Lourdes Grobet  |  Photography and environment   |   El Santo's daughter  |  Interview  |  CV  
 

 

El Santo’s daughter
Rubén Ortiz Torres

I once heard Lourdes Grobet say that her main influences were Mathias Goeritz, Gilberto Aceves Navarro and El Santo. This holiest of trinities represents a dialectic, equilateral vision of the universe forming a pyramid that is a kind of depository for much of contemporary Mexican art. Mathias Goeritz–with his playful modernism (a much-criticized forerunner of minimalism), his sculptures, installations, concrete poetry and post-Dada, and proto-conceptual experiments–would be the thesis and one end of the pyramid's base. Gilberto Aceves Navarro–teaching the teachers of many generations of painters and artists at the Academy of San Carlos, with his sensual, unrestrained brushwork, his intuitive expressionism ("think with the tip of your pencil" he would tell us, urging us to use the right side of the brain) and anti-academic academism–would be the antithesis and opposite end of the base. As the synthesis crowning the pyramid, nobody but the man with the silver mask himself, "El Saaaaaaaaannntttooooo!" and along with him contemporary, dynamic urban pop-culture and folklore. Conceptualism, painting and Pop are the edges that still circumscribe the greater part of art practice. These patrons appeared before Lourdes Grobet (they were her teachers, including El Santo himself, whom the rest of us mortals can only learn about from celluloid) to entrust her, like a modern-day Joan of Arc, with a mission of deliverance.

Lourdes and El Santo
Photo: Felipe Eherenberg
 

The 1960s and 70s, the student movement and, as a consequence, feminism and art collectives would determine Lourdes Grobet's work. The quest for a kind of art whose purposes and modes of validation were free of commercial and/or official interests was in her case more than a fleeting, idealistic whim. As was her experience of working collectively and collaboratively, situating her within a cultural process that, in the end, is about community.

Modern specialization created an "independent" photographic language that turned technical quality, documentary realism and the decisive moment into fetishes that became ends in themselves. However, the crisis in painting and its prophesied death opened the way for artists to explore new media, technologies and multidisciplinary formats. The acceptance of photography as art on its own terms and its liberation from pictorialism led many photographers to adopt an isolationist, sectarian attitude towards art in general. To make things worse, a number of artists adopted photography as a practice without understanding its history and particular characteristics. In this sense Grobet has been a pioneer in the search for the missing link–the connection between artistic experience and photographic practice. Her work has been a continual experiment and has thus rendered all kinds of results. It is much more than merely a conceptual exploration and oversteps the bounds of any sort of purism, whether photographic, conceptual, documentary, etc. Her work intermingles personal, political, social, cultural, formal and gender- and identity-related concerns without taking any dogmatic stance. She has used this photographic experience as an inductive process in order to understand or "live" reality (or realities) rather than illustrate certain preconceived ideas. She is not scared to employ different (sometimes contradictory) languages available to her to speak of her particular experience and standpoint, thus sacrificing formal purism. In her own way, Grobet manages to use photography to relate to herself, to relate to us and to take action in the problematic reality that is Mexico.

So as not to dishearten potential readers, I will analyze certain series of works from Grobet's career that I have kept thinking about since I saw them. I chose them because they obsessed me more than other works. Of course her practice covers much more ground, from her first psychedelic experiments to her latest works, which still bear a hint of the former. She has stapled some borders together and infringed others. She has made landscapes and photographs of landscapes, she has altered landscapes and re-photographed them. She has even done theater, though I would not know how to write about these plays since I have not had the chance to see any of them. Not to mention the fact that while she was doing all this she brought up children–whose own work we could also write essays about.

Wrestling with Life

 
Fish, Shoker and Lourdes, 2003
Photo: Ernesto Peñalosa

I find it hard to distinguish the history of Mexican wrestling or lucha libre from Lourdes Grobet's photographs of it. Grobet's photos gave me my first glimpse of the world of wrestling. They existed before Cameron Jamie, Jeffrey Vallance, Ralph Rugoff, Vicente Razo, Carlos Amorales, Doctor Lakra and countless other (both young and not so young) artists discovered wrestling in its most sophisticated variant–the Mexican one. And though they did not appear out of nowhere, since articles by Roland Barthes and even paintings by Picasso established some precedents, the truth is that there is no body of work about Mexican wrestling as exhaustive or influential as hers. The material is as rich and varied as its subject matter and covers almost all photographic possibilities; indeed, Grobet has explored everything from photo-journalism to photo-comic books to collaged color photographs. Lucha libre is in fact both a language and a representation; thus, documentary photography's objective realism is always subordinated to the superheroes' pre-established conventions and always mythological. I recall the picture of a masked female wrestler breastfeeding her baby, showing us that private space is always public and always the space of representation when it is photographed. It seems like the camera's mere presence alters the document's objective result, as if demonstrating Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty.

From photo-journalism and sports photography we turn to constructed (or should we say more obviously constructed) photos, indeed the leftovers of what was going to be a photographic comic book made by wrestlers. Paradoxically the first thing we notice in these pictures is their realism. I remember them as stills of something like a combination of action movie and soap opera, taken in rudimentary locations lacking any of the glamour of Hollywood. They are the puzzling pieces of a non-existent narrative whose gaps we fill with our own desire and imagination.

Another series of "deliberately" posed photographs are the ultra-baroque medium-format color portraits taken of wrestlers at home in their living rooms. The conscious, balanced aesthetics of incongruity of furniture and other objects that are imitations of European antiques could be considered kitsch, but it would be unfair and a mistake to call it bad taste. It is as sophisticated as the skills of the técnicos–the "Good" wrestlers–or the cunning of the rudos–the "Evil" ones. In this case, rather than resort to avant-garde aesthetics and experiments, Grobet uses both perfectly balanced compositions and a language whose result is pictures that are as classic, in every sense of the word, as the true heroes they depict.

Painting Landscapes (Midway between José María Velasco and the Sex Pistols)

Painted Landscape, USA, 2002
 

Who would think that punk and Mexican landscape painting could have anything in common? While she was studying in England in 1977 (the same year the punk revolution took place), Lourdes Grobet became interested in color photography, Cibachromes and landscapes. Bored like Johnny Rotten with a "colorless country," she decided to go out with her kids and paint rocks in a field that she then documented in photographs. In this case the painted landscape was not the representation of a landscape but an intervention in the landscape itself as a representation of something else. This environment, quite different from the American Wild West (though it was also eventually tamed and industrialized) warranted in this artist's eyes a different treatment than that of Ansel Adams, than the f64 group’s romantic, obsessive realism. However, Lourdes Grobet's earthwork was not greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm as Robert Smithson's sculptures. In this case locals called the police and the artist came close to being committed to a psychiatric hospital. Neighbors interacted with the work, painting graffiti on the stones. Grobet documented these actions as well, expanding her portfolio.

After deliberating and arguing over the project at length, the photography faculty ended up failing her. By performing a blatant intervention on the subject to be photographed Grobet had violated the dogma and disregarded the false premise that photography was the safe, benign space of uninvolved, objective documentation. Her teachers did not accept a project that transcended photography as a medium and also operated as painting and environmental sculpture. The brightly colored, permanent alteration flouted the English countryside's romantic pastoral conventions, causing an uproar. "God save the Queen and her fascist regime. She ain't a human being," Johnny Rotten had said.
Subsequently, in the 1980s, John Divola would also make a series of "painted" landscapes. However, he used flashes with color filters in order to paint the landscape temporarily and capture a series of actions in the pictures. In this way he managed to take his photographs without leaving a trace in the landscape and thus go unnoticed by environmental activists. This project therefore limited itself to a mere photographic record and avoided the conflict and social processes that Grobet had unleashed.

 

Campesino Theater (The Indigenous Person as a Subject who Represents, not as an Object to be Represented)
The documentation of the "heart of Mexico"–that is to say, indigenous Mexico–has been one of Mexican photography's main concerns and obsessions. A first wave of American photographers documented the western us in the late nineteenth century, eager to record and conserve (at least in their images) a landscape and population while the latter was being decimated based on the policies of "manifest destiny" and modernization. This process of representation was involuntarily modifying indigenous reality at the same time as photographers sought to depict its purity, though they themselves sometimes distorted it in their devoted observance of conventions they considered infallible. On more than one occasion Edward S. Curtis made an Indian chief wear another tribe's more impressive feather headdress, and thus was created the mythological, Hollywood-like image of Great Plains Indians crossing deserts they had never seen before.

In Mexico the photographic representation of indigenous communities has not been met with the same urgency, but neither have indigenous people been in charge of it themselves. Though it is true that since Mexico's Independence and Revolution the indigenous past and present have occupied a central place in the construction of "Mexicanness," it has been mostly symbolic and no less distorted. Indigenous people have not only lost their land and possessions but even their own right to self-representation, left in the hands of a generally mestizo (if not criollo) official discourse that has only recently begun to change. Faced with this situation, Grobet decided to get in touch with a group of indigenous actors and contribute, as a photographer, to their undertaking. In this particular collaboration, she relates to and identifies with the actors based on her own artistic initiative–which is what she values–rather than with their mere condition as indigenous people. In her series of photos, the artifice utilized in the construction of magical realist imagery consists of the scenery and costumes created and worn by the actors. It is clearly both an artifice and an expressive theatrical device, perhaps exacerbated in photographic terms given the use of infrared film. In this case it seems that Grobet's photography is subordinated to the discourse and imagination of indigenous theater. Documenting the troupe's tour in New York, the indigenous world is seen contextualized in–and in conflict with–the center of urban modernity. This aspect of her work anticipates, at least in a symbolic way, later essays that document the phenomenon of indigenous migration.


An American Classic

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that Maya observatories and temples rather than the Greek Parthenon and Roman cemeteries formed the classic period of North American architecture (referring both to the us and the continent as a whole). Maya civilization and its mysterious disappearance gave free reign to the imagination not only of architects but also of archaeologists and other scientists who came to see the Maya as descendents of Atlantis, Israel's lost tribes or alien beings. Unlike the Aztecs, whose reputation was that of violent warriors and bloodthirsty necrophiliacs who sacrificed young maidens, the Maya were idealized as Apollonian Athenians devoted to science. This inspired a revival of Maya and pre-Columbian architecture, and indeed the neo-Maya style finds its greatest exponents in the architects Robert Stacy-Judd and Manuel Amabilis. Judd designed the splendid Aztec Hotel (1925) in southern California; there are even portraits of him wearing a feather headdress and loincloth. For his part, Amabilis worked in the city of Mérida, in the state of Yucatan, and designed the Mexican pavilion for the LatinAmerican world’s fair in Seville (1929). We should also mention Diego Rivera’s pre-Columbian architectural eccentricities, like the Anahuacalli he had built from volcanic rock.
The first Spaniards landed on the northern coast of Yucatan in 1517. The party, led by Francisco Hernández de Córdova, came into contact with the Maya, a rich and civilized nation whose people wore elegant, colorful clothing and beautiful gold jewelry and lived in cities surrounding sumptuous temples. Five hundred years later Lourdes Grobet went to explore this same region, today a popular tourist resort. When advised to visit the colonial center of towns or Maya ruins, she imagined running into thousands of tourists, and decided otherwise, taking the opposite route and venturing into the suburbs. There she discovered the temples of a new civilization she coined "Olmayaztec." In pre-Hispanic times, when one culture conquered another, it built its temples on top of those of the conquered, conserving the original pyramids as an underlying structure but making them larger. In a way, suburban culture was no exception. The modernist lexicon of concrete, glass and steel was incorporated into Maya forms and iconography. The function of these temples had changed, some of them housing dance clubs, bars or government offices, though they preserved and incorporated chac-mools, step-frets, observatories and fake Maya arches. With a medium-format camera, Grobet decided to document these monuments for posterity just as explorers, archaeologists and photographers like Désiré Charnay and Frederick Catherwood had done in their time. These new monuments bore a likeness to the ones Grobet already knew, the ones that had become leading tourist destinations. Indeed, some of them hope to attract the same tourists through mimesis. But their scale, building methods and functions are different. They feature a mix of functionalist, late modernist architecture and local historicism, creating an involuntary postmodern pastiche. Photographs of them function in a similar way. Depicted in a sober and elegant yet simultaneously funny and entertaining way, what we see are representations of representations of national identity where the symbols of an indigenous past are merely a facade (the buildings themselves housing mirrored disco-balls, bureaucrats, tourists or alcoholic beverages). These photographs, which would nicely illustrate some brochure for a post-national theme park, depict a myth in the full structuralist sense of the term: a modernity at the service of the nation and of indigenous people (or vice versa?).

 
Unisex Prometheus, 2000

 

Unisex Prometheus
I recently saw the 16-mm film Looking for Mushrooms (1966) by artist and experimental filmmaker Bruce Connor. It features material filmed in Mexico in the 1960s, edited in a syncopated fashion with shots of fireworks, nudes and other images of brilliant colors, with an incoherent narrative and frenzied rhythm that very effectively mimic a mushroom trip. There is a new version with music by minimalist composer Terry Riley that further emphasizes the psychedelic effect. This might well be the masterpiece of the romantic North American head-trip about magical Mexico. (Later I revisited the Siqueiros Polyforum (a Mexico City theater and exhibition hall) and was able to confirm that Stalinism has an even stronger effect than lysergic acid or psilocybin, and can also lead to bad trips).

Now then, fasten your seatbelts and get ready for shaman Lourdes Grobet's dizzying virtual delusion of the post-darkest heart of Mexico. Prometheus might well be José Clemente Orozco's–and even muralism's–best work. It is one of the most dynamic representations ever made in the medium of painting: the classic foreshortened figure of a burning man attempting to soar up into the sky like Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four yelling "Flame on!" In Grobet's video the blazing character finally breaks through the wall of painterly stasis (among others) and really takes off. In a circular video projection, designed to be shown on a dome like that of Guadalajara's Hospicio Cabañas, we see a reinterpretation of the classic figure in live action and movement. Thanks to technology and digital video the former photographer was able to give life to an inert painting, much like Gepeto did with Pinocchio.

While I was trying to figure out what was going on in this work, I sometimes saw the burning "man" as a woman, making me wonder about my perceptual processes as well as my unconscious. After paying closer attention I realized the figure's hermaphroditic nature, truly synthesizing humanity without reducing it to the male half that often usurps representation. In this case the multiple male and female genitalia are not digital special effects but the actual physical features of Alejandra Bogue. I once had the opportunity to assist Joel-Peter Witkin taking a portrait of the beautiful Bogue, in which she posed naked wearing one of my late mother's wigs styled to evoke Frida Kahlo as photographed by Imogen Cunningham. Witkin's photograph bothers me not only for the personal things it summons up but because it seems simplistic and sensationalistic to me. This representation of a Frida with a penis (and a Chihuahua) reduces the complexity of this seductive persona's drive and sexual and cultural role to a literal, obvious reading, turning someone whom the world identifies as an archetype of the Mexican woman/artist into a freak. Lourdes Grobet's video functions in a very different way. Here the purpose of sexual ambiguity is not to subvert, scandalize or seduce. In the end, Promethea/us is neither a woman with a penis nor a man with breasts, but rather a symbol. It could be the adult version of the outer-space embryo that appears at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unisex Prometheus is born and wages a battle against humanity's artifices in a symbolic narrative. Production values are impeccable and the aesthetic bears more of a kinship with comics and science-fiction movies than with the generally rather sober world of art. Like Connor's movie, it constructs its own logic and space. Nevertheless this piece is a hallucinogenic head-trip unique in its genre–if such a genre even exists.

Conclusions?
Nowadays "conceptualism" has become the main trend in contemporary art, the style favored by galleries, the academy, and the market. It has turned into a conformist formalism that totally depends on linguistic systems or systems of validation rather than actually attempting to question them. We must forget about non-objectual art's revolutionary origins and its response to a market and a society in a state of crisis (from the precedents set by Dada and its response to World War I, to 1970s American conceptualism responding to the Vietnam War, and Latin American conceptualism responding to the 1968 student movement, the Cuban Revolution and local dictatorships). It is within this context that we must reevaluate and reconsider the course and works of Lourdes Grobet's artistic practice.

Her work has not always been edited, reproduced or published according to the standards–technical and otherwise–of the market on which she does not depend and to which she makes no concessions. This is of course what allows her to constantly take risks and be open to all sorts of consequences. In this sense her successes are just as important as her failures and, in the end, inseparable. Projects like her photographs of the Campesino Theater have a purpose and way of functioning that transcend that of the photographic medium–they are a working model, they raise complex issues as yet unresolved from either a photographic or social point of view. Some of Grobet's works have of course enjoyed very wide appeal but this does not make them more important than those that are harder to assess given their rough edges or open endedness.

This may be the time to reconsider and analyze the–perhaps chaotic–fruits (and scattered seeds) of this exercise in freedom that rejects formal limitations but not other kinds of responsibilities. Lourdes Grobet's work does not fit into a purely and strictly photographic frame of reference, nor does it fit or function within a strictly "artistic" circuit. It navigates through high and pop culture without denying a social commitment, though it does not depend on it either. Taking photographs literally "with her legs" and exhibiting in elevators, she crosses borders that she connects with arbitrary divisions or limits (whether it be in terms of geography, gender, the media, etc.). Movement and dislocation are constants in her work. She was a precursor of postmodern discourses and of the art many of us make today. She not only exemplifies the unconditional pleasure that artistic practice can hold, but also dignity and freedom (concepts which are in the end inseparable).