That's How Things Are: Installation and Object Art in Latin America, 1997

October 14, 2016

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.


Now that exhibition history and the development of curatorial practice have been upgraded to just one more way of doing history, it is surprising that so few have taken the time to analyze the origins and consequences of the debate which arose in 1997 surrounding a selection of works that featured bundles of straw fastened together with golden thread, an empty shoe box and a mouse running through the museum’s galleries. And the fact that this debate had been opened up in Mexico on an institutional level is perhaps the most important legacy left by the exhibition That’s How Things Are: Installation and Object Art in Latin America. Organized by the now defunct Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo,[1] this was one of the first exhibitions to take on a systematic review of what was going on throughout the Latin American region during the decade of the nineties. With an assertive and brash title that left little room for disagreement, it became something of a controversial show, subjected to critiques that generally concluded with a touch of equally provocative resignation, faced with the lack of spaces and opportunities for the elaboration of alternative curatorial discourses: if that’s how things are, what can we do?...

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Installation view of works by Thomas Glassford, Juan Francisco Elso, and Héctor Bialostozky
Installation view of works by Thomas Glassford, Juan Francisco Elso, and Héctor Bialostozky

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Ruben Ortíz Torres, Rompiendo el código maya. (1997)
Ruben Ortíz Torres, Rompiendo el código maya. (1997)

The exhibition was co-curated by Robert Littman and Kurt Hollander. Littman was then director of the CC/AC, one of the first institutions—private, obviously—to exhibit some of the Mexican artists who composed the alternative scene of the nineties, as part of a programming schedule that was clearly alien to the cultural policies of the State. Hollander was editor of the journal Poliéster – Pintura y no Pintura (Polyester – Painting and Non-Painting), which he had founded in 1991 with designer Rocío Mireles, a publication that had become a launching pad for the generation of the nineties, and which opened up a space for critical and curatorial debate that struck off from the conventional Latin Americanist approach.[2] Thus in their presentation text, the curators state something that today sounds commonplace but had little currency at the time: that the show is not intended "to encompass the region’s artistic production in a global manner. [It is focused] on a curatorial decision regarding the exploration of new media and materials, a tendency in which Latin American art [was] in the avant-garde.” And indeed, the exhibition offered not an exhaustive evaluation of the artistic production of the nineties but rather—in spite of the curators’ own reticence—a curatorship of context. From the title—That’s How Things Are—and in particular the subtitle, Installation and Object Art in Latin America, the show sought to unveil a timely panorama of what was taking place throughout the region, avoiding in particular the way that, in Mexico, the discourses of gender and identity had been superimposed atop nationalist politics. It defended at once practices such as installation which, though they were dominating the local (not to mention international) alternative scene, lacked institutional support.[3]

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Installation view of José Damasceno, Soliloquio (1995) and Doris Salcedo, Untitled (1995)
Installation view of José Damasceno, Soliloquio (1995) and Doris Salcedo, Untitled (1995)

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Cildo Meireles, Fio [Thread] (1990–1995)
Cildo Meireles, Fio [Thread] (1990–1995)

Artists such as Francis Alÿs, Jac Leirner, Cildo Meireles, Vic Muniz, Doris Salcedo, Javier Téllez, Tunga, Gabriel Orozco, Rubén Ortiz Torres, Nadin Ospina, Eugenia Vargas, Adriana Varejão and Meyer Weismann took part with works that, though today considered emblematic of their era, at the time seemed to constitute a somewhat random curatorial selection. Among them was Salcedo’s Soliloquy, Sergio Vega’s The Holy Parrot, and the first version of The Mouse, for which Alÿs set loose a rodent within the museum’s installations, in this way feeding parasitically on the museum, which according to some had begun to “co-opt” the alternative scene.[4] While the selection of works evaded any type of geographical divisions, its display generated a museography of chiaroscuros that took advantage of the visual relationships and semantic play between the pieces. The catalogue, for its part, was structured upon five essays which, contrary to the curatorial premise, addressed this production in terms of five localities. Hollander wrote a brief text about the alternative scene in Mexico and Carolina Ponce de León described the Colombian scene; Ivo Mezquita analyzed the links between some historical works from Brazil and the production of the new generation of Brazilian artists; Jesús Fuenmayor delineated the transition from multiculturalism to globalization in a text titled “Nothing More Latin American than Being Scared to Show It,” while Gerardo Mosquera offered a broader perspective on the topic, positioning the region’s art vis-à-vis the rest of the Western world.

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Installation view of works by Jac Leirner and Silvia Gruner
Installation view of works by Jac Leirner and Silvia Gruner

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Nadín Ospina, Pieza arcaica (Doble yo) (1996)
Nadín Ospina, Pieza arcaica (Doble yo) (1996)

The exhibition had a mixed reception. While some critics debated in an attempt to establish a lazy hierarchical classification of artistic genres (some of them already extinct, such as so-called “object art”),[5] others argued that it was not enough to “endorse the myth that a refined and cosmopolitan form of the neo-conceptual had substituted a sort of locally-focused kitsch called ‘neo-Mexicanism’”;[6] for still others, the show was a largely unrefined distillation of the most recent editions of the Guadalajara art fair, which tended to replicate some of the issues of Poliéster.[7] While each of these arguments held some truth, the exhibition was not some sort of malignant syndrome. Above and beyond its curatorial quality—which indeed still left much to be desired, as curatorship was still a young profession with few spaces in which to practice—it was one of the first symptomatic demonstrations of the maturation and professionalization of a distinct artistic scene, one that would soon witness the interaction of artists, galleries, curators and institutions, consolidating the dialogue between the national and regional scenes and the rest of the world.

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Kcho, Columna infinita no. 4 (1996)
Kcho, Columna infinita no. 4 (1996)

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Installation view of works by Adriana Varejão
Installation view of works by Adriana Varejão

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Sergio Vega, El loro sagrado (1996)
Sergio Vega, El loro sagrado (1996)

[1] The CC/AC [Cultural Center/Contemporary Art] opened its doors in 1986 as a result of the breach between Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, who was then owner and president of Televisa, and the painter Rufino Tamayo following the opening of the new Tamayo Museum, which we know today as a state-sponsored museum, but which was originally the result of private initiative. Televisa then decided to open its own museum in what had been the newsroom that the conglomerate had constructed to broadcast the World Cup of soccer in Mexico ’86. With the television station’s financial backing and the capability to take advantage of the communication strategies offered by the conglomerate, the CC/AC found itself positioned like no other museum in the country. It brought in a captive audience despite offering positively eclectic programming.

[2] The importance of Poliéster to the integration of Latin America’s art scenes and the internationalization of its artists toward the end of the 90s also seems to me to be underappreciated. The journal developed a profile that today seems very appropriate to that decade, publishing a series of thematic issues on topics such as sports, games, trash, kitsch, and sickness, and dedicating specific issues to different countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It also included interviews with national and international curators, gallery owners and museum directors, opening up a spectrum for professionalization of the art scene that went beyond mere local bureaucracy.

[3] It is interesting to note that people were still thinking in terms of artistic genres, and that the now-extinct “object art” was considered one of them.

[4] A gesture like that of Alÿs today seems emblematic of the conditions permeating an artistic scene in transition. Years later Alÿs would repeat the gesture at the inauguration of the first space opened by Colección Jumex, the second private collection to open an institutional space after the CC/AC in Mexico City.

[5] See Daniel Rodríguez Barrón, “Sitiados y situados: Instalación y arte objeto” [“Besieged and Situated: Installation and Object Art”],

[6] Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Genealogía de una exposición” [“Genealogy of an Exhibition”], La era de la discrepancia. Arte y cultura visual en México 1968-1997 [The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997], University Museum of Science and Art (MUCA), 24 February – 30 September 2007, p. 18; and Yishai Jusidman, “Casos de cosas” [“Cases of Things”], 

[7] Raquel Tibol, "Arte objeto e instalaciones en el CCAC" [“Object Art and Installations in the CCAC,”]. The Guadalajara art fair Tibol referred to in this article is the precursor to the fair now known as MACO in Mexico City.


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen