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In Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico at the Armory, there’s a little light box built into a temporary wall. Inside rests a laminated, card-sized photo of a young man, dead in a morgue. Teresa Margolles made cards like this between 1997–1999, all picturing victims of the drug war in Mexico and called Cards to Cut Cocaine. It’s a political piece that doesn’t protest drug use; rather, it adds to the contradictions around the drug war. The work in Below the Underground was made during a tumultuous decade in Mexico: the peso crisis coincided with the Chiapas conflict, and cartel violence rose and fell. So much of it wades riskily into messiness, and that’s undoubtedly the show’s strong suite: uncertain, brutal honesty over “right” political clarity.
In the video of their 2000 performance, How Much Time do You Lose Going Around the Zocalo (The Return of the Evil Daughters), collaborators Gina Arizpe and Marcela Quiroga wear matching black pleather bodysuits and get picked up by police ostensibly for public drunkenness, escorted to their art show, kicked out, and returned to custody. We don’t know who’s in the right; authority and rebellion seem on weirdly equal footing. Lorena Wolffer appears as a battered, bruised fashion model in her installation, If She is Mexico, Who Beat Her Up? (1997-1998). We see her walking down a runway as voices of U.S. congressmen discuss decertifying Mexico as a drug war ally—these are artworks “confronting a system,” interested in “making messes” say the show didactics.
The work does make messes, as if order itself is the threat to human agency, but the installation, as with so many shows in the Armory’s classroom-adjacent galleries, is clean and organized. Each artwork feels like a station you can stop by with guidebook in hand. Despite the staid installation, though, nearly every work in the show packs a scrappily acerbic punch. If the mutinous energy of the work spilled more freely into the exhibition design, Below the Underground would be unforgettable.
Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico runs from Oct. 15, 2017 – Jan. 22, 2018 at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 N Raymond Ave, Pasadena, CA 91103).