Atlantic Cities

Mexican Design's New Acerbic Streak

Mexican Design's New Acerbic Streak

If I wanted to, I could furnish and decorate an entire home — quite fashionably — with reminders of Mexico’s socio-political problems. In my kitchen, dishes could dry on stainless steel cactuses, cowboys, lookout towers, border patrol, and illegal immigrants. Mojado (Wetback), by Ariel Rojo, is a drying rack whose handy irregular shapes trap bowls or glasses neatly in the grips of the players who move through the drama unfolding along the Mexico-U.S. border. Conflict plays out in pantomime, the matte metal layers spreading horizontally from low in front to tall in back.

On the floor of my living room, to keep feet warm from the chill of bare floorboards, I’d lay out a La Lomita rug by Liliana Ovalle for Nodus Rugs. In Mexico, the hills that surround larger cities, from which the rug takes its name, are covered in squat, slapdash homes of cinder block and aluminum siding, but the elegant rug only vaguely evokes this uncontrolled sprawl — the geometric squares outlined in warm gray wool and banana silk create an abstract, minimalist mosaic. There is a blue roof here and a red façade there, and a few gestural second stories rise above the repetitive squares outlined in dark grey on a paler background. I’d put a coffee table on top, and it would crush down just enough of the pile that you could see how lush the rest of the rug is.

Jorge Diego Etienne's Choose Your Bullet. Image courtesy artist.

Over on my desk, I’d tuck a few tulips into Emiliano Godoy’s Flower Power, a vase that’s actually an aluminum extrusion used by the Mexican Army to make grenades. It comes in a blunt gunmetal gray, or, perhaps more appealing, a yellowish gold out of which red tulips could drape brightly. The extrusion looks more like sunbeams than an instrument of death. Next to my flowers, only the tips of pens and markers would be visible peeking from the six holes of Choose Your Bullets, a tool holder that looks like the barrel of an enormous gun, by Jorge Diego Etienne. Unlike Flower Power, the penholder is made as a likeness out of serial-numbered solid aluminum. If I buy it online, I can also get brass pens made to fit snugly inside .375 H&H Magnum bullet shells, which make for an intimidating set.

Come Saturday, I could tend my garden with tools-slash-conceptual-art-pieces by Pedro Reyes, made initially for an art project at the Botanical Gardens of Culiacán, a Mexican city that suffers from high levels of drug violence. For 2008’s Palas por Pistolas (Guns Into Shovels), Reyes invited locals to trade their guns for coupons, which they could use to buy electronics or home appliances at a local store; he got 1,527 weapons, 40 percent of which were automatic artillery supposedly used only by the military. He melted them down into the same number of shovels, which have planted trees not only in Culiacán, but also at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Lyon Biennial, and in Marfa, Texas.

Liliana Ovalle's Crash Bench. Image courtesy artist.

But let’s be honest: I can’t afford conceptual art any more than I can afford the purses and shoes that aren’t really for sale at the Prada store in Marfa. I’m still placing pennies in Me Amarraron Como Puerco (They Tied Me Like a Pig), an upside-down piggy bank made of two slabs of pig-shaped metal connected with gray cloth, by Masiosare Studio. The grimacing creature is turned on its back, bound, and tied with slim strips of the same cloth taut around the pig’s feet and mouth. No, I’ll return to actual furniture and the living room, where there are two spooky, pop-influenced seats, Ovalle’s Belted Chair, which looks like a stylized version of its electric sibling, or her Crash Bench, a piece of sleek fiberglass that’s crunched in the middle as if an asteroid or a bomb had just hit it. Now that it’s all laid out before me, it might be hard to focus on Jane Austen amid so many evocations of the calamity that’s happening in Mexico.

Poverty, violence, corruption, immigration, and drug trafficking are hardly new, and a casual treatment of death is central to Mexican cultural identity. Conflicts and injustices have been inspiring Mexican artists since even before the monumental murals of David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. More recently, artists like Reyes, Teresa Margolles, Melanie Smith, Santiago Sierra, Tijuana collective Torolab and many more have brought these issues to the foreground of Mexican contemporary art; their artworks have been discussed at the Venice Biennale over ciccetti and put hundreds of thousands of viewers into uncomfortable positions at gallery and museum openings around the world. But these artworks — for example, Margolles’ installation at LACMA of loungers made of cement mixed with the water that’s used to wash dead bodies in Mexican morgues, or a room filled with similar morgue mist — aren’t necessarily meant to be pretty, desirable, or fun. While controversial art and mass-produced design are independently old hat, objects that subtly marry the two are fresh. In the ever-widening chasm between art and industrial design, these objects place commentary on harsh realities in inoffensively domestic settings.

Some of these decorative items are glib, vaguely utilitarian jokes, one-liners in which the punchline feels a little too obvious. Yes, we live in an age when violence is increasingly banal, which Philippe Starck already referenced with his glam, gold-plated 2005 Gun Lamp collection. Etienne’s barrel-penholder, the designer writes on his website, is meant to remind us that “corruption and bad decisions can be more harmful than violence,” but it looks obvious and aggressively trendy. Its silver gun barrel is too un-masked to be appealing other than to gun enthusiasts or hipsters aiming for an ironic pose, along the lines of Starck’s rifle floor lamps and handgun bedside models. Flower Power, incidentally, dates from 2000, long before the Gun Lamps; Godoy has since turned to designing items for his eco-friendly furniture company, Pirwi, which manage to be both sinuous and angular at once.

These items are at their most successful when, as in Ovalle’s rug or Rojo’s drying rack, they refrain from editorializing and keep their commentary stealthy, much like Margolles’ loungers. The valiant immigrant, the cactus, the staunch American policeman, the lookout tower: No cutout bears more weight than the other and each is equally useful when it comes to drying wet dishes. Ovalle’s rug only obliquely references the informal architecture that leaves the poorest residents of Mexico’s cities vulnerable to natural disasters that make their homes tumble down upon them. Built without the aid of engineers or architects, they are precarious, but they’re also colorful and resourceful neighborhoods. These designers seem acutely aware of the nuances of the issues they’re referencing.

The drug war is real, as is the corruption that puts military guns in the hands of gangsters, the plight of the illegal immigrant, and, more subtly, the challenges that Mexico’s overwhelming poverty and governmental bureaucracy pose to urban planners who, really, would like to make the lomitas of large Mexican cities safer. But in a country in which wealth and power are concentrated among the few, objects that are used by the many feel important. Rugs, garden tools, vases, drying racks: the items above reflect the double entendre that enriches both language and the language of art in Mexico, and insist on reminding their buyers that these are the issues that we live with. They read like a call to arms: Get comfortable with the very serious problems that plague Mexico or resolve to change them. 

Julia Cooke's art, culture and travel writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Conde Nast Traveler, Design Observer, Monocle, and other magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York. All posts »

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