A Mexican Filmmaker Provokes Reexaminations Of Identity And Power
by Ian Deleón

In situ, 1995, courtesy of Silvia Gruner

For the past five years, AICA/USA has conducted an Art Writing Workshop in partnership with the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. The workshop gives practicing writers the opportunity to strengthen their work through one-on-one consultation with leading art critics. Ian Deleón was mentored by Robin Cembalest. We have invited  Art Writing Workshop participants to post a piece which was developed in program, and for the first time this year we are able to present the results here for your reading pleasure. Go to the Arts Writers Grant Program for information about how to apply for the workshop. - Amei Wallach, Founding Program Director, Art Writing Workshop

It’s winter in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and 27-year-old, Mexico City-born artist Silvia Gruner stands naked and poised at the top of the dunes. Gruner rubs her body with a dark, red pigment before repeatedly somersaulting down the embankment. She is committed to the difficult task of leaving a trace of herself on the sand as she hurls towards the surf in this body-drawing performance that speaks to the challenges of femininity, nationhood and belonging.

The event is portrayed in the Super 8mm film Arena (Sand), made in 1986 while Gruner was living in Boston and frequenting the legendary Film Society. Training at Bezalel in Israel before moving to the United States as a graduate student in sculpture, Gruner soon found herself surrounded by members of Boston’s underground film scene. Avant-garde filmmakers such as Saul Levine and Ericka Beckman inspired and collaborated with Gruner while she attended the Massachusetts College of Art.

Arena is a part of Hemispheres: A Labyrinth Sketchbook, the retrospective of Gruner’s work on view at the Americas Society in New York City until June 18. Curated by Gabriela Rangel and Tatiana Cuevas, the exhibition hopes to re-introduce North American audiences to an artist who: “significantly contributed to the creation of a distinct vocabulary for Mexican contemporary art” in the 1990s. An expanded version of the show travels to the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico this fall.

While in the throes of a Reagan-era Massachusetts, Gruner cultivated an inner restlessness that had been provoked by a region whose creative and intellectual flourishes were often rivaled by, as the artist put it, its “bureaucratic stillness”. Gruner has said that some of her frustrations with the New England temperament were channeled into the corporeal assertiveness that is Arena. Taking control over her body and her temporary home, Gruner proceeds through various editing techniques to subvert and challenge the limitations of both. 

By intercutting scenes and manipulating the speed and color of the film, Gruner’s Arena transcends the mere documentation of a few simple actions to become the foundation for a career spent investigating the potential of the photographic medium to be manipulated as a tool for the reclamation and reconfiguration of contested identities. Throughout the decades of her work, Gruner has continued to ask: What does a woman look like? What does home look like? What does empathy look like?

The artist returned to Mexico after a few more years and by 1995 she had made How to look at Mexican art, the tongue-in-cheek photo diptych that has Gruner suggestively fingering a traditional Mexican grinding mortar. That same year she made In Situ [not featured in this exhibition], a video recording a 15-minute oral exploration of a small Mexican folk artifact clenched between her teeth.

Magnifying the irreverent and erotic overtones of such actions, Gruner’s aesthetic provocations paved the way for what the curators of Hemispheres call “the brilliant generation of artists … who created independent spaces in Mexico City at that period”. Eventually, these artists and spaces would also become instrumental in the transformation of the capital into a major center for the global contemporary art market.

But that was never the endgame for Gruner. Uninterested in the political games of contemporary art and the imposed rubrics of Mexican identity that had come to surround her work, Gruner pushed back. There came a time, she recalls, that “my work became less Mexican”, and thus, “it became less interesting for some curators”.

In 1998 Gruner completed 500 kg de impotencia [o posibilidad], a film ostensibly about the intimate dance between a crane and a gigantic piece of jewelry in the waters off San Diego Bay. That same year, the Clinton administration similarly found itself struggling to perform under the duress of wars on multiple fronts. The increasingly disconcerting activities of an early al-Qaeda threatened from one side of the world, while concerns over the President’s moral character held sway at home.

Within this charged larger context, 500 kilos proceeds slowly and subtly - framed by a spectrum of enthusiasm: impotence…or possibility. The film takes a previously exhibited sculpture by Gruner and uses it to create a nuanced meditation on the conflict of desires that make up the human experience. We crave and make love, yet we covet, and also wage war.

Large pieces of volcanic rock were threaded together by the artist to create this oversized necklace, which the crane proceeds to dunk in and out of the water. The apparent simplicity of the film is a siren’s song to the impatient gallery viewer. Rather than being dashed on the rocks, this viewer will just move on to another piece, while a careful look actually draws a viewer in for a reward. The innocuous action in the foreground of the picture fades away in light of the profound subtext lingering at its borders.

Tiny cars and trucks zip across the looming concrete bridge as a massive battleship slinks across the film’s background. All of a sudden a viewer could start to make mental connections between naval bases, nuclear weapons testing, radiation, and even the overgrown sea monsters that subsequently haunt the Pacific nations. Remembering that these creatures of Kaiju serve as allegorical cautionary tales of nuclear proliferation, 500 kilos starts to look like an abstract anti-war film, or what Gruner calls her “unreal newsreel”.

Continuing to tackle broad social constructs in her own unique way, 2007 brought Gruner to a film which is as close as Gruner has come to making a statement on Modernist architecture and its relationship to power.

Standing clothed, head-shaven, and motionless at the edge of an artificial whirlpool, Gruner’s Centinela (Sentinel) describes the tension between passivity and vigorous motion. Designed in time for the historically maligned 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Ricardo Legorreta’s fuente del eterno movimiento is an architectural statement meant to exude “true Mexican culture” according to the architect’s website. Gruner’s posturing in the face of such a definitive vision is an indictment of absolutist claims to truth and traditions. As with Arena, Gruner the sentinel is master of her own identity, and in this stare-down with history, the artist remains unshaken.

Where humans have artificially imposed borders, stereotypes, and restrictions, Gruner has consistently responded with a voice that challenges said authority in a way that does not replace one mandate with another. Her aesthetic explorations foster inquisitiveness and broad speculation. “I don’t make history, I make art”, proclaims Gruner. In that spirit, comfortably framed between the dualities of logic and freedom, Gruner’s Labyrinth Sketchbook provides visitors with no answers, only a panoply of gorgeously rendered suspicions.

Arena, 1986, courtesy of Silvia Gruner

500 kg de impotencia [o posibilidad], 1998, courtesy of Silvia Gruner

Centinela, 2007, courtesy of Silvia Gruner

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