Walking down the street in Mexico City, it’s easy to tell if someone is a newcomer by observing how often they trip. The city, North America’s largest by population, is built on the spongy bed of a dried-up lake, and it’s sinking fast. On the whole, the DF—the city’s nickname, short for Distrito Federal—is more than 30 feet lower than it was 100 years ago; as a result, its sidewalks are uneven, with some segments elevated a foot above others within a single block. In Diego Rivera’s famous murals depicting the history of the Mexican people, which line the corridors of the capital’s Palacio Nacional, Tenochtitlán—as the city was called before Spanish conquest—is a splendid oasis of cool blue waters. It was located on an island in one of the valley’s five major lakes, which the Aztecs prevented from flooding through a system of dikes, levees, and canals. The Europeans went a different route: they drained the water.
These days, in Xochimilco, about 15 miles south of the Mexico City center, some 187 kilometers of canals—teeming with colorful boats, mariachi bands, and floating gardens—still remain, and with them, a remnant of pre-Hispanic culture. But the ecosystem of this once-aquatic, now-overdeveloped urban landscape has changed at the most fundamental level. In their exhibition “Possessing Nature” at this year’s 56th Venice Biennale, Mexico City natives Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega, who will represent their country together, engage with the relationship between Venice and the DF as cities both built around canals. Venice, a European cultural capital, remains famous for its gondolas and romantic bridges, while Mexico City, a post-colonial urban nucleus in the global South, is a concrete megalopolis with a water shortage. Candiani and Ortega’s piece, curated by Karla Jasso, will address the imbalances and abuses of political power that can come to result in such drastic changes in (or degradations of) natural landscapes. It will explore the process and principles of modernization in the Western world, Ortega explained over email, as well as Europe’s imposition of its brand of modernity in its colonies. The work is not a “complaint,” he added, but it does take a “critical position that aims to be thorough in its temporal and territorial courts.”
Possessing Nature, which comprises the entire exhibition, is a monumental, site-specific, sculptural installation. Its physical shape will mirror a traced line between the different buildings that have housed the Mexican Pavilion since 2007, its inaugural year. Sofia Mariscal of MARSO, the DF-based gallery that represents Ortega, wrote in an email that “the curator focused her attention on the fact that each venue had a direct relation with a power institution,” from commerce to government to religion to the military. Two of the buildings are palaces built for noble families; one is a church; the last, a site that is set to host the Mexican Pavilion until 2034, is in the Arsenale, a former shipyard whose centrality to Venice’s maritime trading and fighting practices makes it a historical hub of wealth and power. The sculpture will contain a hydraulic system that internally circulates water from the Arsenale’s lagoon, creating a loud, waterfall-like noise that sounds from within. This water is finally pumped into a reflection pool, whose surface will display a video projection by Ortega that compares the drainage structures of Venice and Mexico City.
Ortega, who earned his degree in philosophy, has often used video to explore the visual, mechanical, and literary qualities of space. Perhaps fittingly, the evolution of his career is directly linked to the exercise of global power. In the 1990s, following Mexico’s economic decline, which led to severe budget cuts in arts education, a young wave of artists was left, as the conceptualist Abraham Cruzvillegas has written, with “no discussion or renewal of information about the language, discourses, or platforms of contemporary art in Mexico or abroad.” In order to study, debate, and, ultimately, exhibit artwork, they began to create their own, independent spaces, like the famed Temístocles 44, of which Ortega (along with Cruzvillegas, Daniel Guzmán, and Damián Ortega, among others) was an active member. In fact, Ortega explains that giving feedback to these artists while creating video documentation of their work was one of his early, foundational experiences of collaboration: “I became an interlocutor in their creative processes,” he says.
Candiani, born eight years after her collaborator in 1974, also has a highly conceptual practice, but the subjects of her inquiry are different. She investigates social systems of gender, labor, and culture, and the subsystems—linguistic, phonic, technological—that comprise them. Candiani’s frequent allusions to architecture stem from an interest in domestic space and the divide between public and private. Mariscal says that Jasso, who selected the artists, “wanted to provoke a shock more than a collaboration,” believing that the most interesting piece would spring from an encounter between very different artists, which indeed they are. Nevertheless, “Possessing Nature” will serve as a kind of mutual culminating work in a pair of careers that have both been marked by questions of space and power.