Empire II at MACO, Oaxaca

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I arrived in Oaxaca just in time to miss a performance by Lukas Avendaño which, recounted by deeply touched friends and spectators, had seemingly captured the very spirit of Mexico. But only a week after the event could I understand the significance and the symbolism of this work.

On 22 February Empire II came to Mexico. The series of short films and video work of over a hundred of international artists curated by Vanya Balogh has been launched almost two years ago in Brussels, then moved on to Venice Biennale, toured the world, and then arrived to its penultimate stop in Oaxaca at the Contemporary Art Museum, MACO, before completing the full circle in Venice in May of 2019.

A few participating artists who flew to Oaxaca helped to install the show, conducted the workshops at the museum, and explored the exuberance of the city with their own exuberance to match. Eight-hour-long original collection of work inspired by the biennale entitled Time of Anxiety, a collection stills, Playing God, created for the show in Tallinn, along black and white Surrealism and Abstraction rooms formed an immersive environment transporting the viewer to the reality composed of the individual artists’ worlds. To add to the Oaxaca showing of EMPIRE II, Anne Grim’s Intergalactic Visa Office helped to increase the sense of a world in transition.

EMPIRE II, presented in its full silvery glory, was counterbalanced by the materiality of the Oaxacan outdoors: brilliance of the unlikely and virtuoso colour combinations of the Oaxacan artisans, textiles, pompons, tussles, midweek fireworks, sellers’ calls in the innumerable markets, reproductions of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, flowers, early morning xylophone roulades, and the hot sun.

The sun could have whitened all the colours, silenced all the sounds, and incinerated the very life of the town, but instead the colours are even brighter, sounds even louder, people even kinder. It could have been a pastoral paradise: the pulling proximity of the ancient Zapotec, Mixtec, and later Aztec civilizations of the Oaxaca Valley, creating art since time immemorial, growing maize and distilling mezcal.

But the theme that initially inspired the EMPIRE II project for the 2017 Venice Biennale has more relevance in Mexico than one can imagine. Anxiety is in the veins of Mexico. It is not a general malaise of the Western world aggravated by worsening international relationship, climate change, pollution, and economic disparity. This is open-heart grief.

People disappear.

They disappear without a trace and never return. Forty thousand people have gone missing since 2011. Almost every family has a story to tell. They live with a hope that their father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, or aunt will come back one day. No one exactly knows what happened to them. Some say they are taken to the forced labor camps in the mountains, some have stories of kidnapping by cartels, but no one knows for certain. There is no closure, no reconciliation, and no end in sight. Tension is in every flower, every note, every cup of mescal, and every artwork. Conquering horror with beauty, when both are interlaced in the eternal dance. A dragon decorated with bright red, orange and blue flowers, as if in a humble effort to tame the beast, and invite it to your home where it is harmless and lovely. The ancient patterns interwoven into delicate fabric seem to be losing the power of the ancient gods’ spells and giving them to the owner of the illustrious garment. This transformation has the almost cinematographic effect of zooming out and changing scale, from one that’s horrendous to one that’s whimsical. From agony to calm, from pounding heart to slow motion and measured breathing.

Such was a work of Lukas Avendaño, a Mexican performing artist and a wounded heart, whose brother disappeared nine months ago. With a dream-like slow, almost Kabuki, repetitive motion, he takes a beautiful gladiolus from a larger-than-life bunch of flowers, slowly moving it from one hand to another, and then to the hand of the spectator-participant, who comes and sits next to the artist and then carries the flower away as if thinning out the pain and loss. Here the anxiety lands; bound by the inevitable, the unfathomable, the invisible.

A week is never enough to explore a new country, but quite enough to fall in love with it. As my plane was taking off, I was once again reliving every moment and every encounter of EMPIRE II, leaving below Oaxaca, a paradise bird with a dark dragon underbelly.




Photo i.e. Lucas Avendaño. Image courtesy of © Susan Shulman

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