Rumor has it that when André Breton visited Mexico City in 1938, he approached a carpenter to build him a desk. The French-speaking sojourner drew a two-dimensional sketch for the Mexican woodworker, who accepted the task. However, when Breton met the carpenter again, he was greeted with a flat recreation of his drawing: a sheet of wood cut in the shape of a desk. Breton then proclaimed Mexico as a surrealist country ‘par excellence!’.
While some may gag at Breton’s perpetuation of Mexican exoticism (which oozes out of this myth like the magic realist secretions of an Aztec zombie trapped in the confines of an ethnographic vitrine), it is a tale that exemplifies how wondrous the characters, fictions and realities that thread the narratives of Mexico City are. From William Burroughs to Leonora Carrington, this city has incorporated a wide range of artistic figures into its ever-expanding mythology; which now proliferates as multifarious signs that represent arcadias (‘the new Berlin’) alongside hell mouths (‘narco-state’). On the beautiful shores of Melbourne, where Mexico City is rarely experienced yet frequently reimagined, one wonders what is this accumulation of signs we call ‘Mexico City’? The vacuum formed by the tyranny of distance is sublime in this regard, as it allows remote signifiers to float almost freely, signposting a destination mediated by a marvelous unreality. Built on the lake of Texcoco, one could claim Mexico City is truly a floating megalopolis.
Chelsea Culprit, Charm bracelet 2017, neon, chain, electric cable, 120.0 x 330.0 cm, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and BWSMX, Mexico City
Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City, a case study curated by Chris Sharp probes this act of myth making by bringing together artists that participate in the fabrication of Mexico City. Sharp has become a prominent character in this narrative as co-director of the project space Lulu (with artist Martin Soto Climent) and his prolific curatorship. For this show, he brings together the Mexican-born artists Abraham Cruzvillegas, ektor garcia, Isabel Nuño de Buen and Martin Soto Climent (the last three undertaking a residency in Australia to produce work in situ for this exhibition); alongside practitioners that have arrived in Mexico City from abroad, including Francis Alÿs, Andrew Birk, Ramiro Chaves, Chelsea Culprit, Yann Gerstberger, Jaki Irvine, Kate Newby and Melanie Smith. This curatorial tactic seeks to eschew a clichéd ‘survey of the usual suspects’ and a discourse on ‘Mexican-ness’, shifting the focus of the exhibition to ‘how cities and artists mutually transform one another’. Living up to its title, Dwelling Poetically is distributed across four rooms that evoke chapters in a case study by grouping artists with shared concerns.
The first of such linkages occurs with the public space in Se Compra: Sin é (2014) by Dublin-born, Mexico City-based Jaki Irvine. This large video projection transforms the calls of Mexican street vendors into spectral shrieks by scoring a sullen, Irish track to their already howling vocalizations. This phantasmagorical sonic portrait turns everyday scenes into nightmarish apparitions, where the familiar sound of a bell and the clatter of a knife descend into a tenebrous choir of annihilating pathos. On one hand, this acoustic intervention documents the otherworldly presence of street vendors as they roam the streets with their characteristic wailing: ‘se vende…se compra…’ (we buy, we sell). On the other, it registers the cultural fabric of Irvine’s aural gaze as she makes sense of the city through her Irish heritage.
The bewitching textuality of urban cyphers reappears in American-born, Mexico City-based Andrew Birk’s series of large scale paintings, which incorporate colorful layers of street debris, such as Xerox posters and graffiti tags to create enigmatic agglomerations. In Baby K (2015), for instance, what appears to be a blurred anal penetration scene is overlaid with an enamel rose and an illegible graffiti tag. The conventions of graffiti—arguably the grammar of the metropolis—are also echoed in Martin Soto Climent’s Luster butterfly, la revuelta invisible (2018): a series of vivid aluminum sculptures constructed with spray painted window blinds and sculpted into dynamic forms that resemble idyllic birds. However, if we were to open these window shades we might find more sinister realms, as one is more likely to encounter such blinds (spray painted and contorted) in menacing abandoned buildings. Also in the same space is England-born, Mexico City-based Melanie Smith’s large video projection Photo for Spiral city (Series 2-1)(2002), which depicts an aerial shot of Mexico City in reference to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970).
Moving on, we encounter a series of works charged with a sense of eros. Among them are the dark pop pieces by American-born, Mexico City-based Chelsea Culprit, which encompass two hyperbolic paintings and a lecherous neon light sculpture. Her work features nightlife archetypes—such as pimps and erotic dancers—inspired by Culprit’s time as a professional dancer in the strip clubs of Chicago. The hanging neon piece Charm bracelet (2017) borrows from this vernacular to depict a playful devil and a cheeky angel on a scale that recalls the wristlet of a giantess on spring break. In front of this nightlife memento hangs Landgèt Manmanw (2016), a tapestry by French-born, Mexico City-based Yann Gerstberger woven with unconventional, quotidian materials like mop threads. While not as sexually loaded as Culprit’s nightspots, the folk-like embroidery is dominated by sumptuous roses that appear to grow from an abstract taproot. In the same room we find Belgium-born, Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs’ hyper-familiar Paradox of praxis 1 (1997), where he is seen pushing a block of ice across the streets—an action that becomes oddly sensuous in this context, invoking non-committal kinky games. The most sexually explicit work is clearly Autoconstrucción (2009) by Abraham Cruzvillegas, a 60min video that records his neighbors having sex on their rooftops to explore the self-procreating quality of improvisational architecture.
Next, we find recycled objects with ektor garcia, who creates a sprawl of idiosyncratic sculptures that resemble the discovery of an archeological dungeon in an industrial site—as dreamt by a Mexican grandmother. This is because the artist explores queer identity by employing traditional techniques to sculpt materials such as welded steel, leather, porcelain and clay into cock rings, gothic tablecloths and pre-Hispanic motifs. This vernacular amalgamation brings shape to truly unique objects, some of which resemble instruments of domination and submission yet upon closer inspection, reveal tender patterns reminiscent of ‘bordados’ (embroidery). In the same space is New Zealand-born, New York-based Kate Newby (who did a residency in Mexico City) with a series of rock vertebras made with brass, porcelain and stoneware. These delicate objects are suspended from the ceiling and carry imprints from Mexico City; bearing titles that equally reference the everyday with casual phrases such as I’ll be here Sunday (2017).
The exhibition ends (or begins, depending on which entrance one takes) with two artists dealing with architecture. Germany-based Isabel Nuño de Buen employs steel, plaster, foam, rubber and cardboard to create a series of vertical sculptures collectively titled Extracted segment (2018). The works feature a foam base that evokes tectonic layers supporting ‘strings’ of steel fashioned in a geometrical pattern that serve as a base for white, rounded forms somewhat reminiscent of colonial ship’s sails. In the context of this show, these sculptures evoke the soft sediments of Mexico City, which was built on top of the massacred Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and then expanded over a surrounding lake by the Spanish (making it susceptible to earthquakes). Next to Nuño is Mexico City-based Argentinian Ramiro Chaves’ work titled XXXXXXXXXX (2014), an archive of 200 risographic prints depicting the semiotics of the letter ‘x’ as they manifest in Mexican architecture. This large assemblage of images includes public monuments, posters, fences and popular figures (ranging from El Chapo to Ricky Martin) to uncover the postcolonial coding of this symbol. Indeed, the artist investigates how this letter operates as a complex emblem of identity formation by simultaneously connoting the colonialism of language and pre-Columbian mythologies. The history of the name ‘México’ is exemplary in this regard, as it derives from the náhuatl Mēxihco (originally pronounced Meshiko), which turned into the Castillan ‘México’ and was later amended into ‘Méjico’ in the XVII century—quickly reverting to the ‘x’ spelling due to popular refusal.
Like XXXXXXXXXX, what we call ‘Mexico City’ is a stockpile of signs. From ghostly voices to blurry cocks and cock rings to exquisite vertebras, this non-place has enchanted many with its postcolonial architecture, kidnapped some with its criminality (concealed behind its colourful blinds and eccentric nightspots), and seduced the jet-setting project of the contemporary art world. While Mexico City may be knowable to its residents, in Australia it manifests with the eerie (un)familiarity of a folk tale to powerful effect. This is because Mexico as a country is articulated in Melbourne with a fraught certainty, existing largely as a fantasy that levitates in speech. This generates a surreal atmosphere for the exhibition, where a fog of cultural expectations become integral to its reception. The curatorial rubric gains momentum in this regard, as it speaks to this phenomenon by focusing on the city’s history of myth making while also embedding a new signage to its fables.
Like Breton, most of the works in Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City, a case study can be charted within a lineage of new arrivers that are struck by the capital, incorporating it into their thinking and augmenting its international appeal through artworks, literature or speech. Some may frown upon the limited number of Mexican born artists included in this exhibition, however, the show is best contextualized as a study of Mexico City as seen through the lens of those born abroad and its circulation in the rhetoric of contemporary art. Unlike Breton, Chris Sharp eschews the exoticization of place by selecting artists that work outside stereotypes associated with the country (Aztec zombies are for b-grade movies) and avoids the idealization associated with cynical coinages such as the ‘new Berlin’ (a term redolent of tofu and bean burrito farts begging for charcoal tablets). Having this focus adds a grounded discussion to the idea of Mexico in Australian forums without seeking to establish an agreed meaning upon the concept of ‘Mexico City’. This creates a balance that allows the city to float without letting it disappear too high into the sky.
 Chris Sharp, ‘Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City, a case study’ in Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City, a case study [exhibition catalogue] (Melbourne: ACCA, 2018): 14.