Zona Maco 2016: Art fair impressions

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend Mexico City’s number 1 art event, the Zona Maco art fair, which took place between the 3rd and 7th of February. As usual, the art platform took place in the Banamex Convention Centre, now occupying the entirety of its exhibition hall, an astounding 13,000-squared meters. Despite being a relative newbie to the Mexico and Latin American art scene, I have been able to witness the art fair’s recent development. While last year’s edition was a fun event to attend with a mishmash of good and less qualitative art, this year’s managed to more than positively surprise me. Zelika Garcia, the art fair’s director and her 4-person team, as well as the galleries, delivered a well-organized, clean-cut and visually appealing spectacle. Or could it be due to the hiring of Daniel Garza Usabiaga, chief curator of the Museo del Arte Moderno? Who knows.

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The words can be spoken out loud: Zona Maco is quickly consolidating its reputation as Latin America’s prime spot for high quality contemporary art. Yes, it is a low-cost (provided nothing is bought) podium for the capital’s showy high society, but it also displays the continent’s wealth of artistic talent. While the presence of foreign galleries was notable, Mexico’s many art galleries were equally well represented, with stands of the prestigious Galeria de Arte Mexicano (GAM), Galeria OMR, Labor, Luis Adelantado, Kurimanzutto and a good number of less established but qualitative galleries. From the foreign galleries, Paul Kasmin (New York) had a few particularly eye-catching artworks, while Gagosian Gallery (also from the Big Apple) impressed with works by some of its most reputed artists.

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Art by Mexican legend Diego Rivera at Galería de Arte Mexicano

Zona Maco is not a platform for the shocking, the absurd and the truly unconventional – although the 2016 edition for the first time dedicated one area (“nuevas propuestas”) to emerging artists. As any art fair, it caters to those that can afford to buy art that is in-demand. It is a place where gallery owners, art collectors, curators, artists and socialites mingle with the common art-lover. Art fair regulars such as Damien “Butterfly” Hirst and Anish Kapoor were obviously well represented, but there nonetheless were a number of interesting proposals among the 123 galleries from 25 different countries, and the overall quality had massively improved from the previous year.

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Here’s a small selection of the art pieces that stood out:

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1. El Excusado (the Soumaya Toilet, 2016) by Santiago Sierra and Yoshua Okon: the only truly satirical piece. Offers an introspective look at Mexico’s relationship with art, and of course, with money. Poor Carlos Slim and Fernando Romero. (Photo courtesy of E-ter Magazine)

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2. Sad Smiley (2012) by Jan Peter Hammer: a neon pop-art interpretation of everything that is wrong with society with a touch of Hello Kitty. There were too many people standing in front of it for me to be able to take a better picture of the smiley, so I am afraid that you will have to do with a reflection, or you can check this out.

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3. Tuning (2015) by Iván Navarro: six drums, a few mirrors, electricity and LED light. What more do you want?

When discussing Zona Maco, it is hard not to mention the parties. They are at the heart of the event, and this year was no exception. Zona Maco exceeded itself, hosting parties at places such as the once underground club M.N. Roy (named after the legendary Narendra N. Bhattacharya, founder of the Mexican Communist movement), and the recently opened bar of the capital’s fabulous Four Seasons Hotel, Fifty Mills. They were good parties, a little funky and with the right amount of artsy glitter and cool. That the party hosted at M.N. Roy was hosted by Perrier and not one of the art galleries should be momentarily forgone because, well…

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An amusing anecdote might be that while I was happily dancing away to those aforementioned funky tunes, I found myself next to a very well-dressed man wearing a… turban! Considering the utter lack of turban-wearing people in Mexico, his presence clearly caught my eye. Three days later, the same turban-wearing man, who I then found out was a kind of famous actor/style icon/designer, become an overnight news sensation when he was denied access to an Aeromexico flight. Turns out the man had several cameos in Wes Anderson movies, and had once starred in a GAP ad. And now he had found his vocation in defending the rights of the world’s plentiful Sikhs who suffer from racism. An undoubtedly worthwhile cause, but I could not help but notice the irony. Zona Maco, having been bred and born in Mexico City, carries that very same element of surrealism the capital also exudes.

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Ice-cream interview

And now to the one question that hinges on everyone’s lips: Should one attend the next edition of Zona Maco? My answer to that is a definite yes, whichever the reason. Should that be the only art-event one attends throughout the year, and in particular, during that week? Of course not. The art fair, as fancy and aesthetically pleasing as it may be, only represents one side of the coin. Latin America, and Mexico in particular, have much more to offer in terms of groundbreaking work, and small, alternative artist collectives abound in the city. But Zona Maco has definitely helped setting Mexico City on the art world map, and the impetus it provides to art in general, be it voluntarily or involuntarily, is hard to neglect.

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Galería LABOR 

Websitezsonamaco.com

© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius unless mentioned otherwise

 

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The Illustrous Mercado Ernesto Pugibet (El Mercado San Juan for beginners)

Mexico City was recently named number 1. destination to visit by the very distinguished New York Times. As one of the main reasons, the paper names the sheer diversity Mexico City offers – its exact words being: ‘some of the world’s best cuisine, museums and forward-thinking design’. That, and a huge (because, let’s face it, everything about this city is about scale and seeming endlessness) array of all kinds of markets. I know I have already mentioned this in previous blogposts, but Mexico City offers some of the world’s most mind-blowing and authentic markets. Also, did I mention that Carlos Slim owns a 16.8% stake in the New York Times, which makes him the No. 1 single investor in the publisher?

Back to the markets.

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Arguably, one of the city’s most famous markets when it comes to all food-related things is El Mercado San Juan. Located right in the middle of the bustling historic centre, it is one of the city’s oldest markets, and hence carries a good load of historical value and relevance. That this seems to be an inherent quality to all things DF should momentarily be forgotten for the sake of coherence. Officially named Ernesto Pugibet, the market is better-known by the name Mercado San Juan, at least among commoners such as myself. Food has been delivered, stored and sold on its grounds for over 150 years, and it is notorious for offering food products that are difficult to obtain elsewhere.

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‘One cannot claim to know Mexico City without knowing its markets’, goes the famed quote by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The man indeed got us a piece of ageless wisdom right there. It is where the city breathes and where its old restless soul resides. Each visit to the Mercado San Juan unveils another facet of itself, and subsequently of the capital. Another taste, another colour, and therefore also another story. It houses peculiar characters such as the bespectacled, 88-years old lady, the friendly butcher and the family whose entire gene pool is to be found in that one single market.

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Also to be found: the typical short-haired and tattooed woman that looks just like the Russian Red from Orange is the New Black, the lost hipster selling exotic juice combinations, and the proud market restaurant owner. Apart from the uncanny characters that inhabit (and frequent) the mercado San Juan, the main spectacle obviously relates to the unmeasurable variety and quantity of food that is on offer. Among others, I was offered Parmesan cheese with providence from Uruguay, creamy goat cheese with maracuya flavour, roasted chapulines (crickets), and an approximately 1.5m (or was it just my imagination?) large rainbow-coloured fish that had been caught the previous day – apparently it is also possible to purchase imported crocodile flesh, although I up to this date have not been able to verify that fact. Next time.

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What always astonishes me when I visit markets in – dare I say – developing countries is how well-organized everything is below the chaotic surface. The food is always fresh and above all, tasty, and the setup of the produce is always top-notch, sorted by product type, colour, and god knows what else. It is an ordered, vibrant mess, and that is exactly why I like it. The decoration is also quite striking. Jesus representations are particularly popular, in all their variations, as are vivid piñatas. Christmas decoration is popular all-year round, and plastic sunflowers abound. It is undeniably tacky, so if you are not into that, be warned.

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In terms of the stands, one that particularly caught my attention was La Baguette de Manolo. They sell delicacies such as foie gras, French cheese and serrano ham that are otherwise hard or expensive to get, and, as the name says, prepare wonderful baguettes. A family-owned business, they are represented as much as three (!) times, twice with a stand and once with a market restaurant (catch that, Mercado Roma – you’re not as innovative as you pertain to be). Sergio, one of the owners, made us taste the previously-mentioned maracuya cream cheese, which was amazing, and another relative even gave me and my friend a lovely Mexican dessert to take home.

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Paradoxically, La Baguette de Manolo is what one would describe as fancy. Their food offering, and red table cloth make for an upscale dining experience, all within market premises. The place is just as worth visiting for the friendliness of their owners as for the delicious food, and seems to have gained a notorious reputation. They have their very own wall of fame, with photographs from the internationally renowned actor Diego Luna to Los Hermanos Almada (legends of old-school Mexican cinema) and a chef called Benjamin, who apparently was responsible for providing the Pope with food during his visits to Mexico. After some exquisite tasting rounds and a little small talk, Sergio, who was all smiles, announced that they were now the proud owners of their own restaurant.

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Fearing that we would not find the place by ourselves, one of the market restaurant employees offered to escort us to the place. As absorbed I was by my surroundings and the accompanying opportunities to take photographs, I got lost in the crowds, only to later fnd out I had unknowingly been the cause of a fair amount of panic. Thankfully, we found to each other again, only to be directed up the stairs to the restaurant. It can best be described as a funny experience: you get a 360 degrees view of the market, and while the decoration verges to kitsch, one can see that a lot of heart was put into it. Seeing the endless array of food made us want to take a last walk around the market, before we ventured back outside to the centro historico.

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Going to El Mercado San Juan is a feast for the eyes and tastebuds, and every food lover or otherwise curious person who has a little penchant for tackiness should definitely set out to discover it during their stay in the city.

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© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius

La Posada del Sol: The derelict, long-forgotten but newly discovered city hotel

On Calle Niños Heroes 139, in the precarious neighbourhood La Doctores, nestled between unremarkable foodstalls and messy graffiti, one can find one of Mexico City’s perhaps most interesting abandonded buildings. Its name is La Posada del Sol, and it is a monumental mid-20th century building that blends colonial architecture with Art Nouveau, making for an interesting, if bizarre mismatch of styles. A place worthy of the many rumors it has sparked, it has never been put to its original use, nor inhabited for a lengthy period of time, for fear it might be haunted.

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Disclaimer:

All you adventurous souls, let me tell you this (I apologize beforehand for getting your hopes down): No, you cannot simply walk into this place on a bright, sunlit day. Also, breaking in is probably not the smartest idea, considering the 24-hours presence of a number of grumpy policemen who guard the entrance and patrol through the building’s many deserted corridors. In short, it is not easy to enter this place, and that’s the whole fun of it.

Ok, now that that question is out of the way, let me start the actual post.

On a not so sunlit, but somehow crazy bright – as is not unusual in Mexico City – day, I ventured into an area unknown to the average foreigner living in DF. Knowing the prevailing attitude middle-class and wealthy locals usually hold regarding somewhat sketchy areas, it is safe to assume that most locals also stay clear of this neighbourhood.

I myself had been here once before exactly. The clue as to why can be found in the above disclaimer. You guessed it: I quite unsuccessfully tried to break into La Posada del Sol, a fascinating early 20th century and to be truthful, rather pretentious project from a megalomaniac Spanish no-one that went by the name Fernando Saldaña Galván that was never put to its original use. Due to the recent obsession with all things old, set in motion by the ascension and surprisingly resistant cultural dominance of the hipster, the construction has experienced revived interest in its centennial structure. So, being the faithful trend follower that I am, I decided to break in.

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Do. Not. Do. It. For one, you need to be the athletic type. Breaking in involves climbing up a vast, green metal gate that paradoxically consists of small squares, which to the adventurous petty criminal look thoroughly inviting. This promising outlook unfortunately disguises disastrous consequences, which I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand. As my head peaked at the top of the gate, it caught the attention of a sullen policeman on the other side of the fence.

I expected that a person guarding a decrepit and presumably haunted hotel the size of a palace would welcome any form of entertainment, but I was bitterly disappointed in my naivety. The guard, who was shouting through a mobile phone, gave me a brutally nasty look and ordered me to swiftly get down. ‘Señorita, bájase!’, he snapped. Living in Mexico, you know there is only one rule to respect, that one being: Do not mess with the police. Ever. Unless you are extremely wealthy/have powerful politicians in your near entourage – neither of which apply to me.

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And so I found an alternative way to gain access to the place, which led me to La Doctores on that bright but not so sunny day. With my (still drunk from the previous night) bodyguard by my side, my dear fellow crazy person Gonzalo, I felt ready to go on the adventure I had been dreaming about, and bothering others with, for weeks on end. Debating whether we would be kidnapped, or god knows what other horrible things, but singlehandedly agreeing on the fact that this was an absolutely crazy idea, we nervously stood in front of the green gate I had already become briefly acquainted with two weeks before.

A few minutes passed, and a for Mexican standards tall man with glasses welcomed us to step inside, after telling us that visitors are not allowed and that for our own safety (the guards!!!), it was best we pretended to be old friends of his. I don’t know about you, but walking into a strikingly imposing, supposedly haunted abandoned building with a complete stranger and pretending he is the guy you used to build sandcastles with, is slightly unnerving.

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He rushed us through the inside patio so as to get out of sight of the eagle-eyed gate guard, and guided us to the inside of La Posada. On our way there, I caught a glimpse of the film set, as well as the improvised lunch area for the film crew. Seeing picnic tables in the middle of a huge, gloomy building carried a rather surreal effect. As we entered the first room, what was most noticeable was the rubble that was spread around. It was dark, and our guide turned on his flashlight. As our eyes adjusted to the unlit environment, we started seeing the details that make this place more than solely an attraction for pretend-ghostbusters.

Its tunnels dark and humid despite it being the middle of the day, the place carries an uneasy feel. My friend and I kept laughing nervously, a nervousness that was significantly aggravated when our guide told us that not only a little girl had found death here, but many more so. In fact, according to him, the eerie chambers we passed along the tunnel we adventured ourselves in, had served as execution chambers for an unfortunate lot. We indeed had heard the haunting stories of an altar that had been erected in one of the tunnel chambers, but until then had been unaware of the further presumable horrors that had taken place on the hotel premises.

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It is at that precise moment, that our guide stopped, looked at us and solemny announced that we had reached the room that contained the altar for the little girl. His flashlight beam stroking the walls of the room, it suddenly shone on a brightly coloured altar. There it was. We could not quite believe it, only having read about in on the web, but there it was, in all its splendid, sinister glory. The top of the altar was decorated with a white princess dress, hanging next to the picture of what must depict the little girl, whose ghost now is said to haunt the place, while the table under it was covered in an amalgation of different sweets, and even a few pesos. A bright pink ball with a laughing face lying on the altar table further added to the singularity of the situation.

Our guide quickly drew us out of the room, sensing the magnetic pull the altar had on us. Insisting we whisper, he led us up the stairs, to the living room area. The colossal room was mostly empty, except an oddly placed bucket with fresh roses and a huge chimney whose top consisted of bizarre paintings and an inscription in Latin. As I was taking a picture, suddenly a guard appeared out of nowhere, and started reprimanding me for taking photographs. Photographs or filming without paying the daily 100,000 pesos necessary to obtain the filming and photography permit was punishable, he said. Anguish lit up in the eyes of our unofficial guide, and after a quick, apologetic chat with the guard, he rushed us to the upper levels of the building.

As I was happily pressing the shutter release button of my camera on the top terrace of the construction, I was again confronted with an angry guard. At that point, our nervousness had culminated into an unimaginable extent. God knows what our guide told the guard, but he let us go without asking me to delete the photographs. But fear had been planted, and we decided we better leave the premises before somebody might get the idea to take our pictures, or worse, heavily fine us. Our guide’s nervousness had also significantly increased, and we started feeling culpable for getting him into trouble. And so we ventured back to the patio, and the green metal gate where our expedition had begun, crossed the street and took one last picture of the building, still full of adrenaline and in disbelief of what we had just witnessed.

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© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius