The Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 8.53.21 AMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

One of the joys of visiting the city of Oaxaca is the variety of museums that cater to many interests; history, archeology, anthropology, textiles and stamps are just a few of the many choices. MACO, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, is one of the most entertaining yet often overlooked museums in the historic center.

MACO is located just a short walk on the promenade from the enormous Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. Although there is a flag that marks its location at Alcalá 202, it is easy to pass right by the entrance or walk through an open door and find yourself in an exhibition room. This room, called Open Cube, contains a very large pyramid construction that emits somewhat disconcerting sounds blending with the chatter of passers-by and other street noises. Constructed primarily out of wood but reminiscent of stone Zapotec or Aztec structures, the pyramid, called Infinite Reflections and designed by Stefan Rummel, stands about 15 feet (6 meters) high and incorporates a staircase of 17 steps.

Although obviously curated to attract tourists to enter the museum, the lack of signs and starkness of the open door exhibit can be a bit startling. So we suggest that visitors look for the formal entrance, which from the street seems no different from the many gift shops on Calle Alcalá. Tickets can be purchased there for 20 pesos, or 10 pesos for seniors with INAPAM identification.

The museum building, dedicated in 1992, seems more colonial than contemporary. Two floors of exhibition rooms surround a large central courtyard. The rooms are mostly small enough to produce a feeling of intimacy between visitors and the art on display.

Permanent works, many by Mexican artists, are displayed on the first floor, along with rotating exhibits. The second floor houses temporary shows of artists drawn from the international community.

Although the building itself seems anchored in the past, the art itself is cutting edge and ranges from side splittingly funny to thought-provoking to deeply disturbing. Among the most amusing on display during our visit in early March were the “Hello Kitty” ceramics by Cisco Jimenez – wry statements on the mass-produced emblem aimed at developing world-wide consumerism among children. Visitors were also chuckling as they viewed Debora Delmar’s “Reflective Ideas,” words formed from mirrors; these also mock modern consumerism, such as “goat cheese and nutella sandwich.”

The most disturbing was the video by Edgardo Aragón, juxtaposing film with a narration from a drug runner serving time in a Mexican prison. During an interview with the artist, the prisoner described in detail a trip from his home in a small village to the city where a meeting had been arranged to receive a package of drugs, and then his trip to deliver the drugs near the U.S. border where he was arrested, tortured and eventually sent to prison. The film captured the amazing beauty of the land through which he was driving, including snow-capped volcanos, glistening lakes, and lush pastures with quietly grazing cattle, while the narrative captured the longing of the drug runner to be able to relocate to one of these beautiful areas, settle down, and become a farmer. In an understated way, the film and narrative vividly portrayed the sheer ugliness of the petroleum-producing areas and the cities near the border of the US, the constant fear that accompanied the driver after he picked up the drugs he was to deliver, and the horrors of torture.

One of the most thought-provoking exhibits was the Benjamin Torres construction of two enormous wheels, the epitome of mobility, incorporating eighty-eight wooden crutches. Another anomalous and stimulating installation was the garden created by Eugenio Ampudia, an internationally acclaimed artist from Madrid, from over 20 000 empty green and brown beer bottles. Filling a whole courtyard, flanked by tall tree trunks, and accompanied by bird song, the arrangement of the bottles, which ordinarily would be tossed into a recycling bin, created beds and paths that reminded one of the formal gardens of Versailles.

We were fortunate to have the entire second story devoted to works by Eugenio Ampudia. Each room in the exhibition was an entire work of art that surrounds the visitor. The overall effect of walking inside a work of his art is stunning.

One room, part of his “Infestation” series, had four walls covered with brightly covered beetles of various sizes. The sensation produced was a mix of appreciation of the beauty of the little creatures, both individually and collectively, admiration of the amount of work necessary to create all these insects, and a distinctly creepy feeling that the walls of the museum were entirely infested with cockroaches. Another was devoted to measurement of time – literally measurement of time. Temporal words such as “Hoy Es Siempre” (Today Is Forever) were created out of wooden metric measuring rods.

One room that did not permit entry but allowed a view through a large opening was titled “Devastated Areas” featuring a body bag, or perhaps a sleeping bag, that appeared to contain a still breathing, but otherwise unmoving person. Was the surrounding area devastated by a hurricane, a military invasion, or perhaps the prelude to a construction project?

The largest display, “Donde Dormir” (Where to Sleep), was a series of large-screen videos of the artist preparing for and then sleeping in easily-recognized iconic centers of art and architecture, including Museo Prado in Madrid and the Alhambra in Granada. The idea that he travelled to all these places where no one sleeps and persuaded the authorities to let him sleep in them alone is captivating. Who knew watching someone get ready to sleep could be so fascinating?

Who knew MACO could be so captivating? We know now! We suggest you stop by the next time you are in Oaxaca and be prepared to spend an extremely interesting hour or more.