MEXICO CITY – What art is there in death?
Plenty, according to the surrealistically named Museum of the Object of the Object, whose latest exposition has as its subject the rituals of death in historical, popular and contemporary Mexican culture. Its latest exhibit titled "The Way to Live Death" sounds macabre even for a country preparing to celebrate the Day of the Dead with all-night vigils in cemeteries.
But the exposition is, like the holiday, an opportunity to honor la muerte – the art popularly associated with it – as well as a chance to view works that reflect Mexico's current, violent, reality.
The museum, known as MODO for its Spanish acronym, displays more than 1,000 objects in the exhibit. The collection includes classics like Mexican revolutionary-era newspaper clippings printed with the rhyming poems known as calaveritas, an oil painting by Mexican modernist Julio Ruelas of his mother on her deathbed and old-fashioned post-mortem portraits.
Those and other pieces share rooms with contemporary works including a setup of digital photos drawn from a website called vivireternamente.org (link in Spanish), which offers to take care of users’ social media image post-mortem if they die suddenly. The website, whose name means "to live eternally," entices prospective users with the question, "Would you like to keep chatting, tweeting and tagging photos in Facebook even after your death?"
"The themes explore the practical, symbolic and decorative functions of the objects and pieces of art used in the different stages of the only inevitable event of existence, which, as an irony of life, is death," write curators Aurora Aviles Garcia and Victor Rodriguez Rangel. "Because dying is the only certainty we have upon being born."
MODO is the sort of curated storage attic of Bruno Newman, public relations magnate and collector of curios, especially of the Mexican variety. Over four decades, Newman amassed some 30,000 objects dating back to the early 19th century including soap boxes, candy tins, soda bottles and funereal objects – a treasure trove for anyone nostalgic for the graphic design of yore or interested in the anthropology of death.
Ten artists created new works specifically for the show, and several of these explore Mexico's current zeitgeist after six years of a drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives. In one, the shadow-like cutouts of four bodies are hanged from the ceiling and stuffed from behind with newspapers depicting photos of similar, real-life horrors.
"I've always kept my distance from death," said Aviles Garcia, reflecting on the curation process. "I avoid cemeteries, wakes. But my attitude changed with this show. I could experience death in a more natural way. Even though there is so much violence, people are still interested in these themes."
MODO is one of Mexico City's newest museums, having opened in 2010 on a street that has been recently transformed into a cultural corridor lined with galleries, boutiques and cafes in the Roma neighborhood, an area which is finally celebrating its renaissance more than 25 years after being shattered by the devastating 1985 earthquake.
Perhaps it's a sign that Mexico City knows the best "way to live death": through rebirth.
Photos: Nacho Espejo