The exhibition Monuments, anti-monuments, and new public sculpture opens with a joke: Pablo Herlguera’s Artoon about a fictitous pre-Columbian ruler’s plans for a new monument ends with the punch line: “public art is not for the public but for the government.” A healthy skepticism runs throughout the exhibition at the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City, whether looking back at the optimistic modern sculptures erected along the 1968 Ruta de la Amistad for the Olympics games in Mexico to a critical reappraisal of the monument among a later generation of artists across Latin America.
A selection of photographs from a photo book published in 1980 introduces the turn toward critical reappraisal of monuments in public space. The black-and-white images of public sculptures across Mexico suggests their plethora and diverse contexts. In the range of historical figures represented, it also begs the viewer to question the history that it represents: why these men (and they are mostly men), and why these moments from Mexican history? Looking at their dynamic, impressive poses in a serial fashion, one after the other, each becomes less individually powerful. It creates the impetus in the viewer to question the root of society’s desire to memorialize personages who are tied to conquest, now-defunct political parties, and war as well as the manner and style in which the statues are made.
The ambitious project of building monumental sculptures along the Ruta de la Amistad in Mexico City is represented here through models, photographs, and a 1970 dance video with Raquel Welch dancing in a space-age bikini in front of the sculptures. The ebullient tone of the colorful models and the gyrating dance both speak to a hopeful future. The different ways of learning about the Ruta de la Amistad show not just the sculptures, but their reception and later their fall into neglect. Care of public sculpture can easily become a monumental task as well.
As the show broadens out, into the present and beyond Mexico, curator Pablo León de la Barra asks us to rethink the real and symbolic occupation of public space in Latin America. Occupation is a key word for these countries with their colonial histories. Juan Fernando Herrán’s series A Thousand Heroes is represented here with a rough wood base for an absent sculpture. Its function, to subvert the basic mechanism of power on which such monuments rely, speaks to the particular context of the artist’s native Colombia. Many of Colombia’s 100-year-old statues were imported from Europe, so that its nation-building project was made through the techniques and hands of its colonial masters. At the same time, Herrán’s empty pedestal speaks across that particular history to any society where heroes and leaders are absent from memory. Two photographs by Iván Argote, from a series called Turistas, likewise questions the stone leaders of Bogota. Argote photographed sculptures of European leaders, carved in western attire, wearing traditional ponchos. Below, Christopher Colombus points south, but the gesture is hollowed out by the poncho he is wearing. The colors of the poncho echo the colors of the graffiti that has accumulated at the statue’s base.
Across the course of the show, the optimism of the massive modernist sculptures created for the Olympics in Mexico city in the late ’60s gives way to criticality and suspicion in several works that consider the destruction and movement of monuments. The shows ends on a political jab, bringing the monument, or a satirical reversal of it, into the present moment with a grotesque plaster form of a florid Donald Trump laying on the floor. Created by a collective of Puerto Rican artists in the past year for an exhibition at Proyectos Ultravioletas in Guatamala City, Radamés “Juni” Figueroa, Melvin Laz, and Rafael López use the opposite of the glory and power of the monument by putting a form of the current U.S. president on the floor, shirt unbuttoned over a protruding gut, tongue sticking out. It is titled Bad hombre.