XIII FEMSA BIENNIAL

What sort of world is it that obliges us to take into account, at the same time and in the
same breath, the nature of things, technologies, sciences, fictional beings, religions large
and small, politics, jurisdictions, economies and unconsciousness? Our world, of course.

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern.(1)

It has been more than a hundred years since the founding of the first art biennial in Venice in 1895. Thanks to the many transformations their format has undergone, today, biennials have become fertile ground for discussions about the function of contemporary art and its relationship to exhibition models.

The XIII FEMSA Biennial, We Have Never Been Contemporary, proposes to question the temporality implicit in the biennial model, whose periodicity has, since its origin, dictated that such events assemble and exhibit the most “advanced” material every two years, as a definition of the present. We could say that it is the very justification of the periodicity of these international events that impels one to understand their function to be the definition
of the present, that is, the contemporary. As a temporal marker of the present, this term—the contemporary—has been used to refer to what we understand as “advanced art” for roughly six decades. However, the very notion of the contemporary paradoxically asserts the impossibility of any one coherent definition, for the present is redefined at every moment. This impossibility has served as an argument for the continual reinvention of biennials with every edition. In this sense, the first question these types of events provoke is always, what do we understand by the “contemporary”, or the “ actual”? 23 What does it mean to ask questions about actuality the present moment? What force fields constitute the presence or absence of what is considered contemporary?

The XIII FEMSA Biennial We Have Never Been Contemporary casts doubt on this task that has been assigned to biennials: to present a “diagnostic of the epoch” through contemporary art. With this purpose in mind, our curatorial program focuses on the hybrid formations that exist between notions of the historical and the contemporary, taking for its
point of departure the book We Have Never Been Modern by philosopher Bruno Latour, in which he refers to modernity as an attempt to untangle a complex knot, a Gordian knot.

The biennial will take place in the historic city of Zacatecas and will propose a narrative model of superpositions, which, rather than attempt to show what is contemporary in art trends today, instead seeks to offer a historical narrative that goes against the grain. This biennial explores collaborative models, its different projects and exhibitions forming their own spaces within those of the city’s framework to create what we have envisioned as a multifocal cultural corridor. This narrative model of superpositions is structured on the concept of multiple space, coined by Zacatecan artist Manuel Felguérez in the seventies.

Another articulating concept of the biennial is that of deformalism, which we use here as a lens for looking at history from the present, actuality as a Gordian knot. We Have Never Been Contemporary proposes to review the formation of our notion of the historical through a variety of museological, publishing, and education projects, as well as artistcommissioned works. The emphasis of the XIII FEMSA Biennial is on the formal visualization of the historical by using conundrums within modern abstraction, baroque iconology, and popular arts.

Through exhibitions at numerous cultural institutions, the commissioning of public arts projects, and collaborations with cultural centers, community museums, and independent initiatives in the city of Zacatecas, the XIII FEMSA Biennial will explore different examples of what we consider to be critical historiographical and museological models. In relation to the city and its deep historic roots, the title of this edition of the biennial—We Have Never Been Contemporary—incites us to reflect on the function of biennials, at the same time as it invites its artists and public to think about the cultural, social, and aesthetic formations that impede, slow, or accelerate the appearance of the contemporary. In this sense, the biennial alludes, in general, to a reflection on the temporal status of contemporary art as a guarantee of the actual, and, in particular, to the possibility of organizing a biennial of contemporary art along historical lines: in this case, through the
collection of the city’s many museums and its rich local traditions.

We Have Never Been Contemporary envisions a journey through what is uncontemporary, as a possible repertoire for working from a deformalist perspective, that is, one that allows for the creation of a network of works that form a Gordian knot, or rather, a hybrid montage of the modern, craft, the popular, and the baroque. It emphasizes the tensions between the colonial baroque, the modern, and the postmodern, as well as the persistence of folk and popular traditions, in order to reflect upon how these formations become woven together or allow us to glimpse at historical, economic, and social latencies, such as migration or the extraction of mineral resources. How can we symbolically analyze this repertoire, its currents, and its history through anachronisms, persistences, deformations, and actualizations? How can contemporary museological practices symbolically deform this Gordian knot of irresolvable socio-historical tensions?

DEFORMALISMS

He who forgets, does not escape the past.

Georges Didi-Huberman, The Eye of History: When Images Take Position (5)

The program of museological collaborations in We Have Never Been Contemporary is founded on the guiding concept of deformalism. On the one hand, this word evokes a historiographic school—that of formalism—and, on the other hand, the relationship of assemblage and disassemblage: a method of critical analysis that challenges as much the art object itself as its meanings in a specific context of exhibition. (6) By integrating opposites, the relationship between these terms associated with historiography and aesthetic theory forms a dynamic concept that allows us to envision cultural forms as a field of tensions, a Gordian knot.

 

In dialectical terms, disassemblage presupposes the condition of a distanced gaze, something close to the separation and estrangement that can be found in the concept of montage in the work of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. To deform alludes to a gaze turned onto the historicity of forms as if they were symptoms or anachronistic images that have persisted through time, like those understood by historian Aby Warburg. By implementing this method as a curatorial strategy, our aim is to produce a “distancing effect”: a critical gaze that places the spectator in an analytical position in front of the forms of history—its institutions, traditions, etc. In keeping with the distanced position that the curation and the works that comprise We Have Never Been Contemporary assume, the aim of this biennial is to come to terms with the inevitability of this distanced gaze and, at the same time, to take advantage of this very distancing to “deform” reality into a kind of estrangement (exile?/estranged existence). If current cultural forms are caught in a constant struggle between the actual and the anachronistic, how can we deform them to the degree that, through the estrangement produced by their artistic and museological disassemblage, the contemporary appears complicit with the historical? In curatorial terms, this paradoxical condition unfolds through the creation of constellations or a network of the diverse force fields that give form its meaning. In this sense, to deform always implies the reconstitution of the same—that is, tradition—through the estrangement of its own identity.

Formalism refers to the schools that approach the study of art as an inquiry into the autonomous development of its forms, while disassemblage entails the process of distancing oneself from the art object in order to scrutinize its social, political, religious, and economic contexts. In this sense, by deformalisms we understand art to function as an instrument of negotiation that acts directly on symbolic frameworks, estranging that which is otherwise familiar.

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Instead of acting as a cultural diagnostic of the times as it has aimed to do in the past, with this concept, the XIII FEMSA Biennial adopts an analytical and historiographical approach to the development of its curatorial and pedagogical
frameworks, its artist commissions, and its publishing program. The notion of distancing linked to the processes of montage popular in avant-garde art of the twentieth century, is a conceptual tool that can be applied to both museological and artistic practices.On another note, a concept such as deformalism also evokes the Portuguese expression barrôco, or deformed pearl, from which the historical and historiographic term known as the baroque is borne. In this sense, one could make the observation that within the Baroque we encounter a distortion of classical canons, similar to the readings of modernity and popular art proposed in this biennial.
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Deformalism also articulates a curatorial position of exteriority, which allows us both to approach and to distance ourselves from the local as a strategy of disassembling and reassembling the aesthetic models of the colonial baroque, popular arts, graphic arts, the Mexican School of painting, and the geometric abstraction of the second half of the twentieth century. Similarly, in relation to the critical distancing from form, deformalism requires a vision rooted not just in the local, but in the postcolonial. This methodology or modus operandi will serve as the basis for the articulation of the diverse platforms that comprise the XIII FEMSA Biennial’s program.

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Broadly speaking, this biennial’s program comprises a range of programmatic dynamics and conceptual frameworks that can be used by the different curators and artists who have been invited to collaborate. Like the metaphor of the Gordian knot, this framework is conceived of as a structure open to a network of reflections, multiple spaces, and composite or hybrid montages. The biennial’s projects will be able to move from the historical to the ecological, economical and anthropological, or rather, the museological, iconographic and deformalist. We Have Never Been Contemporary, therefore, is an open- ended statement that serves as a backdrop for the curatorial, artistic, editorial, and pedagogical research that will take place in the different programs that together comprise the biennial.

(1) Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Catherine Porter (trans.) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 129.

 

(2) According to Luis Ignacio García, “actuality” is “one of the most complex concepts of Benjaminian thought, intertwining motifs of his theories of knowledge, history, and politics. Actuality refers to the design of critical constellations of present and past, in which the linearity of history is subverted at its extremes” (trans. Nika Chilewich). Luis Ignacio García, “La actualidad de Walter Benjamin. Giorgio Agamben, Georges Didi-Huberman y el problema de la temporalidad,” in Herramienta. Available at http://www.herramienta.com.ar/coloquios-y-seminarios/la-actualidad-de-walter-benjamin-giorgio-agamben-georges-didi-huberman-y-el-p

 

(3) Translator’s note. In this text the translators have chosen a literal translation of Benjamin’s term ‘actuality’. This has been done to maintain the author’s use of terminology.

 

(4) In this book, Latour explains the guiding concept of his philosophy: the “hybrid realities,” similar to the Benjaminian constellations, result in a battlefield between competing interest groups. Latour’s metaphor is the Gordian knot: a network of opinions, political institutions, written texts, etc. Modernity, according to this theory, is the attempt to cleanse the world, to cut the Gordian knot.

 

(5) George Didi-Huberman, The Eye of History: When Images Take Positions, Shane B. Lillie (trans.) (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018).

 

(6) Translator’s Note. We have opted for a literal translation of the original text’s use of “montaje-desmontaje”, in keeping with a consistency in the use of terminology that the original author. Assemblage is a term used in Huberman, Disassemblage isn’t.