Recently, while I was reading the Colombian artist Sylvia Jaimes’ text, BOA. Serie de conversaciones inconclusas (BOA. A series of inconclusive conversations), I thought about an aspect of art that, while apparent, I had not yet considered: the use of animal metaphors is recurring because it is capable of clarifying ambiguous situations and making certain experiences more literal. For example, Jaimes refers to the body, the weight, and the skin of the boa constrictor to discuss resistance and time. Thus, in a very general sense, animals have acquired a special figuration in contemporary art associated with human social behavior, as made explicit through the way they are used by artists.
As a thought exercise, I undertook the task of discovering how this situation has been reflected in Mexican contemporary art. However, establishing a thread that reveals an overarching pattern or system is impossible for at least two reasons: the first and most obvious is that animals have been represented repeatedly throughout the history of Mexican art, and many contemporary artists have used these images as sources of criticism, making it impossible to disconnect the current representations of animals from local tradition. The second reason is that the diversity of works and artists that have made use of animals in different ways makes it practically impossible to complete a systematic study of Mexican art specifically related to this theme.
Nonetheless, what I can say with certainty is that the following works refer to a local social reality whose dynamics are represented through animals. For this reason, this text is not an attempt to explain the presence of animals in Mexican Contemporary Art, nor a demonstration that the use of animals is a generalized tendency. This text is, rather, a brief panorama of a few works that have made use of animals to call attention to certain social problems common in Mexico such as violence, discrimination and, more and more frequently, ecological degradation.
Grupo SEMEFO, 1994.
In 1994, the SEMEFO group presented Lavatio Corporis in Mexico City’s Carillo Gil Museum, a work which paraphrased Los teules IV by José Clemente Orozco and presented the mummified body of a horse and a carousel constructed of neonatal foals. The work, which caused controversy even beyond the local artistic sphere, incorporated death directly into a public cultural institution. In the context of the mid-1990s, the work could have had multiple meanings encompassing the country’s constant economic, political, and social crises (electoral fraud in 1988 and the Zapatista uprising of 1994, to mention just two), as well as a literalization of death and its relationship with culture. Either way, the work used dead bodies of animals as a fully culturalized element in which even the death of animals was based on and under the control of humans.
Cuentos patrióticos (Patriotic Stories).
Francis Alÿs, 1997.
Francis Alÿs’ work Cuentos patrióticos is simple to describe: in a short video repeated in a loop, the artist enters the scene with a sheep and begins to circle around the flagpole in the Zócalo, the most important public plaza in Mexico. Occasionally, to the rhythm of bells, another sheep joins the group and forms a circle. Despite its simplicity, this work refers to a specific moment in the political history of Mexico. The action alludes to an event from 1968, when state functionaries, obliged to congregate in the Zócalo to welcome the new government, decided to bleat like sheep to declare their protest. Alÿs makes reference to the already recognized concept that protesting groups behave like sheep, but also calls attention to the agglutination of bodies in the public plaza as a form of politics. Replacing human bodies with animals is fundamental because it surpasses the metaphor while making use of it: there can only be animals in the plaza when guided by a shepherd.
Yoshua Okon, 1997.
Chocorrol is a video that shows a Xoloitzcuintle dog copulating with a French Poodle. To create this piece, the artist rented the poodle to breed with his own dog, a species endemic to Mexico. This work creates a precise comment about mestizaje and racism in Mexico, to which the element of prostitution is added as a variable. The strangeness produced by the contrasting colors of the animals’ skin reveals an unavoidable situation in the country that has never been treated as a problem but rather as a myth which was then politicized and even romanticized by the official discourse. In 1997, when the work was created, there was at least one direct connotation: despite the modernizing discourse of the state that claimed to incorporate all of its citizens, the evident abandonment of the indigenous communities had led to the armed uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1994.
Nacimiento invertido (trastornos evolutivos de la sensibilidad) /
Inverted Birth (developmental disorders of sensitivity).
Eduardo Abaroa, 1999.
In Nacimiento invertido, a work made with epoxy clay, Eduardo Abaroa comments on religion and the ways in which social roles can be understood. Abaroa molds a traditional Nativity but the social roles are inverted as if it was a world upside down, as in certain cartoons; the animals play the roles of the humans and the humans those of the animals. Thus, the three kings are the elephant, camel, and horse ridden by the Biblical travelers, while Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are a bull, a pig, and a donkey. The satirical treatment of such an important theme for Mexican traditions makes one think of the way in which it is possible to be critical through imagery. Abaroa’s caricature alludes at the same time to childhood games and to anthropomorphic representations which have historically served as means to mock certain situations and make them more evident.
Sin título (aparato para electrocutar moscas) / Untitled (apparatus to electrocute flies).
Fernando Ortega, 2003.
In the exposition El cotidiano alterado (The Everyday Altered), which was carried out in 2003 at the Venice Biennial, the participating artists shared the premise of modifying everyday objects to change their meaning. Fernando Ortega presented an electric fly killing machine, like those frequently used in restaurants, with the following modification: each time that a fly was electrocuted, the entire room lost power and all of the works which used electricity stopped working. Then, each work had to be turned on again, until another fly made contact with the machine. This work uses the fly like a detonator to simultaneously demonstrate death as tragic and comical. The death of each fly corresponds with the loss of power and of art. Therefore, what is traditionally considered insignificant becomes vital to the continuation of the exhibition.
La venganza del elefante (The Elephant’s Vengeance).
Minerva Cuevas, 2007.
In 2007, the exposition La venganza del elefante, shown in the Kurimanzutto gallery, tried to question the ways in which modernity has understood nature. The display included apparatuses that amplified entomological samples and other projectors that showed images of animals in cages or in zoos in black and white. The most interesting aspect of this exhibition is precisely the constant mediation of animal imagery by technology. It seems as if “natural” animals no longer exist, but rather that they are always mediated by a machine or a device. Cuevas’ comment allows for reflection on how the relationship between humans and animals has been mediated by technology, but also how urban relationships have modified our way of understanding animal behavior, such as occurs in circuses and zoos.
Miguel Calderón, 2008.
In 2008 Miguel Calderón took a photograph that foreshadowed the future of Acapulco (and perhaps that of the entire state of Guerrero and much of the country): a vulture perched, at night, above a billboard announcing the city is 79 kilometers away. The off-white animal contrasts with the darkness of the background and the green of the sign. It is now apparent that one of the country’s most touristic cities was already involved in a complex situation provoked by the violence of drug trafficking, but that the worst would only come when President Felipe Calderón put into action the so-called “war on drugs.” Miguel Calderón’s photo is a clear and overwhelming message: in Acapulco, 79 kilometers away, death awaits.
On December 7th, 2013, the Mexican army confiscated a tiger, an arsenal, and a truck after a conflict with an armed group in Sinaloa state. The tiger, which seemed to be a strange element in the list, is no more than an accessory which works almost at the same level as the luxury pickup. The show of power through the animal is meaningful because it established a singular symbolic relationship with the animal that has ceased being “wild” and has been converted into a status symbol. In other words, because it is “wild,” it represents the status of its owner. This example makes evident that the relationship with animals has changed in a meaningful way and that the animals are no longer “just nature”: they are increasingly culture. It is very clear that the ways in which animals have been used in Mexican art have been multiple and allude to different situations that pass through the same source of meaning as the drug trafficker’s tiger. The eclectic selection that I have made has to do precisely with this. However, it does not cease to be important that this presence is reiterated and that, at least in the examples to which I have alluded, there is an indication of a certain grade of cynicism based on the reification of animals. In effect, the artists are interested by the animals as much as it is possible to anthropomorphize them, or even invert this relationship and achieve certain animalization of the human. What is certain is that it is increasingly easy to keep tigers in our homes.