Pablo León de la Barra on Art, Architecture, and the Public Role of Museums

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
On the tails of organizing a complex and ambitious survey of contemporary Latin American art, the architectural historian and curator of Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, Latin America, discusses the role of museums as civic icons and centers for discourse.

Now on view through Feb. 7 at Mexico City's Museo Jumex, "Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today" is the latest collaboration to be produced by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, a cross-cultural program focused on three worldwide regions: South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. Organized by architectural historian and curator Pablo León de la Barra, the exhibition follows its inaugural installation at New York's Guggenheim Museum last fall with a series of site-specific works and a custom exhibiton design by one of Mexico City's own rising stars, the young architect Frida Escobedo. We met with de la Barra to discuss his return to his hometown, the process of putting the show together, and the public role of museums today. 

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For the showing of "Under the Same Sun: Art From Latin America Today" (through Feb. 7) at Mexico City's Museo Jumex, artist Luis Camnitzer installed an iteration of his site-specific work, El museo es una escuela, on the travertine-clad facade of the building itself, designed by British architect David Chipperfield in 2013. Translated into English, Camnitzer's piece reads: "The museum is a school: The artist learns to communicate, the public learns to make connections." The installation is the latest cross-cultural collaboration by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

As a trained architectural historian who grew up in Mexico City, how would you describe your experience of the city, and its growing visibility as a center for modern architecture?         

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The show's exhibition design, by young Mexico City–based architect Frida Escobedo, includes a simple-yet-clever spatial intervention. Playing off of Chipperfield's vaulted, angular ceiling, a series of wooden ramps escalates and narrows at one end of the gallery, carving out unique, shifting perspective points that draw the eye—and body—closer into the artworks. Among the artworks is Carols Amorales's interactive installation, We'll See How Everything Reverberates (Ya veremos como todo reverbera), which invites visitors to play with the forms.

When I was 22 years old, I had gained access to Luis Barragán’s house—it was not yet opened to the public—and people knew Barragán’s work, but mostly from photographs in history books, not from the special experience that is the house, which is totally different. A group of friends and I started working there, as kind of a social service—an internship—which is something you do in Mexico when you finish studying. We were the first kinds of guides for the house. That totally changed our understanding of architecture and space, of the relation of art to architecture. That was a very significant thing.

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Escobedo's proposal was selected as part of a competition held by the museum to develop a flexible design that could be reused in different iterations, beyond the installation of this show. "It's a very different approach, because it's often the other way around—a very specific design for a specific installation—so we wanted to think of some kind of system that could be continually reinterpreted, not only for other exhibitions, but other types of programs: lectures, screenings, or even a public forum," explains Escobedo, whose previous work includes collaborations with London's V&A Museum, the 2013 Lisbon Triennal, and the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. "Jumex has a strong focus on public and educational programming. It's not just about the artwork, but what happens behind and alongside it. I think there's something very special about this institution."

I grew up here until 1997, when I was 25, to move to London for school; I ended up staying there for 15 years. The moment I left, there was a big economic crisis in Mexico. My whole generation had finished studying architecture, and just wanted to get out—to see the world, but also because there were no jobs; it was really bad. They called it the "Tequila Effect." I guess we were a very curious generation, always thinking about art. Art was very present.  

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The modular, triangular wedge units can be installed individually to create sloped viewing stations, as shown here in the exhibition's upstairs video gallery, or stacked to create flat platforms or a stage.

The line between art and design seems more fluid in Mexico City than it is in the United States. Do you agree, and why do you think that is?

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Comprised of abstracted and translucent, colorful shapes, artist Amalia Pica's 2013 work A ∩ B ∩ C (read as A intersection B intersection C) references 1970s Argentina, during which the country's military junta banned elementary schools from using Venn diagrams and teaching the concept of intersection, believing it to pose a threat. As part of the Pica's piece, performers move and comingle the shapes in a powerful, critical demonstration that embraces the notion of continual collaboration and community.

I think there has always been this kind of tradition here. You think of the muralists, for example, the idea of covering architecture with this "skin" that was political, didactic, and could speak to the people without being a text. We grew up in that context. In a way, art saved our lives and changed our lives, because it was a territory of freedom where things could happen that were not happening elsewhere. Around that time, I began to notice more and more exhibitions about Mexican art—in London, Berlin… it was kind of a Mexican boom moment, and I saw it from the outside.

But what really changed my perspective was being in London. It made me turn my point of view. I met a lot of artists from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Chile, which made me aware that there were lots of similarities with our neighbors to the south. That kind of detonated my curiosity about researching the continent. I wanted to really try to connect and find out what was happening there. There was a lot of travel research into Latin America; I tried to research as much as I could, visiting countries I hadn’t been. I really used this opportunity to try to push the boundaries of our own understanding of Latin America. On the one hand, there’s a responsibility of bringing artworks into the collection, and on the other, of doing an exhibition on a project that’s going to be traveling around and has to build a narrative.

How did your process inform that narrative?

It grew with the project. It was interesting because things have changed so much. As recently as two years ago, Brazil was booming economically. Now there’s such a big crisis. The exhibition deals with this sense of disillusionment quite a bit—there’s a kind of desire to achieve a state of modernity, an idea of stability—and then the failure to do so, how artists have reacted to this, how it’s influenced their reality.

But I don’t think you can cover the breadth of it with a single theory or theme—if there’s one thing that emerged from the many art practices I saw, it has to do with this kind of acknowledgement and engagement with the social and political realities at hand. That’s what a lot of these artists bring into the discourse of art.

How does the show's exhibition design, led by young architect Frida Escobedo, lend a different viewing experience from its previous installation at the Guggenheim in New York?

Jumex suggested that we should work with an architect—Frida came with a brilliant proposal involving ramps. We made decisions together. She and I were looking at ramps all the time, exploring it as a typology. Only once the ramp was inside the space did I understand how strong her proposal was. On the one hand, it’s subtle because the color and grain of the wood plays against the texture of the marble floor. It’s placed very respectfully in the space, and adds a new kind of scale that makes you interact, moving up and down the slope: it becomes an exercise in perspective. Every time you move, you have a totally different view of the artworks in the space. It really gave me a new understanding—the generosity of the space, of Jumex, and of Frida’s architecture proposal all allow visitors to really engage with the works from multiple perspectives.

Today's museums are beacons of modern architecture, and Museo Jumex’s new David Chipperfield–designed building is no exception. What are your thoughts on the power of architecture as it relates to contemporary art and culture?

The identity of museum architecture continues to be a very strong, defining element of a museum itself—as an experience, a destination, and a city icon, in a way that’s parallel to Jumex’s own history as an institution. It first opened up its collection 15 years ago, inside a former factory space. Then two years ago, a private institution became public, in the sense that its building became a public responsibility. Architecture is a way of drawing people in, of connecting the local and the global, of being a toolbox, filled with artworks and thinking tools that have an effect beyond the walls of the gallery space—with a public and political presence that shows the idea that, just maybe, art can change the world.

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