Artists Bring Energy to a Heavy Discussion on Labor

With the exception of the giant bronze rhinoceros standing guard in the courtyard, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) has a more humble exterior than its grander and better-known neighbour, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Founded in 1876 as the educational arm of the MFA, the school is currently displaying the work of eight different contemporary Mexican artists in the exhibition “Disponible: A Kind of Mexican Show,” which runs until November 19. Meaning at once “available,” “changeable,” and “disposable,” the title “Disponible” comes from the vacant advertisement billboards that dot the cityscape of Mexico City.

“Disponible” was first exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in late 2010 to mark the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the republican revolution which overthrew long-time autocrat Porfirio Díaz. The exhibit engages with the effects of globalization on postcolonial Mexico’s workforce. Heavy though this artistic agenda may seem, exuberance defines the show’s atmosphere.

The walls of the Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, which houses most of exhibition’s artwork, are painted lime green, eggplant purple, and bright orange—all typical Mexican colors. “This is to show it isn’t about New England,” says Joanna Soltan, the curator of the exhibition. Yet aside from providing a distinctly Mexican ambiance, color does not play a large role in most of the pieces exhibited. It is only in “White Noise” by Héctor Zamora that color is particularly significant. The work originally consisted of 500 white flags placed by members of the public on a beach in New Zealand, where the installation was first shown. The color white symbolizes protest and passive resistance. 50 flags are displayed at the SMFA, along with a video documenting the installation.

More than color, it is sound that is central to many of the pieces in ”Disponible.” Artist Arturo Hernández Alcázar’s piece, “Never Work,” installed in the outdoor courtyard, uses sound as its primary medium. Alcázar says, “For so many of these pieces, sound is indispensable. In Mexico everything is always loud.” In his piece, the sound of the workers dismantling old computers is a reminder of the absence of the workers themselves. “It’s a kind of presence,” Alcázar says. He began work on this project as early as 2007.  Two years later, it debuted as part of a show about recycling materials in Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC). His original intention was to bring the workers themselves to dismantle the museum’s old computers in a kind of live installation, yet the museum declined to sanction such an idea.

Both at MUAC and now at the SMFA, “Never Work” occupies the main entrance. “I like this idea,” says Alcázar, “It’s more invasive.” To compensate for the absence of the workers themselves, he simply amped up the volume of his sound recordings. “We played it really, really loud,” he says with a smile. Alcázar is soft-spoken and reflective, making his incredibly loud work of art all the more intriguing and effective.

Part of Alcázar’s charm lies in his utter lack of pretension. He is very matter of fact about his work, and introduces his radical ideas without batting an eye. “I’m very interested in the sedimentation of capitalism,” he says, explaining the influence of the connection that the formed over the years with the workers he recorded. In many ways, “Never Work” champions these unseen but heard workers whose constant labour goes unacknowledged.

This same goal drives Teresa Margolles’ piece, “Las Llaves de la Ciudad,” which takes as its subject a key maker from Juárez, who inscribed keys for tourists. In keeping with the multimedia nature of the exhibition, Margolles has invited the key maker, Antonio Hernandez Camacho, to share his experiences of plying his trade in this troubled border town with visitors to the exhibition.

Margolles, who represented Mexico at the Venice Biennale in 2009, is perhaps a harsher critic of Mexico’s social reality than Alcázar. Soltan says that Margolles’ piece, like many others in the show, has a strong social message. “It is about the disposability of human beings.”

—Staff writer Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

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