The Mexican cultural critic Rafael Saavedra once wrote that "Tijuana moves faster than its artists and critics." The city certainly has inhabited many roles. Raffish border town. Frat guy party zone. Ground zero for spectacular acts of narco-violence. Lately, "la city" -- as Tijuana is affectionately called -- has taken on a new guise: percolating arts lab. In the last couple of years, the homicide rate has plummeted, but tourism remains relatively low, making plenty of fallow real estate on and off Avenida Revolución affordable to the creative classes. Artists, musicians, writers, designers and innovative chefs have set up shop in moribund commercial alleyways, empty bars and shuttered clubs for a cultural boomlet that has drawn notice on both sides of the border.
For Tijuanense, this moment has been about looking inward, about building institutions that cater to inhabitants of the city, not day-tripping American tourists. But that doesn't mean that what's happening in Tijuana is staying in Tijuana. A small exhibition at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles brings together a small sampler of what's happening on the border to L.A. "It's a presentation, not a full-blown survey," says curator Illya Haro, of the exhibition. "It's intended to highlight some of the artists who have been influential in the scene." The title of the show, "Tijuana Makes Me Happy," is taken from a 2004 essay by the critic Saavedra, an ode to the city's fractured identity. It was a piece of writing that also inspired a song of the same name by the musical group Nortec Collective. (Saavedra, sadly, passed away in September at the age of 46. The show, in many ways, is a tribute to him.)
Haro says that, above all, she took pains to put together an exhibition that paints a nuanced picture of the city. "I want to show that Tijuana doesn't have just one identity," she says. "I didn't just want to show narcos and violence. It exists, but people need to see other realities, too." The works featured are reflective of that. A wall of photographs showcase architect Jorge Gracia's Culinary Art School, constructed in Tijuana in 2009, a graceful building that has generated a good deal of ink in the design press for its clean lines and energy efficient design. On another wall, a pair of pop-infused paintings by Charles Glaubitz contains fantastical figures moving across surreal landscapes. And there is an animation by Fritz Torres, an influential graphic designer, who blends the look of Latin American street graphics with contemporary design. In the U.S., he is best known for the album covers he produced for the Nortec Collective.
In fact, it is this important musical group that serves as a bookend for the exhibition. In the early part of the new millennium, Nortec took the global music scene by storm by fusing Mexican norteño oompa oompa sounds with the cool beats of electronica. "The show covers a span of 15 years," says Haro. "That was when Nortec was founded -- and they have been incredibly influential in the cultural sphere since." The group's work has received plaudits in Time and the New York Times. They've been nominated for Grammy Awards. And their long-running success serves as evidence that Tijuana's arts scene didn't come out of nowhere. In addition to Torres's graphics, the exhibition has a work of video art by Pepe Mogt, a founding member of Nortec.
It probably goes without saying that the idea of the border looms large in a lot of the works. Tijuana is a place that lives in the shadow of the United States, but is innately Mexican. Yet, it resides far from Mexico's traditional centers of power, and is therefore not wedded to the cultural dictates that emanate out of Mexico City. "I like to think of Tijuana as this wave of chaos that has emerged out of Mexico and has crashed into the border -- this wave of Mexicans crashing into the neatness and the order of the United States," says artist Hugo Crosthwaite, whose work was recently on view at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach as part of the California Pacific Triennial. This highly dynamic point of contact, says Crosthwaite, has produced a truly global culture. "My father owned a curio shop in Tijuana," he says. "I grew up selling things like pottery to Americans. I don't remember 'learning' English. I just knew it. I grew up with American music and American language, but I'm Mexican. Tijuana is the best and the worst of both worlds."
His work, like him, is also global. Crosthwaite is currently dividing his time between Brooklyn and Tijuana. His gallerist, Luis de Jesus, is based in Los Angeles. For "Tijuana Makes Me Happy," he produced a dramatic, wall-sized charcoal drawing that blends elements of American sci-fi (Robby the Robot from the 1956 flick "Forbidden Planet") with pre-Columbian imagery (Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of creation). Filling out the piece are images of playing children, of the sort that would be common in any urban setting.
Other works in the show also contend with the nature of identity in a city that is not just of one place. Pablo Llana makes collages out of discarded fast food wrappers, a comment on the ways in which American industrial foods have permeated Mexican culture. (The country is now ranked as the fattest in the world.) Llana says he has met people who ask friends and relatives with U.S. entry visas to get them burgers at Jack in the Box in San Diego, since the chain doesn't have any franchises in Tijuana. "Fast food has become like this hybrid language," he says. "We all speak Starbucks and McDonald's and Burger King."
This back-and-forth is also explored in a remarkable work of video art by filmmaker Giancarlo Ruiz. Tucked into a back room of the gallery, "TJ500" is a four-minute video that looks and feels like a hyperreal news report. Cars zoom back and forth on a blurry screen framed by a ticker featuring partially invented headlines. The piece feels manic -- "like crossing the border into Tijuana, with its chaos, its smells, its traffic and its people," says Ruiz. Using the metaphor of the car, the piece also gets at the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Cars with illegal goods are often seized at the border by U.S. authorities, explains Ruiz. These are eventually put up for auction, only to end up right back on the streets of Tijuana. "The car is a tool of communication between the two communities."
"Tijuana Makes Me Happy" is a tiny show -- a handful of works by 14 artists in total -- which means that Angelenos are only getting a taste of what is happening in "la city." Haro, however, hopes to do other shows of this nature around Southern California. "Something regular, in which we feature different groups of artists," she says, "something that shows the range of disciplines that Tijuana is home to." It may not be totally necessary. "Tijuana Makes Me Happy" may just inspire you to hop down to the border and take it all in for yourself.
Tijuana Makes Me Happy is on view at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles through January 15, 2014.
Want to read more of our Tijuana coverage? Check out more of Artbound's most recent articles:
Postcards from Tijuana: La Mona, A Concrete Tijuanense Queen
Armando Muñoz Garcia's 18-ton, naked-as-the-day-you-were-born sculpture rises a triumphant five stories from a ravine in Tijuana. "La Mona" is the architectural incarnate of the ingenuity and absurdity that defines this most surreal of cities.
Crossfader Playlist: Tijuana Makes Me Happy
"Crossfader Playlist" features a sampler of the blog posts, essays, and digital riffs of Tijuana writer Rafa Saavedra. The second installment of an excerpt from Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo's upcoming anthology, Tijuana Dreaming: Art and Life at the Global Border.
From the Center of the Margin: Contemporary Art Galleries in Downtown Tijuana
Artists and musicians are reinvigorating Tijuana's historic tourist district by opening small independent, largely self-funded art galleries and spaces.
Borderblaster: Cog•nate Collective Border Line Broadcasts
Borderblaster is a project consisting of a hyper-localized, short-range radio transmission that seeks to connect communities and explore new forms of public dialogue and exchange at the border.