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Marcos Ramirez ERRE on Oil, Soccer, and National Sovereignty

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Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Toy An Horse, 1997

As 2013 was coming to an end, Mexico was on the verge of national tragedy. The Mexican national soccer team was on the brink of not qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Anxiety could be felt throughout the Mexican diaspora. Conversations on both superstitious and mathematical projections of the team's odds dominated all strata of class and culture. Pessimists pre-emptively mourned the team's failure. Some renounced their allegiance to the team all together, yet somehow Mexico pulled through. We would see our team play soccer another day.

In the wake of the euphoria that swept through Mexico after the decisive game that qualified the team to the World Cup, politicians from the primary ruling political parties pushed through a sweeping reform of the country's energy sector, altering the country' constitution to essentially privatize a symbol of Mexican National sovereignty: its oil industry.

The nationalization of Mexican oil reserves by President Lazaro Cardenas in 1938 was a defining step towards establishing an economic foundation for national autonomy; providing a sense of logic for decades of violence, armed struggle and revolution. Prior to that point, foreign investors controlled and amassed the largest portion of wealth extracted from the country's oil reserves. By expropriating the oil sector, Mexico was severing ties to the colonial legacies that prevented it from existing as a free and autonomous country. Citizens became more than mere residents with a claim to a superficial layer of territory, they became proprietors of everything that lied beneath as well.

Such rhetoric surrounding the nationalization of Mexican oil shaped the civic identity of a generation that included Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE, "I'm from a generation that was forged, or cemented in this idea that this had been a patriotic decision -- a recuperation of our dignity and the elimination of every damn trace of colonialism. A beginning. Now we are truly an independent country."

ERRE began his career as an artist in 1989, after receiving a law degree and working for nearly two decades as a construction worker in the U.S. He came to prominence in the 90s with large public installations like the now iconic "Toy An Horse," a Trojan Horse inspired sculpture inhabiting two nations simultaneously. The international boundary line between the United States and Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry bisected the monumental, two-headed, wooden horse that literally and conceptually straddled the border. His multi-disciplinary background shaped his practice, which has come to be defined by clever visual arguments and masterfully crafted work that maintains a poetic sensibility, even when leveling biting political commentary.

For ERRE, the government's decision to open up the oil industry to foreign investment and production, marks both the end of an era when it comes to the economy of oil, and a crucial moment in which national sovereignty and civic responsibility has to be rethought.

In "A Game of Deception: Of Oil, Soccer and Other Bets" -- an exhibition of new work by ERRE in the Project Room at MoLAA curated by Idurre Alonso--the artist brings attention to this challenge and identifies a crucial obstacle to this process: spectacle.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Artist's Sketch for El Juego del Engaño
Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Artist's Sketch for El Juego del Engand

The title piece, "El Juego del Engaño (A Game of Deception)," encapsulates the central tension between the superficial and the political that carries through the rest of the work featured in the show. A gaudy green soccer ball labeled "Mexico" swings, like a pendulum, above a brightly-lit soccer field diorama, complete with artificial turf. The motion of the ball is unlike the usual parabolic movement of a ball in play across a field, and more reminiscent of swinging scythes used in medieval torture. Unlike the scythe however, the oscillations of the ball do not threaten to break through the surface of the field below and reveal what lies beneath the field: a precarious support system of small oil towers, some of them standing, some of them fallen over.

The soccer field with its bright lights and ordered manicured field, is only half of the truth of the work. The function of the swinging ball as an instrument of control is exposed: luring and hypnotizing the viewer to prevent them from peering underneath the surface to discovering the decaying infrastructure upon which spectacle is constructed.

There is an acknowledgement implicit in the work that something needs to change, that the status quo is no longer sustainable. After all, PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos, Mexico's national oil company) union leader and ruling party senator Carlos Romero Deschamps, made Forbes' list of the 10 most corrupt Mexican politicians of 2013. But for many, including ERRE, the government's path towards change represents a regression towards a system that benefits foreign investors more than the Mexican people and does nothing to address the rampant corruption that plagues the financial infrastructure that will continue to play a managing role in the country.

For ERRE, all the gains made by establishing a national oil company, "things that took an entire revolution to win," have now been "taken away in [just] three months". And government rhetoric about the need and benefit of foreign investment has effectively drowned out dissenting voices and critical discourse surrounding its actions.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE, MEXXON, 2014
Marcos Ramirez ERRE, MEXXON, 2014,
Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Hell, 2014
Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Hell, 2014

As a response, ERRE has created a series of riot shields made out of recycled oil barrels, each one appropriating, and intervening upon a logo of a foreign company that stands to benefit from the reforms--companies like Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Shell.

Instead of representing wealth, the barrels are (re)presented as riot shields, instruments of suppression: not signs of progress as the government frames them, but symbols of oppression.

This disconnect between a rhetoric of progress and how it manifests as lived experience is also explored in "Cuahtémoc II," a proposed monumental oil tower designed by ERRE to lean on the façade of the museum.

Appropriately, the title refers to the pre-Colombian emperor who presided over the fall of the Aztec empire, whose name translates to "the eagle that falls". In the sculpture "Project for Cuahtémoc II" a political order on the verge of collapse is evoked and represented by a simple modification of PEMEX's eagle logo, turned upside-down its made to look like it is falling dead to the ground.

As a large scale monument, the nature of the fall is to be read more ambiguously, as a metaphor for the way civic institutions become imbricated in debates about socio-political transformation and reform. The tower leaning against the museum can be read as both a gesture of support--civic society holding up National socio-political infrastructures in moments of weakness--and as an act of violence--a civic institution about to be crushed by the weight of a corrupt and inefficient infrastructure. Unfortunately, the piece was unable to be constructed because of logistical incompatibilities in the design, construction and mounting process, and is presented instead as a proposal in the gallery. Even if it had manifested, the tension would have remained unresolved for viewers to consider.

As a whole, "A Game of Deception..." presents a case for the need to critically assess what national autonomy means in Mexico today, asking who should control and profit from the nation's natural resources. It highlights the urgency and responsibility of viewers to move beyond the slick surface to uncover what lies beneath the spectacle of socio-political rhetoric, so that the sovereignty and autonomy of the country can be debated and defended by its citizens, with at least the same fervor and devotion with which fans cheer on their beloved soccer team.

I sat down to speak with ERRE further about soccer, politics and working at the border. What follows is an excerpt from the conversation.

What drew you to soccer as a topic?

ERRE: Mexico is a country where soccer has a hardcore following. I think it might the most hardcore country that is not good. Because there are other countries with very dedicated fans, like Brazil, Argentina, and European countries, but they have won tournaments, or they have won a cup. Here we have won squat and we are die-hard, like if we actually had a chance. That's why [I was interested in] that association and also in large part because of the world cup that is coming this year. Every time that a tournament happens, people are overtaken by it.

Everyone was crying because Mexico was almost going to be eliminated...people were so upset and worried that a mediocre soccer team wasn't going to make it. And all for what? Its not like we are going to win anything anyways, and even if we did win, so what? If we have already lost what is important. It becomes something to use, to launch an other deception.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Fox, 2014

Related to that point, I noticed some of the pieces that are part of the exhibition reference systems that test individuals' ability to read and discern words and phrases. I'm thinking about the pieces in the show inspired by eye-charts and CAPTCHAs [internet test program designed to distinguish between humans and computer programs using distorted text].

ERRE: There are different forms of seeing, and [different] forms of comprehension. This [exhibition] has to do with where your attention is. How are they moving the ball so that you are paying attention to that, and you won't see what is crucial and important for generations to come...My preoccupation here is how are they making us get stuck, how they are taping our mouths shut and with what. Because they have discovered that 'bread and circuses' make people easier to control.

We need to sit down all of us and discuss and think about what is the best course of action because evidently reforms are necessary.

It's also unfortunate that whenever there is a real crisis that becomes difficult to ignore, the answer lies in looking for an outside agent, seeking out foreign investment, instead of beginning by retooling and rethinking the resources that exist in the country already.

ERRE: 'These foreign agents are going to come and they will take control of all these things and they will make them work.' That is what the government is hoping will happen: 'Now we are going to be richer, or less poor because these companies are going to come in and are going to make it work.' And why couldn't we make it work? Why have we not learned after all this time to make it work ourselves?

We would have to cure ourselves of our great ill, which is corruption, to then be able to remedy not just that [socio-political ill] but all others.

I think it is interesting to consider the posture in the show -- this argument for the need to preserve national sovereignty, and reclaim a connection to the territory and its resources--in the context of the border, where much of the time you hear an arguing for the doing away of national boundaries and borders.

ERRE: We couldn't really enter into negotiations if that were the case -- it wouldn't feel like we are truly independent. It is from a sense of independence and sovereignty, of having our territory delineated, that we can begin making changes, that we begin to participate, that we begin to collaborate.

I want people to understand what a nation means, what it is made up of, that it has a territory, a people, a government and all that structure needs to remain until we can find a better one...Because when those lines start being erased, it is easier for those in power to take advantage.

How are we going to dismiss this [structure] when we haven't [tried] to change what sustains it. It is like saying 'This motor doesn't work,' when it is actually the parts that you are using. We need better parts, because you saying it doesn't work is implying that it is the entire mechanical principle of the motor that is wrong. And I can assure you that if we use good metal, if we do it right, it will work. It's worked other places why wouldn't it work here?

One of the things I have been interested in recently has been how perspectives on nation are adapted and are rethought by artists working from the border. Would you say the understanding of nation in the work being presented is rooted in Tijuana?

ERRE: Here I don't think it has much to do with whether or not it is Tijuana, because in the end I am Mexican, yes I am transborder, I have a foot on this side and one on the other, but I am upright: I have a clear idea of what is expected from a sovereign country. I think there are nationalisms that are misunderstood, exaggerated, and others that are within sanity. It is important that Mexico is strong, and from that strength it can have a more equal relationship with, primarily the United States.

I feel that I have two nationalities. I definitely have two cultures, an American one--I move like a fish in water over there and I know how things function there--and mine here from Tijuana. So I feel like I am double, and the perception and what students and [family members] have confessed to me is that they feel like they are half on each side. They feel 50% Mexican and 50% American. And that is something that needs to change. It is not half, you are not two halves that make up one thing that is hybrid, but you are double: you are 100% American and 100% Mexican. Because being Mexican or being American does not mean that you are a solid color, you are various tones... you don't have halves, that's not how it are both. It is the pride of being both; you have things from one and things of the other. I am more.

There is this very interesting play with dualities, surfaces and what's behind or underneath them in the show that I find very intriguing. You see that especially in the formal aspects of the work, in the polish and finish of all the pieces.

ERRE: They're very pretty to give them a charge, so that at least a few people are fooled into thinking that what they are looking at is art. (Laughs)

People tell me, what your doing is more politics than art! Well that's fine. If that's the label it needs to have then no problem! For me what's important are the ideas that I work with. And I work them in this way because I am supposed to be an artist, and many times I don't think I quite achieve it, I don't end up making artwork, but if I am able to stimulate minds, [raise] consciousness, great. The best thing I can do is to present a reality I perceive to be true.

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