XII FEMSA Biennial: We have never been contemporary

  • Zacatecas, Mexico
  • October 26—February 17
  • Curator(s): Willie Kautz, Gabriela Correa, Daniel Garza Usabiaga, Nicolás Pradilla, Eric Nava Muñoz, Fernando Salcedo Suárez del Real
  • Funding: FEMSA / FEMSA Foundation, Oxxo, Bohemia, Secretary of Culture, National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA), the State of Zacatecas, the National Museum of Art

The Guadalupe Museum is in Guadalupe, Zacatecas, a 10/15 minute drive from the state’s namesake capital city, Zacatecas. On the way, our Uber driver, who seemed to be about 15, kept pointing out good places to get tostadas de pata. He would say, oh that place is really good, and keep driving. He asked us where we were from. I wondered vaguely if he was gay, and what it is like to be gay in such a Catholic, cold place. The night before we had tried to go to the gay bar. “It’s empty,” the doorman told us, shaking his head.

Guadalupe was the seat of propaganda for Franciscan missionaries heading north to missions in New Spain: the Californias; present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado; and Texas. Zacatecas was the home of the XIII FEMSA Biennial, We have never been contemporary, an elegant complication of Bruno Latour’s claim that We Have Never Been Modern and a sly response to Richard Meyer’s question, What Was Contemporary Art? FEMSA is the Mexican bottler and distributor of Coca-Cola and owner of the ubiquitous corner store Oxxo, where you can buy a bottle of Coke for less than a bottle of water, here in a country where tap water is usually not drinkable. Zacatecas says about itself: “hearts of silver, faces of cantera,” the rosy-red rock that glowers out from every building and every hill at dusk. The silver is gone from the mines within city limits, the cantera poisoned with heavy metals from the extraction process, local indigenous populations decimated or wiped out entirely from being enslaved to mine the silver for the Spanish and Mexican states. Zacatecas: rotting teeth, vacant hearts, poisoned faces.

We got out of the car and I wondered if I was in a spaghetti western or if maybe I had fallen into a scene from Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather’s gorgeous and subtly queer account of dying in 19th-century New Mexico. The guard at the museum was watching a soccer game on his smartphone, which he had balanced on his walkie-talkie. He told us the biennial had closed and the hall the artwork was no longer accessible. It hadn’t; it wasn’t. The sound of creaking pulley systems filled the long, wide hall, the soundtrack to Backdrop, a two-channel video installation by Fabiola Torres-Alzaga in which curtains and mirrors endlessly raised at the back of a stage. The pulley operators were invisible—like the indigenous miners who died to make Zacatecas rich, like everyone left out of supposedly universal concepts like “the contemporary” or “the modern.”