio is a 30-minute collection of intimate and personal digital voice messages. This sound work presents issues concerning the notion of private and public, as they were all publicly broadcast in Los Angeles. Anonymous city residents left messages which included a Valentine’s day greeting, a thank you message, an apology for sending such a silly message, a baby laughing, a woman crying and apologizing for being dramatic, a message from a car mechanic and a doctor’s office, a girl talking about a chimichanga, a husband telling his wife he’s going to be late so to take the children to Taco Bell for dinner, a woman who wants to go to Mexico City for the weekend, and many, many more.
These short snippets put the listener in a voyeur position and reveals a thin slice of a person’s personal life. We listen, knowing the message is not for us, but like a Peeping Tom, we want to hear more, discover a secret, wonder if we know the person; at one point I found myself relating and finding things in common and at another point getting annoyed and wanting the person to hang up… These messages were broadcast in Olvera Street during CicLAvia, a direct link to El Pueblo de Los Angeles’ sister city Mexico City, where Reyes lives and works.
Brandon LaBelle‘s sound piece for Radio Break consists of conversations overheard on the streets of Santiago de Chile. But different from Reyes’ voicemail piece, in The Echo Project, LaBelle and his collaborators have reenacted the dialogues, adding their own take on each phrase, whether it be made more dramatic and exaggerated than the original or depreciated and at times laughed at. In this project, the speakers become doubles of the memory, which results in an entire new version. The Echo Project was broadcast at La Serenata de Garibaldi restaurant near the Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
Arnoldo Vargas‘ Triggernometry and the Cartography of Sound is an archive of songs, such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?” mixed with “Get your boogie on, Inglewood”, mixed with oldies, corridos, norteños, hip hop… that eventually creates a collaborative music library. It sounds like when you are listening to the radio and switching between stations, listening to a bit of a song but then switching to the next one. Then the songs stop and are taken over by the complaints and conversations from the residents of Wilmington about the air quality in a city that is full of rail yards, freeways, and oil refineries. In the background you can hear some birds chirping, but also a train coming and cars zooming by. This piece is part of an ongoing compilation that will continue as part of the Slanguage Studio Sessions. Vargas broadcast his work at MacArthur Park during CicLAvia.
A listening station featuring all 12 projects is now installed at ForYourArt through April 27.