The World's Fair culture of the late 19th century enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the proliferation of the biennial. Venice, São Paulo, Sydney, Havana, Istanbul; the list goes on and on. Every other year these cities are crowded with audiences searching for the contemporary art worlds' equivalent of Crystal Palace marvels: objects imported from afar, cultural innovations, proof of the efficacy and necessity of technology, reason, arguments for globalization. By hosting biennials these cities seek to become focal points for the international codification of economic, aesthetic, and political discussions relating to contemporary art production.
The crown jewel on this circuit, the Venice Biennale -- which opened to the public this year on June 1st -- began in 1895. In 2006, a year after Venice celebrated its 110th year of existence, the art world seemed to need anything but another biennial, and yet when Luis Hernandez and Ed Gomez were asked to submit a proposal for a curatorial project at Casa de la Tia Tina in Mexicali, BC, they decided to propose just that. "We were artists, and we were not included in any of those other biennials, so we thought: Let's just start our own here." The fact that the exhibition was held at an abandoned house, reflected the marginality of Mexicali as a site for Contemporary Art to Hernandez and Gomez. "Usually when people talk about art in Mexico it's D.F. or Tijuana, not here. One of the reasons we decided to put the word 'Biennial' [in the title of the exhibition], is because we were aware that Mexicali is not a place you would think of as an art center," explains Hernandez.
And yet, the binational exhibition with the tongue and cheek title, has now grown into a project that has stayed true to what was once a joking moniker, with the second half of the third iteration of the exhibition that opened on May 24th at Mexicali Rose Media Arts Center in Mexicali, BC. The first half of the 2013 MexiCali Biennial took place at the Vincent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles from January 19-April 13 featuring the work of over 30 artists. Luis Hernandez remarks that while "it was enough to have the project be in a biennial format, but more a do-it-yourself biennial, organized by artists," during its formative years in 2006, and 2009/10, "[This year] we gave the Biennial a theme."
Inspired by the ubiquity of appropriation strategies in the production of contemporary art, as well as the Brazilian arts movement of the 1960s, Tropicália, the curators of the exhibition, who became a trio with the addition of Amy Pederson in 2009, chose Cannibalism as the thematic umbrella for the binational exhibition. The curatorial statement describes cannibalism in the New World as "one of the central rationales for colonialism," but also puts forward the idea of cannibalism as "a "¨path forward towards a new model for avant garde practice."
Such a practice is an apt way of describing the territories the exhibition will inhabit: East Los Angeles and Mexicali, territories that incorporate communities of migrants into their social and cultural makeup.
The cannibalistic act also becomes an apt metaphor for the mechanisms of the Mexicali Biennial as a platform, which seems to cannibalize the traditional notion of the biennale to produce an instrument for new ties between the core and the periphery of the art world.
At the opening of "MexiCali Biennial 2013: Cannibalism in the New World," Pederson explains that the curatorial strategy and thematic label has been effectively engaging viewers, "It's been interesting to see the reactions of the public of how the work responds to the theme, you know its like 'How is this cannibal?'"
Although the Mexicali version of the exhibition features about half of the works shown at the Vincent Price Museum, it offers visitors a valuable recontextualisation of the work. Veronica Duarte, an artist from Cuidad Juarez whose modified Mexican Flag sculpture, "Red Flag/ Bandera Roja" greets visitors to the biennial, explains "The reading here [in Mexicali] is different than in the U.S. I was actually a little worried...because the way they treat the flag here is as a precious thing and I [treated] it as a non precious thing." Duarte's version of the Mexican flag extends the red section of the flag in accordance with a formula for the number of deaths there have been during Felipe Calderon's six year term. "I don't consider myself a political artist, but I just felt like my city, my country was being squeezed: how much blood can we shed?" While this piece is undeniably political, Duarte's work also seems interested in exploring the object-ness of the flag by making a more tactile object. The object is weighted down by the draping of the red fabric and inhabits the space of the viewer. This forced confrontation with the flag, and specifically the red of the flag speaks to Duarte's frustration with the inability or unwillingness to confront these issues in the U.S., "I think that people north of the border are very focused on other wars and issues of violence around the world. Its something that is so close, in their back yard. It's something that is disregarded...we all participate in this thing, we all take part of it, we all consume."
Chris Reynolds' performance "Attempting to Capture Taste," negotiates the physical and metaphorical act of consumption by externalizing three tongue movements (Spication, Rotation, and Verrition) used to capture taste, creating marks on a blank page with squid ink. Reynolds explains, "The squid ink is consuming you as well, it's an umami and it basically flavors your body it doesn't flavor the food, so it's actually making my tongue engorge and receive all of this information, it's this kind of weird cycle of consumption that is happening, which I find really fascinating and fun in a gross way." His gourmet medium becomes a bit revolting, prompting conversation about taste literally, and upending the hierarchy of epicure tastes. The visceral quality of the performance seemed heightened by the small space crowded by the fishy smell of the ink and warm bodies on a balmy desert night.
Matt MacFarland takes a more comical approach to the show's subject in Steakation, a series of lightboxes and vinyl sign featuring anthropomorphized food cartoons like those seen in advertising and found in many Mexican restaurants and grocery stores. In MacFarland's work, these food-people participate in their own destruction, auto-cannibalizing themselves.
As with Duarte's flag and Reynold's performance, the associations the work seeks to spark are heightened by the transference of the work to Mexico, which is the interest for Pederson: "I think in some ways there's like a corridor that connects these two places [Mexicali and East LA]...we did LA first and then Mexico to watch the way that the meaning of the work will shift...to really underline the fact that these are not static objects and that their meaning is never stable and there is always a possibility for this kind of détournement or this shifting."
Many of the works deal with the border or the relationship between the US and Mexico, but curator Luis Hernandez hopes that, "hopefully they go beyond." He explains, "I think most of the pieces you can enter by thinking about the US Mexico border...but hopefully they do move beyond the local and regional and talk about greater issues and [geographies]."
As sites, Mexicali and East Los Angeles present interesting propositions for art-making, display, and public engagement in that both sites find themselves on the margins of two art centers, Los Angeles and Tijuana. Aside from creating connections between these communities to those art world hubs, the format of the MexiCali Biennial more importantly begins to create networks between sites in the margins, commandeering the power structure defined by the networks of resources of the mainstream biennial system.
What seems most exciting about this form of alternative biennial is the potential to mobilize the tactics of international systems of accruing capital in the margins of art in order to create alternative spaces for discourse and experimentation. Harnessing that power establishes a potential to perhaps be more collaborative and less top-down in executing projects, while opening the potential for more honest long-term community engagement.
The 2013 MexiCali Biennial does not seek to emulate the tendency to objectify the traditions and cultural production in the margins, but seeks to subvert that readiness, by eating away at the hierarchical cultural/economic biennial structure. And in that way, it is cannibalistic in the best way possible.
"The 2013 MexiCali Biennial: Cannibalism in the New World" is open Sunday-Friday from 6-9pm at Mexicali Rose Art/Media Center in Mexicali, BC, May 24th -June 30th .
For more information about the Mexicali Biennial, please visit mexicalibiennial.org