Concerto for Tam-Tam

  • Emma Molina Gallery (Monterrey, Mexico)
  • April 4, 2019
  • Curator(s): Eliud Nava

The Emma Molina gallery sits in the middle of a somewhat bizarre live-work complex in Santa Catarina, slightly west of San Pedro Garza García, Mexico’s wealthiest city, which itself borders the city of Monterrey, one of the ten cities that make up Greater Monterrey. The complex features the sort of bland architecture one might find in an outdoor mall anywhere in the world: buildings painted in neutral tones, mostly rectangular, enough architectural flourishes to mark itself as “luxury” or “modern,” but not enough to establish any kind of threateningly unique identity. I went there for the first time in early February to see work by Tahanny Lee Betancourt. Her sculptures, delicate seemingly-hammered brass teardrops that evoke the memory of the keys of her family’s old piano, and by extension the memory her lost sister, should have glittered, should have floated ethereally like butterflies around a flower. However, as the architecture of the development in which the gallery is situated does not take into account natural light—an implicit admission by the architects that these buildings are intended to create capital rather than spaces for humans to live in—the sculptures hung listless and flat, victims of their environment, where the noontime sun, just beginning to cut through the gray morning fog outside, was blocked by a building across a narrow street from the gallery and mixed with the fluorescent light inside to create a heavy, sickly pallor, rather than a sparkling, lifting light.

The second time I went to Emma Molina Gallery was at night, a couple of weeks ago, to see a performance, Concerto for Tam-Tam (2019), by Lee. From the gallery, where Lee’s work—floating better in purely artificial light, unmarred by the surrounding architecture—we followed a man with a goofily oversized megaphone across the street and into an as-yet-unused space in-between a Starbucks and a Cinemex Platino, the VIP version of the Mexican cinema chain Cinemex. There, Lee sat in a circle with six men. In front of her was a pedalboard. Next to each man was a cymbal stand, the kind usually used to hang tam-tams. Three candles burned on top of each stand. Instead of the brass gong hung one of Lee’s sculptures, a tear-shaped brass form like those on display in the gallery. Lee began the performance with a tentative vocal cadence, looping and slowly layering it with her pedalboard. The percussion ensemble began slowly, softly striking the brass sculptures with mallets. My mind immediately went to gamelan, community-specific sets of mostly-brass instruments forged by shamans and integral to ritual life in Indonesia. These ensembles often accompany dance or shadow-puppetry, a feeling that the flickering candlelight reinforced.

The performance lasted over forty minutes, in a space with no chairs and little circulation. For most of these forty minutes, Lee’s layered vocal intervention was buried by a sort of 80s Steve Reich-y percussion that made little sense in the booming, empty space in which it was situated, except to perhaps bring out an obdurate, uncaring violence not immediately apparent in Lee’s sculptures. At one point one of the performers, the one directly in front of me, had one of Lee’s sculptures bent over his knee like an unruly child, whacking it repeatedly with his mallet. I thought: huh. How do I deal with a performance that I don’t like that involves somebody I really do like, whose work I respect? How do I talk or write about this performance, which Lee confirmed later in a private message to me was very much about exploration of the sculptures as tam-tams, hence also very much about curiosity, without attacking curiosity as such? I dealt with it by asking Lee questions about aspects of the performance that were unclear or uncomfortable to me; I am writing about it like this; and I guess I wonder why curiosity and exploration don’t usually involve curiosity about nor exploration of one’s own position in the world—why exploring the sculptures as instruments did not seem to involve caring for them, or why an ensemble of six men would not be curious about what it might mean to overpower a woman in a state that had recently outlawed abortion, in a country that, just in the week leading up to the performance, had finally had its #MeToo moment.