This is my own translation of: “La Hija del Santo,” Lourdes Grobet, Turner Publicaciones, Madrid, 2005, pp. 53-61. The one in the book mistranslated the conclusion giving it the opposite meaning. Where they printed "We must forget about non-objectual art's revolutionary origins..." obviously should have said "We must not forget about non-objectual art's revolutionary origins..."
I once heard Lourdes Grobet remark that the principal influences on her work were Mathias Goeritz, Gilberto Aceves Navarro and El Santo.1 This “holy trinity” represents the dialectic, equilateral cosmogony comprising the repository pyramid of Mexican contemporary art. Goeritz, a criticized precursor of minimalism, with his whimsical modernism, his sculptures, installations, concrete poetry and post-dadaist and protoconceptual experiments, serves as the thesis and one end of the pyramid’s base. Gilberto Aceves Navarro was the extraordinary teacher of several generations of artists and art teachers at the Academia de San Carlos. “Think with the tip of your pencil,” he would urge, exalting the use of the right side of the brain. With his irrepressible and sensual expressionism and his anti-academic academy, he is the antithesis and the other end of the pyramid’s base. Then, as synthesis and tip of the pyramid, we have none other than El Santo (El Saaaaaaannnnnttttoooo!). He was the legendary Mexican wrestler with the silver mask from the weird sixties movies, a folk hero with the corresponding dynamic, contemporary popular culture.
Conceptualism, painting and pop are the cornerstones that still account for the greater part of the current artistic production. These patron saints who entrusted Lourdes with a liberating mission like Joan of Arc, were her teachers, including El Santo himself. The rest of us mortals can learn from him only through celluloid.
The 60’s and 70’s, the 68 student movement, the ensuing feminist movement and collective group work were determining factors in Lourdes’ work and vice versa. In this case, the quest for a type of art whose final objective and public acknowledgment would not be subjected to commercial and/or official vested interests was not merely a fleeting, idealistic whim. This is also true of her collective group experience and the collaborative efforts that incorporated this artist into the cultural process, which is ultimately a community effort.
Modern specialization generated an “independent” photographic language that transformed photographic quality, realistic chronicles and the credo of the “decisive moment” into fetishisms and ends in themselves. Furthermore, the crisis of painting with its death foretold, paved 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 gave way to isolationism and sectarianism on the part of many photographers regarding art in general. On the other hand, there are artists who venture into photography without actually understanding its history and its specific practices. In this sense, Lourdes has been a pioneer in the search for the “missing link” between artistic experience and the actual craft of photography itself. Her work has been an ongoing experiment and as such, has generated all kinds of results. It transcends a merely conceptual exploration as well as any kind of purist rigor, whether photographic, conceptual, documentary, etc. It encompasses her personal concerns regarding gender, identity and politics as well as those of a social, cultural and formal nature without necessarily assuming a dogmatic position in this regard. This photographic experience has acted as an inductive process in order to understand or experience reality (or realities) rather than to illustrate certain preconceived ideas. Grobet is not afraid to use the different—though sometimes contradictory—languages available to her when referring to her experience and her particular position, thus relinquishing formal purism. In her own way, Lourdes succeeds in using photography to connect herself, connect us and to make her way through the harsh reality of Mexican life.
I will do my best not to overwhelm any of my prospective readers by analyzing only those photographic series of Lourdes’ work that have deeply affected me ever since I first saw them. I selected them because they have obsessed me more than others.
It goes without saying that her body of work is much more extensive, since it ranges from her first psychedelic experiments to the most recent. She has stapled some borders while transgressing them. She has created landscapes and photographs of landscapes, has altered them and re- photographed them. She has even participated in theater, which I have not seen and about which I wouldn’t know what to say.
To top it off, while she was producing all this, she was also raising a family, whose work could easily serve as the subject for several other essays.
Making “La Lucha.”
It is hard for me to distinguish between the history of professional wrestling in Mexico and the photographs of Lourdes Grobet’s. My first introduction to the world of wrestling came from them. Lourdes’ photos existed long before Cameron Jamie, Jeffrey Vallance, Ralph Rugoff, Mike Kelley, Vicente Razo, Carlos Amorales, Dr. Lakra and an endless list of other young and not so young artists discovered Mexican wrestling, the most sophisticated version of this sport. Although it is true that these photographs didn’t just appear out of the blue and were preceded by Roland Barthes’ articles and even paintings by Picasso, the fact is that there is no body of work on that subject as comprehensive and eloquent as Lourdes’. Her material is as rich and varied as the topic she depicts, covering almost every photographic possibility.
She has explored from photojournalism to fotonovelas1 and constructed color photography. Wrestling is, in fact, a language and a performance, therefore, the realistic objectivity of photographic documentation is always subjected to the super-heroic conventions established beforehand, and consequently, always mythological in nature. I recall the image of a masked female wrestler breastfeeding her baby, proving that one’s private space is always public and is always a performance when photographed. It seems that the mere presence of the camera alters the objective result of the record as corroboration of the Heinseberg uncertainty principle.
From photojournalism and sports photography we go to contrived or (more contrived) photos like the remains of what was meant as a fotonovela produced by the wrestlers themselves. Paradoxically, these images are especially memorable due to their extreme realism. I remember them as still photographs, a combination of action film and a soap opera shot on rustic locations far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. They are blank enigmas without a story that we fill with our enthusiasm and imagination. Other photographs that have also been “deliberately posed” are the ultra-baroque color portraits in medium format shot in the living rooms of the wrestlers’ homes. The intentional though aesthetically balanced hodgepodge of furniture and decorations patterned after European antiques could well be regarded as kitsch, although it would be unfair and inaccurate to describe it as in bad taste. It is as good as the intentions of the good guys and the dirty maneuvers employed by the bad ones. In this case, instead of merely resorting to the aesthetics and the experimentation of the avant-garde, Grobet uses perfectly balanced compositions and a language whose images are as classic in every sense as the heroes themselves.
Painting landscapes (somewhere between José María Velasco and the Sex Pistols).
Who could ever imagine that there was a connection between Mexican landscape painting and punk? In 1977, the very year of the “punk” rebellion, when Grobet was studying in England, she became interested in color photography, Cibachrome and landscapes. Bored with “a colorless land,” like Johnny Rotten, she decided to go out to the country with her children and paint the stones, which she would later document by photographing them. In this case, the painted landscape was not the representation of a landscape but rather the same landscape, intervened as a representation of something else. This was not the American Wild West—ultimately also conquered and industrialized— and therefore deserved, a different treatment as opposed to the romantic, obsessive realism of Ansel Adams and that of the F64 school.
However, the kind of attention Lourdes Grobet’s earthwork got was entirely different from the reaction to Robert Smithson’s sculptures. In this case, the artist was reported to the police and almost confined to a mental institution. Her neighbors interacted with the work by covering the stones with graffiti. Lourdes then expanded her portfolio by also documenting these actions.
In the end, after much quarrelling and arguing among themselves, her photography teachers gave her a failing grade. Upon openly intervening with the photographic subject, Lourdes was breaking the cardinal rule and the false conception of photography as an inviolate, harmless space to be recorded objectively and at a distance. Her teachers could not accept a project that transcended photography itself and that was both a painting and an environmental sculpture. The permanent, brightly colored alteration of nature violently disrupted the romantic bucolic conventions of the English countryside, provoking a storm of controversy. “God save the Queen, She ain’t a human being, and there is no future and England is screaming” said Johnny Rotten.
Subsequently during the 80’s, John Divola also created a series of “painted” landscapes. He, however, used flashes with colored filters to temporarily paint the landscape and retain the corresponding actions in the images. Because he managed to produce his photographs without leaving any visible mark on the countryside itself, he did not attract the attention of the environmental activists. Therefore, his project, which consisted solely of a photographic recording, avoided the conflict and social repercussions provoked by Lourdes’ work.
The Teatro Campesino (The Indian as a subject that represents rather than an object to be represented).
Documenting the “Mexico profundo”, that is, the indigenous Mexico, has been one of the principal concerns and obsessions in Mexican photography. The earliest American photographers recorded the American West toward the end of the 19th century, eager to register and preserve, if only the daguerreotypes, of a given landscape and population while they were being decimated according to the premises of Manifest Destiny and modernization. Ironically, the very process of representation unwittingly modified this very Indian reality they conceived as “pure” but which in some cases the photographers themselves distorted in their zeal to comply with what they regarded as faithful portrayals. Edward S. Curtis sometimes photographed an Indian chief wearing a headdress from another tribe, because it was more picturesque. Thus, was born the mythological and Hollywoodesque image of plains Indians galloping through deserts they never knew.
In Mexico, the photographic representation of its Indian peoples has not been characterized by this sense of urgency, although the Indians themselves have not been directly involved in this task. Although it is true that after the Mexican Independence and Revolution the country’s indigenous past and present have played a vital role in the construction of “Mexicanness,” it has largely been symbolic in nature and equally distorted.
In the end, the Indians not only have lost their land and their wealth but also their very representation at the hands of an official discourse that is generally "mestizo"2 in character if not downright "criollo3."
It seems that changes in this perception have not begun until very recently. In view of this situation, Lourdes decided to make contact with a group of Indian actors and contribute as a photographer. In this particular collaboration, she identifies with the actors’ artistic efforts, which is what she values, rather than the fact they are Indians. If there is a “magic realism” in this series of photos it consists on the stage design and the costumes worn and made by the actors themselves. It is an obvious artifice and a theatrical device, intensified solely by the use of infrared film. It may seem that in this case, it is Lourdes’ photography that is subordinated to the Indians’ imagination and theatrical discourse rather than the other way around. The documentation of the Teatro Campesino on tour in New York reveals the Indians’ world out of context and in conflict with the hub of urban modernity. This aspect of the work precedes, at least symbolically, other subsequent essays documenting the phenomenon of Indian migration.
Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the classic period of American architecture—both in the continental and the U.S. sense of the word—had taken place not in the Greek Parthenon and Roman pantheons but rather in the Mayan observatories and temples. Mayan civilization, with its enigmatic disappearance, gave free rein to the imagination of architects as well as of archeologists and other scientists who even viewed the Mayas as survivors of Atlantis, the lost tribes of Israel and extraterrestrial beings. Unlike the Aztecs, with their reputation as bloodthirsty, necrophiliac warriors who sacrificed young maidens, the Mayas were idealized as enlightened Athenians devoted to science. Thus there was a renaissance of Mayan pre-Columbian architecture in general. The most celebrated exponents of “neo-Mayanism” were architects Robert Stacy Judd and Manuel Amabilis. Judd is the author of the remarkable Aztec Hotel (1925) located in southern California. There are even photographs of Judd attired in a loincloth and a headdress. Amabilis, on the other hand, created a number of constructions in Mérida itself and designed the Mexican pavilion during the first Latin American fair in Seville (1929). We must also definitely mention Diego Rivera’s pre-Columbian architectonic fantasies like the Anahuacalli, forged out of volcanic rock.
In 1517, the Spaniards reached the northern part of the Yucatán peninsula. The expedition, headed by Francisco Hernández de Córdova, discovered the Mayas, a rich, civilized people attired in elegant multicolored clothing who wore gold jewelry and lived in cities with lavish temples. Five centuries later, Lourdes set out to explore this region, now a favorite tourism spot. Instead of following the usual recommendations to visit the colonial center or the Mayan ruins and run into thousands of tourists, she ventured into the unexplored, “adventurous” route, that is, to head for the opposite side of the tracks, the suburbs. There she came upon the temples of a new civilization, which she christened “Olmayaztec.” In pre-Hispanic times, when one culture conquered another, it built its temples over those of the subjugated group, preserving and expanding the original pyramids. In some way or another, these suburban settlements are no exception. On top of the Mayan structures and iconography they have incorporated concrete, glass, steel, modernist language and vice versa. The function of these temples has changed considerably: some are now discotheques, bars or public buildings but nevertheless still preserve and/or incorporate Chac-Mools, frets, observatories and false Mayan arches. Equipped with a medium-format camera, Lourdes decided to document these monuments for posterity, just as the explorers, archeologists and photographers Desiré Charnay and Frederick Catherwood had done before her. These records were quite similar to those that Lourdes had already seen, now regarded as the ultimate tourism attractions. In fact, some of them, through sheer mimesis, even purport to attract tourists. However, their proportions, construction methods and functions are entirely different. They combine functionalistic and late modern architecture with local historicism, thus creating an unintentional postmodern pastiche. The resulting photographs function in much the same way. In a dignified, elegant manner which is both amusing and charming, we see the representations of representations of our national identity where the symbols of our Indian past are only a facade, intended to house sphere-shaped discos, bureaucrats, tourists or alcoholic beverages. These photos, ideally suited to a post-national amusement park, present the myth in all its structuralistic glory: modernity at the service of the nation and of the Indian, or perhaps the other way around.
I recently saw the 16mm film Looking for Mushrooms directed by experimental filmmaker and artist Bruce Conner. It includes material he filmed in Mexico during the 60’s, edited in syncopation with shots of fireworks, nudes and other brightly colored images accompanied by a somewhat incoherent narrative whose frenzied pace effectively resembles a “mushroom trip.” There is a new version of this film with minimalist background music by Terry Riley that considerably intensifies the psychedelic effect. It is perhaps the masterpiece of the American romantic fantasy on magical Mexico. I subsequently visited the Siqueiros Polyforum where I confirmed the fact that the effect of Stalinism is even greater than that of LSD and drugs, and can produce “bad trips.”
Now then, fasten your seat belts and prepare yourself for the virtual hallucinatory voyage through Shaman Grobet’s heretofore unknown Mexico. Prometeo is perhaps José Clemente Orozco’s masterpiece and that of muralism as well; it is one of the most dynamic representations ever created in the history of painting. The classic foreshortened figure of the man in flames attempts to blast off in space like the Fantastic Four who yelled, “Bring on the flames!” In Lourdes’ most recent work, the character bursting in flames finally shatters the barrier of pictorial immobility by actually taking off. A circular video especially designed to be projected on a dome similar to that of the Hospicio Cabañas depicts a reinterpretation of the classic figure in true action and movement. Modern technology and digital video techniques have made it possible for the photographer to breathe life into the inert painting, as Gepetto did with Pinocchio.
While I attempted to figure out exactly what was going on in that particular piece, the “man” bursting into flames at times resembled a woman, questioning the validity of my discernment processes and my unconscious. A closer look allowed me to perceive the double gender of this character that truly synthesizes humanity, without reducing it to the masculine half that tends to usurp the representation. In this case, the multiple masculine and feminine sexual organs are not digitally generated special effects, but are actually the physical features of Alejandra Boge. I once had the opportunity to assist Joel Peter Witkin in a portrait of the beautiful Alejandra for which she posed nude, wearing a wig that once belonged to my late mother. Its coiffure was reminiscent of Cunningham’s photograph of Frida Kahlo. Witkin’s photograph annoys me, not only because of the personal references, but also because it seems inane and sensationalistic. When presenting this image of Frida with a phallus and a Chihuahua, he minimizes the literal obviousness and the phenomenon, the complexity of desire as well as of this intriguing character’s sexual and cultural role that identifies the Mexican woman and the artist before the whole world. Lourdes’ video functions in a different way: the ultimate purpose of sexual ambiguity is not to subvert, to shock or to seduce. The Prometeo is not a woman with a penis or a man with breasts; it is a symbol. It is perhaps the adult version of the embryo hurling through space at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey.
The Unisex Prometheus is born and struggles against the artifices of humanity in a symbolic narrative. The production is impeccable and the aesthetics are more reminiscent of comic books and science fiction movies than the world of art, which is for the most part, restrained. Like Conner’s film it constructs its own logic and space. However, this work is a trip and a drug-induced state unique in its genre... if there is really such a genre at all, that is.
Today, “conceptual art” has become the style preferred by galleries, the academy, the market and the mainstream of contemporary art. It has evolved into a conformist formalism that does not attempt to question the linguistic nor validation systems but which, quite the contrary, depends on them completely. We must not overlook the dissident origins of non-objective art and its reaction to a market and a society in crisis. They hark back to its Dadaist roots and its response to World War I to the American conceptualism of the 60’s that responded to the Vietnam War and to Latin American conceptual art that responded to the 1968 student movement, to the Cuban Revolution and to Latin American dictatorships. It is in this context, where it is important to reevaluate and reconsider Lourdes Grobet’s entire body of work as an independent artist and photographer.
Her work has not always been selected, edited and produced with the technical rigor and the standardized values of a market upon which she does not depend and to which she owes no concessions. Naturally, the above entails and places her in constant risk, leaving her vulnerable to all types of consequences. In this sense, there is room enough for success as well as for failure that ultimately cannot be disassociated from each other. Projects like the photographs of the Teatro Campesino have an objective and a function beyond the photographic; they are a model of work and tackle complex subjects, still unresolved either for the photographer or for society.
Of course, there are some works of Lourdes’ that may be more to our liking, but they are no more important than those that are more difficult to judge, that leave loose ends and unanswered questions. Perhaps this is the time to reconsider and analyze the fruits—and the scattered seeds—perhaps chaotic, of this exercise in freedom without formal restrictions that nevertheless involve other responsibilities. Lourdes’ work does not conform to the pure and restricted photographic perspective. Neither does it function according to a strictly “artistic” circuit. It lies somewhere between high culture and popular culture without denying its social commitment while not entirely depending on it. Taking photographs by literally standing on her own two feet and exhibiting in elevators, she crosses the boundary that establishes the arbitrary dividing lines, whether geographic, genre, environmental, etc. Movement and dislocation are constant common denominators in her work. She is way ahead of the postmodern discourses and the art that many of us create today. She is not only an example of unconditional joy in the artistic quest, but also of dignity and freedom, inseparable concepts.
1. "Fotonovelas" are series of photographs in comic book format that tell a dramatic story, like an illustrated soap opera.
2. "Mestizo" is a person of mixed Indian and Spanish blood.
3. "Criollo" is a person of Spanish descent born in Spanish America.
Labels: arte, Erratas, Lourdes Grobet, lucha libre, Photography, Published Texts