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Interview with Fabiola Iza
El Cuarto de Maquinas, Mexico City

Independent curator and art historian Fabiola Iza gave insights into her exhibition, “Espejo negro, elefante blanco” last year. We talked about curatorial practice, publishing, and her favorite place in Mexico City to chill.

We are at “El Cuarto de Máquinas”, as you said, “a place where they are trying out a new format which distances itself from representing artists and instead provides a more inclusive platform that supports both curatorial and artistic practice”. Please tell us how this inclusive concept works and how this platform was realized. This art space is sophisticated. Mexico City is experiencing a boom in independent spaces. What “independent” exactly means is, in my view, still a matter of debate, but I strongly believe there is a great need for spaces to work out new formats or models — be it curatorial, financial, or in terms of how to establish relationships with the artists. El Cuarto de Máquinas (which means the machine room) works on a project basis: They invite a curator who is active in the city’s art scene to develop an exhibition or project. Other than the allotted budget, and the space, there are no guidelines. This way, instead of working with a limited and defined roster of artists, the space manages to collaborate with many more people and, in the long run, they will get to showcase several different experiments or positions in curatorial practice (a rarity in Mexico City) and artists whose practices are radically different. 

Exhibition View

How would you define your role as a curator – you work independently, right? Yes, I do work independently. I think my role needs to be quite flexible as it adapts itself to each project and is modified depending on the specifics. Of course, I have strong research interests and I am very invested in experimenting with different formats, but my role is shaped by the many variables of each project. These include who I am working with (for example, I understand editorial work as a curatorial endeavor as well, even if it entails dealing with a text and its ideas rather than with artists), the hosting institution/space, the lack of it, and the intended audience. Also, I think my role as a curator changes a lot depending on whether it is a solo project or a collective one.

This specific project was developed following very close collaboration with each of the artists (it did involve a lot of admin and logistics, though) and it acquired a particular form thanks to this. It was not the kind of exhibition in which you borrow the works and develop a stance on your own as a curator, but it was in a constant process of transformation thanks to the works and the ideas each piece brought in. After seeing it installed, I think my voice is merged in the overall installation, as there is no strong authorial position. I attempted to give as much freedom as possible to the works, and many topics, ideas, and musings emerge from their dialogue. I am part of that dialogue, of course, but hopefully my interests are not imposed on the works, but instead my figure vanishes amongst them. 

What kind of artistic experience are you personally looking for? One that is equally stimulating in aesthetic and intellectual terms. Despite my interest in artistic experimentation, I try to engage any viewer, as the practices I am interested in tackle issues related to history and its (problematic) representation, how national and cultural identities are constructed, etc. That is, I try to avoid doing “closed” or “looped” projects – art referring to art – and instead try to create leaks or fault lines into the vast subjects that exist parallel to or interrelated with art history, art theory, and artistic practice.

You curated the show. What is the meaning of the title? In Spanish, and particularly in the context of Latin America, white elephant is the term used to describe a massive construction site (one that will supposedly satisfy basic needs) built by the state that shortly after opening becomes inoperative due to a lack of funds. White elephants are an instrument of politics: They serve to promote a figure or an administration. All across Latin America housing complexes, hospitals, and universities were built but now, decades later, most of them are nearly in ruins or fail to fulfill their initial purpose. They were conceived in line with the architectural principles of Modernism (the housing units were inspired to a great extent by Le Corbusier’s functionalism) and also reflect the Modernist purpose of providing a comfortable, affordable, and sophisticated life. Sadly, these ideas, methods, and systems were in most cases imported to a different context and never adapted to it. That is, it became more of an aesthetic and ideological imposition. Many of the works in the exhibition address this in a critical, yet subtle way. 

Espejo negro, black mirror, vaguely refers to the obsidian plaques crafted by Mexican indigenous cultures. In most cases these were ceremonial items and the Spanish conquerors became fascinated with them. Most of them were plundered and are now housed in ethnographic collections in many European cities. Nevertheless, obsidian mirrors are still produced (mainly to satisfy tourist demand) and, in popular terms, they are considered objects with magical qualities. My use of the term is strictly metaphorical, as such magical and spiritual attribution is usually extended to most of the pre-Columbian material production. My argument is that this is a result of ignorance and a lack of knowledge of these cultures. The indigenismo was instrumental to this and the artists in the exhibition counter these unfounded views through the use of irony and humor. Their critiques are poignant yet subtle. Furthermore, I sense that this approach points to a generational shift regarding how to address our countries’ current indigenous history and cultures. (I say our as the four artists, like myself, were born and raised in Latin America.)

"Tramado" (Weaving, 2015) by Fatima Rodrigo

Exhibition view

“The artists represented here specifically question the alleged legacy of Modernism and examine its heritage within the contexts in which they operate, mostly in Latin America”. What is the potential of Mexican and Latin-American art with its – on the other hand – pre-Columbian heritage? In an attempt to shy away from an idealization of the pre-Columbian heritage, I sense that an older generation tackled it in a very analytical manner, mostly using methods inspired by ethnography and anthropology. This younger generation also avoids its exoticization, but aims to engage with it from a less vertical perspective and through methods less inspired or influenced by archival practices. In a way, they still respond to an archival way of thinking, but they have gained more distance to its aesthetics.  

Do you prefer political art – or rather a political dimension – or ‘freedom to art’? To me, art has an undeniable and inalienable political dimension. It does not need to be propagandistic, nor moralistic or self-righteous. That’s what I’m most interested in.

Since 2014 you have also been director of T-E-EORIA, a collection of books on cultural theory published by Taller de Ediciones Económicas. What is most important to you in the field of publishing? On a very personal note, I understand these incursions into publishing as an essential part of my curatorial practice. I am no publisher or editor, but a curator working in yet another format. I decided to create that collection, T-E-EORIA, to have a medium to insert ideas into a Spanish-speaking context, as I sensed that discussions on spectatorship could benefit immensely from the terms and concepts these books offer.

Your favorite places to think and relax? Do you have enough time for that? One of my favorite places in Mexico City is the “Pasaje Pino Suárez – Zócalo”, a passageway that connects the two subway stations stated in the name. At street level it is one of the noisiest, busiest, most crowded parts of the city, but underground it is refreshingly cool, tranquil, and quiet. The passageway houses some 40 bookshops, each of them a stall, and its design reflects the modernization ideals of the 1970s, yet at the same time reveals an inclusive cultural project. The construction of the subway network embraced both principles: a modern city where people can get quickly and cheaply from one place to another (both literally and metaphorically). The Pasaje even features a film lounge and has a food-court area where metronautas (subway users) can relax and have a nice place to sit and eat their lunch.

Thank you Fabiola! 

Interview: Dajana Dorfmayr

Artists of the exhibition: Nuria Montiel, Ana Navas, Fátima Rodrigo and Ana Roldán

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Pasaje Pino Suárez – Zócalo