This section will explain concepts surrounding the MexiCali Biennial opposition to traditional art biennials through nomadic exhibitions and border art programming. Click here for more information about this guide.
The format of the two-year cycle art Biennial is a model used by prestigious art organizations like the Venice Biennale, which first originated in 1895, and the São Paulo Biennial. Art biennials are often large-scale exhibitions that showcase the work of national or international artists and are closely tied to the global art market and its support from corporate funding and tourism.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, the arts platform InSITE set an important precedent for the implementation of the biennial model. inSite is a bi-national contemporary art project that organized five successive public art exhibitions with commissioned artworks for a specific transnational context—the region of Tijuana, Baja California, and San Diego, California. This biennial brought international attention to the physical border as the primary site of art and re-inscribed concepts of migratory patterns and transnational flows of people, art, and culture as responses to the physical reality of the border. Like no other exhibition platform in contemporary art before it, inSite commissioned internationally known artists to create site-specific and socially-engaged projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. Site-specific art refers to artwork created for a particular place. In site-specific installations or performances, an artist may engage with the unique historical, social, or political context of that site, or create an artwork that generates dialogue and discussion with locally-based communities.
The InSite model garnered critiques about the short-term impact of the community-based projects, and the sustained hierarchies between elite artists and the local community. Hal Foster’s 1996 essay, “The Artist as Ethnographer?,” describes the dynamic produced when artists are dropped into locations by institutions to create site-specific artworks: “…despite the best intentions of the artist, only limited engagement of the sited other is effected. Almost naturally, the focus wanders from collaborative investigation to ‘ethnographic self-fashioning,’ in which the artist is not decentered so much as the other is fashioned in artistic guise.” 1 Parallels can also be drawn between the import and export model of the maquiladoras on the border and the “parachuting in” of international artists to create unsustainable social change for a global art world elite.
In 2006, curators Ed Gomez and Luis G. Hernandez proposed the concept of using the word “Biennial” for the inaugural MexiCali Biennial at La Casa de la Tia Tina. It was then that the curators first conceived of the project as an anti-biennial. By strategically using the word Biennial, Gomez and Hernandez hoped to apply an already understood context to the Tia Tina exhibition and thus change how the program would be perceived. The proposition of using the word Biennial provided a context from which to operate within the framework of the biennial institution but also facilitated the opportunity for the institutional critique that followed. This exhibition model was a direct response to what the curators felt was the profusion of corporately funded, international, and regional art biennials in the contemporary art scene. The MexiCali Biennial would challenge not only the limits of the establishment model but also its reinforcement of a cosmopolitanism that is based on connections to global art cities and the hierarchies between center-periphery.
The objective of the MexiCali Biennial was to provide an alternative model for artist-centered, nomadic, and transgressive bi-national art exchanges in the liminal space between Mexico and California. Projects, exhibitions, and artists were limited to anyone living and working within the California-Baja California region to showcase and celebrate local experiences and perspectives. The model included the flexibility of having programs happen outside of the two-year limit of traditional biennials and host actions and performances along the U.S.-Mexico border and the broader California and Baja California region. The framework also committed to diverse host venues that range from formal museums and art institutions to artist-run spaces and galleries. Further, the decision to organize MexiCali Biennial exhibitions in galleries on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border was reinforced with a curatorial agreement to always have an iteration of each programming cycle in the city of Mexicali, in acknowledgment of the first exhibition that took place in 2006. In keeping with its transgressive and migratory nature, the 09/10 MexiCali Biennial took place three years after the inaugural exhibitions and was held in four locations spanning two years and two countries. The 2009 exhibition was showcased at La Casa del Tunel: Art Center in Tijuana, Galeria Comunitaria Mexicali Rose, Sala de Arte de la UABC in Mexicali, and the 2010 program at the Ben Maltz Gallery, OTIS College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles.
The alternative model of this biennial also presented a challenge to the hierarchical roles between curator and artist. For the inaugural 2006 MexiCali Biennial, curators Gomez, Hernandez, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas did not select pre-existing artworks to be exhibited. Instead, Los Angeles artists were invited to install or fabricate their work in grassroots cultural centers in Mexicali. Reciprocally, artists from Mexicali were invited to exhibit works in Los Angeles. The selected artists were open to addressing the U.S.-Mexico border as either a physical or conceptual site, or not, but all were required to physically experience firsthand the process of traversing the U.S.-Mexico border to install their work and attend the opening night reception at La Casa de la Tia Tina.
Ironically, while the MexiCali Biennial was a challenge to the biennial model, it achieved recognition by the premier São Paulo Biennial in 2008. The 28th Bienal de São Paulo, curated by Ivo Mesquita, Ana Paula Cohen, and Thomas Mulcaire, aimed to create a platform for the examination of the economic, political, and social systems of international biennials. The MexiCali Biennial was invited to contribute the exhibition catalog from its 2006 project to the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo’s Wanda Svevo archive, where it is currently still held in the collection. This recognition serves to solidify the importance of the MexiCali Biennial in dialogues about the role of the biennial model in an increasingly globalized cultural system.
Susana Rodríguez uses a variety of media to create artworks that interrogate themes as varied as Chinese proverbs, chaos theory, space, time, and the carceral system in the U.S. and Mexico. Rodríguez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and studied visual arts at the University of Guadalajara. She has shown her work at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, the Galerie Piano Nobile in Switzerland, and the Kate Werble Gallery in New York.
For the 09/10 Mexicali Biennial, Rodríguez created a large-scale text piece on the dividing fence separating Casa del Tunel Art center from the international border between Tijuana and the San Ysidro Border Crossing in California. The artist rendered the work in black paint on a white wall for maximum visibility and contrast. The text reads, “Salga de la cárcel gratis” or “Get out of jail free”--a reference to the American game Monopoly. Rodríguez intended to exploit the phrase’s ambiguity when removed from its original context. The piece is potentially a meditation on the ills of capitalism and the impunity the United States reserves for its wealthiest and most powerful residents.
Both the work’s location and content imbue it with border-related meanings. The phrase depicted could be an allusion to the difficulties of crossing the border, or to the social, cultural, and demographic fluidity of the construction for those who travel between the U.S. and Mexico regularly. While these concepts represent some possible meanings, Rodríguez also emphasizes the ambiguity of the words chosen for the work–their scope reaches beyond their highly specific location to explore a variety of complex meanings.
This project was reinstalled in Mexicali MX for the Mexicali Rose iteration and in Los Angeles for the Ben Maltz Gallery portions of the 09/10 MexiCali Biennial program.
Luis G. Hernandez is an artist, curator, art instructor, and co-founder of the Mexicali Biennial. In his practice, Hernandez employs various mediums such as sculpture, painting, and installation, imbuing his works with humor as well as allusions to politics, art history, and border issues. His work reflects the complexity of the issues he explores – deceptively simple pieces that with time reveal multilayered meanings. Having co-founded the Mexicali Biennial in 2006 along with artist Ed Gomez, Hernandez continues to serve as a curator for the project.
The artist’s work Untitled #12, from the series El Santito, was a functional drinking fountain attached to a large jug of water. Originally conceived for an arts center in Mexicali, the work was meant to provide water for people visiting the space in the heat of summer. The meaning behind the work changed, however, when Hernandez showed the piece in the United States for the Biennial. He left the water he had obtained in Mexico in the jug and transferring the work to the United States transformed its purpose from a “gift” to a “threat” – a challenge to the viewers’ preconceived biases that lead them to believe that water in Mexico is unsafe to drink.
The work’s site-specificity demonstrates the transformation that materials and people undergo when crossing the border. On one side, a person or object may have an entirely different role than on the other. Untitled #12 also references the contentious world of water politics, an issue that concerns residents on either side of the border. The work’s many meanings originate from Hernandez’s experiences, both national and personal, that he encounters living near and–frequently crossing–the border.
Cristian Franco and Felipe Manzano. "Transborder Games," (2010). Members of Homeless art collective, created screened t-shirts and soccer performances, as shown here, for the 2009/2010 MexiCali Biennial, Calexico, CA and Mexicali, MX. Photo credit: Odette Barajas.
Homeless is an art collective that includes Cristian Franco and Felipe Manzano. Both artists were born in Guadalajara, Mexico. Franco has held residencies at numerous museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Denver, and has extensively shown his work in the United States and Mexico. His work explores Mexican identity and politics, with allusions to contemporary popular culture, through processes as varied as oil painting, bronze casting, and silkscreening. Manzano has shown his work at shows such as 2011’s “Evidence of Absence” at Death Be Kind, a gallery in Victoria, Australia. Together, the collective created the signature performance work of the 2009/2010 Mexicali Biennial.
Transborder Game was a soccer match played by participants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The teams wore shirts printed with the faces of US and Mexican presidents since the signing of NAFTA, along with the respective colors of the countries’ flags. Observers stood on a ladder overlooking the match in order to perceive both sides of the interaction. Through the intimate and highly personal medium of a soccer match, the artists hoped to encourage “confrontation, cooperation, competition, and exchanges” between individuals and explore the interaction on a national and human scale.
The work casts a light on the permeability of the border and both reflects and constructs relationships between the two countries. The very act of punting the ball over the border fence constituted a subversion of the construction and alluded to the considerable volume of people and commodities that cross the border each day. Players acted as representatives of their countries–each encounter with a member of the other team could produce a new relationship between the nations. Additionally, players on one side could not perceive the action occurring on the other side, underscoring the complex and often convoluted nature of bilateral relations.