Normal Exceptions, an Emptying of Mexican Contemporary Art*


Edgar Alejandro Hernández

The exhibition Normal Exceptions: Contemporary Art in Mexico, at Museo Jumex from March 27 to August 15, 2021 in Mexico City, reminded me of a conversation I had back in 2008 with German philosopher Boris Groys who pointed out that each era has its own art, and therefore, without contemporary art collections, we cannot really know the time that we are living in:

It is like if you skipped your own historical experience. We know about the Renaissance or the Baroque because we possess art from that period. Contemporary art has a double function: on the one side it informs us about our time and on the other it preserves our memory. If you don’t have contemporary art collections or committees, the historical representation of our time in the future would be as though it never had existed (Hernández, 2008).

The idea that we have been skipping “our own historical experience” came to mind as I was touring Normal Exceptions. What the exhibition makes obvious is that the collector Eugenio López has stopped acquiring Mexican contemporary art for at least a decade. The works in the exhibition from his collection, with a couple of exceptions, are from between 1990 to the early 2000s, the rest are loans from other private collections or from the artists themselves and their galleries.

Curated by Kit Hammonds, the show Normal Exceptions has the ambition of giving a panorama of the last 20 years of art in Mexico while celebrating two decades of Fundación Jumex. According to the curatorial text:

Normal Exceptions is an exhibition of contemporary art in Mexico that takes a particular approach. Rather than aiming to write a history of what has been a particularly fecund time for creative practices in Mexico, Normal Exceptions brings together works by artists who are actively investigating and challenging how history itself is written, pictured and narrated (Hammonds, 2021).

But this “pictured” and “narrated” history of contemporary art in Mexico is in itself an exercise that can no longer be made based on the Colección Jumex. Apart from works by Damián Ortega, Coliseum. Diagram of Time (2017) and The Address Book, number 28 & 38 (2013) by Virginia Colwell, the rest of exhibited works that are part of the collection were created a decade ago or more.

Normal Exceptions exposes just how fast Colección Jumex has aged, particularly if we think of Eugenio Lopez’s collection as one of the most major referents of contemporary art made in Mexico. It might initially seem marginal, but in a country where public museums lack the resources to acquire contemporary works, the fact that the major private collector is no longer acquiring contemporary pieces is a problem of national proportion.

Without entering in a chauvinistic discourse, it is fair to remember that although Colección Jumex has achieved international significance, it was due to Lopez’ astute decision to acquire early works by Mexican artists to show them equally grounded with the most globally relevant artists in the field. What makes Jumex’s collection of Mexican contemporary art from the nighties transcendental in historical terms is the gap it filled in the face of institutional short-sightedness. The collection of Mexican 1990’s era works has a weight that today far exceeds the blockbuster exhibitions by international artists (Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons) or the great unveiling of the new headquarters at Plaza Carso designed by British architect David Chipperfield.

Jumex, was for a span of ten years, the oasis that established a counterpoint to the apathy of Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes along with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (today Secretaría de Cultura) towards contemporary art. Its former location in Ecatepec, situated within the Jumex/La Costeña food processing plant, established Fundación/Colección Jumex as an archetype that through the years obtained almost mythical proportions, not just for the stunning parties that marked every exhibition, but for the real possibility of seeing the most recent contemporary Mexican art displayed in direct dialogue with the international canon.

As art critic Cuauhtémoc Medina explained (2001):

… rather than artificially emulating the Anglo-Saxon model of civic museums geared towards a regional middle-class, like the Museo of Contemporary Art of Monterrey (MARCO), or worse, to conceive a more or less nationalist medium to white-wash the image of a state-owned mafia like the Centro Cultural de Televisa, Jumex embarked on what was then unthinkable for the postcolonial elite despite its obviousness: buy contemporary art […] This simple fact allowed Jumex to acquire the power of mediation: it achieved global recognition for acquiring works from the internationalized gallery circuit and for its specificity, occupying an almost monopolized position in the mainstream compilation of embryonic locality.

In 2001, when the Fundación/Colección Jumex opened their exhibition space in Ecatepec, the specific weight of Mexican art in the collection marked the tone of the show curated by Patricia Martín. As lucidly reported by critic Olivier Debroise (2001):

Unlike the exhibition at Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, this selection is distinguished by the presence of Mexican artists. In fact, it seems like the artists from other countries are only presented here to offer an international context to the local, a maneuver probably directed to the numerous foreign guests, gallery directors and collectors.

More importantly, however, is to remember what Eugenio López himself explained in 2003 were his ambitions for his collection:

I want to create an international network in which Mexico participates. If the artists travel, they can show their work around the world, or if curators come to Mexico, they can see Mexican artworks and then invite them to different curatorial projects. I believe that without this effort, Colección Jumex would not make a whole lot of sense (Hernández, 2003).

With this clarity around the vocation and the origin of the what today we know as the Museo Jumex, the exhibition Normal Exceptions is all the more transparent. It can be divided in two groups: art from the nineties—that reports for duty with solvency from the collection’s stores—and art from the two first decades of the XXI century, which is no longer of interest for Eugenio López as a collector leaving curator Kit Hammonds to fill in the gaps through external loans. In quantitative terms, this was the primary operation if we pay attention to the list of works in the exhibition, which count up 49 works from Colección Jumex and 72 works loaned by artists or other collections. That the loans make up more than half of Normal Exceptions is a fact that should be taken seriously given that even when it was common to have borrowed works in previous exhibitions, Jumex never surpassed borrowing more than 10 or 15 percent of the total of exhibited works.

The curator tries to level out the great gap in Colección Jumex accentuated by Normal Exceptions arguing:

Now in its 20th year, it is also significant that the Colección Jumex itself is part of the ecology of contemporary art in Mexico alongside these peers. The works in this exhibition include many that have entered the collection over the years, yet have been infrequently seen, alongside new and loaned works from invited artists (Hammonds, 2021).

These “new and loaned works” stand out in Normal Exceptions because they reflect two apparently distinct problematics but that in the end echo the same reality. Eugenio López stopped purchasing from the same artists that two decades prior gave his collection notoriety. To mention the most obvious names, the Jumex warehouse has no recent works by Teresa Margolles, Yoshua Okón, Miguel Calderón, Eduardo Abaroa, Tania Candiani, Pedro Reyes or by the collective Tercerunquinto. But what is even more serious: it has no works by young artists born between 1980 and 1990, who are exhibited in Normal Exceptions: Julieta Aguinaco, Lorena Ancona, Zhivago Duncan, Miguel Fernández de Castro, Ximena Garrido, Circe Irasema, Chantal Peñalosa, Elisa Pinto, Ana Segovia, Tania Ximena and Yollotl Alvarado

It is important to clarify that being a private museum, the list of more than 3,500 works currently possessed by Colección Jumex is not open to the public. The only public documents that register their inventory are their exhibition catalogues, but only the selected works that each curator selected to show appear.

If we consider that this ambition of Normal Exceptions is to compile a review of contemporary art in Mexico that commemorates the first 20 years of the Colección Jumex, it is not clear why, in the event that the collection has recent work by these artists in their collection, (which are rarely seen, as the museum has lately concentrated in importing blockbuster exhibitions), these works weren’t chosen for this particular show.

This is why it is worth highlighting the original vocation of the collection compared to the institution it became. Twenty years ago, Cuauhtémoc Medina saw it as inspiring that Eugenio López had not conceived the act of “collecting as an appendix to the construction of an institution, but as the passport to become an actor in the global art game.” (Medina, 2001).

To look at the recent history of the Colección Jumex—and even more so since its transformation into Museo Jumex in 2013—it is clear that the foresight which initially guided the project has been cancelled. The self-promotion of the corporation and the collector obscured the initiative of promoting Mexican contemporary art on a global scale.

Since the inacceptable censorship of the exhibition by Austrian actionist Hermann Nitsch in 2015, Museo Jumex has plainly demonstrated that it’s priorities are the corporation’s needs, before any artistic or cultural ambitions. The exhibition Normal Exceptions therefore confirms that as far back as at least a decade ago, Mexican art ceased to be a priority for the institution created by Eugenio López.

*Text published at the magazine Correo del Maestro, No. 302, July 2021.


References

DEBROISE, Olivier, “Cubo blanco en el desierto rojo,” Reforma, March 2, 2001, p. 1C.

HAMMONDS, Kit. Normal Exceptions: Contemporary Art in Mexico. Mexico City: Fundación Jumex, 2021. https://www.fundacionjumex.org/es/ exposiciones/198-excepciones-normales-arte-contemporaneo-en-mexico

HERNÁNDEZ, Edgar Alejandro, “Con el tiempo el arte cuesta más. Suma obras Colección Jumex,” Reforma, March 22, 2003, p. 1C.

HERNÁNDEZ, Edgar Alejandro, “Sin arte actual, la historia no será,” Excélsior, March 25, 2008, p. 8C.

MEDINA, Cuauhtémoc, “Jumex: La apuesta del poder simbólico,” Reforma, March 7, 2001, p. 4C.