The Head of Pedro Moreno (2012)

(the following essay, expanded from a 2006 version, was read at the CAA conference in Los Angeles in the Spring of 2012 as part of the panel
Live Forever: Performance Art in the Changing Museum Culture
Friday, February 24, 9:30 AM–12:00 PM
Chairs: Sandra Skurvida, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York; Jovana Stokic, independent scholar)


In 1750, a man by the name of Julio Helguera purchased a house in a small Mexican town named Villa Santa María de los Lagos in the central western state of Jalisco. Today known as Lagos de Moreno, after Pedro Moreno, who was a local hero of the war of independence, you could say that history didn’t really bother to pass through this place for much of the XXth century.

Lagos de Moreno does not figure in any tourist book, nor is the region where it is located, known as Los Altos de Jalisco.

This is not say that Lagos and this region is not special or unique, quite the contrary. Los Altos is located between Guadalajara and Guanajuato and has great colonial architecture and natural landscape — the clouds of Los Altos very much resemble the ones immortalized by Gabriel Figueroa, the great Mexican and Hollywood cinematographer. It also has a startling literary and artistic tradition. Some of the greatest artists and writers of Mexico were born there.

José Clemente Orozco was born in nearby Zapotlán. The most influential Mexican fiction writer of the XXth century, Juan Rulfo, was also from Jalisco, as was Juan José Arreola and Agustín Yáñez. Mariano Azuela, author of the most important novel of the Mexican Revolution, “Los de Abajo” (The Underdogs) was born in Lagos de Moreno as well. Due to the fact that this little town produced these kind of creative minds Lagos de Moreno was known at one time as “The Athens of Los Altos”. Yet, all these prominent men left their towns to make history elsewhere.

Los Altos did distinguish themselves in one chapter of history, which was the failed Cristero Revolution in the 1920s, an episode in Mexican history where the catholic church rebelled against the secular reforms brought by the Mexican Revolution. The experience perhaps made these cities draw even more onto themselves than before.

But for whatever reason Lagos de Moreno remained overlooked and in historical isolation, it has gotten used to retain its history and memory in a very unusual way. In contrast to other cities of the region and the rest of Mexico, its historic downtown has been remarkably well preserved, keeping the tranquility of the XIXth century. Its small plazas and churches have survived the atrocious invasion of commercial Mexican architecture. Perhaps saved by its own traditionalist character, Lagos has somewhat eccentric inhabitants such as Mr. José de San Román, who keeps intact a house of his defunct mother, sealed and untouched, after 40 years; or of a commerce like La Colmena, which until recently was run by two centenarian sisters who kept all sorts of ancient merchandise in their open shelves stacked in boxes which resembled more like Joseph Cornell’s studio in Utopia Parkway, and which contained anything from XIXth century engraved toilet paper holders to piano strings. It is not necessary for someone to read the works of Gabriel García Márquez, or Alejo Carpentier. It is enough to visit Lagos de Moreno and get its organic version of magical realism.

Like the places I mentioned, the house of the Helguera family figures as just one of those sites that escaped the winds of time.

The first Helguera arrived to the region from Spain in 1536. One of them bought the house of Lagos shortly after it had been built in the Eighteenth Century. After changing hands for a while, it was purchased by someone on the maternal side of the Helgueras (the Soiné González) before the Mexican independence. It was just around that time when Pedro Moreno defended Lagos from the Spanish and was defeated, beheaded in the plaza, and his head exhibited at the entrance of the town, not unlike narco practice today.

Many years later, a hundred years after the independence, the government of Porfirio Díaz erected a monument to Pedro Moreno at that same spot where his head hung. They perhaps did not realize the irony in deciding that the monument should be a head, and not the whole body, but that is what we have there today.

During those two centuries, some nine generations of Helgueras have lived in that house, and they somehow must have gotten hold of the particular local virus of keeping the present immovable. Elena Soiné, a matriarch of the town the second to the last current owner of the house and my great aunt, died in the 1960s. My uncle Carlos Helguera, took over the management of the house, where he still lives now. From the beginning, he observed aunt Elena’s strict rule of preservation, to the point of maintaining the exact placement of every piece of furniture and every painting. The house is like a private museum, with embroideries by the earlier generations, closets with pieces of clothing from the era of Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez, worn by people like my great-grandfather, the priest Luis Soiné as well as his books in German, and the intact Eighteenth-century kitchen with black vaults that likely contain the smoke from all the dishes cooked there for three centuries. Even the cook that raised my late father, María del Jesús, is still alive in Lagos well into her centennial years. Similar to the Isabella Stewart-Gardner Museum in Boston, this place is equally frozen in time, although it is only seen by a handful of visitors each year.

The soul of the house is Carlos himself, who in the classic –and utopian—tradition of the idealist Helguera family, is a tireless cultural entrepreneur who promotes art and culture locally, organizing concerts, lectures, keeping up the library and converting Lagos residents to classical music. He was also my first art teacher, a professional sculptor of a strictly realist kind, whose works are characterized by their uncanny resemblance to its subjects. As he was showing me his works in his studio one day, we spoke about the role of realism in today’s art. As I am more of a “social sculptor” and he an academic one, our dialogue would appear hard to bridge, and yet it was greatly gratifying. Carlos always complains about the head of Pedro Moreno, saying that he wants to propose to the town to make a new one, with better proportions and resemblance to the hero.

A few years ago I gave a lecture about contemporary art on at the cultural center of Lagos, with local artists and professors as participants. Showing great interest, their questions drifted toward the inevitable terrain of “what is performance art?” and “what is a found object?”. At some point, one student asked me with great worry on whether doing “traditional” art was “bad” and on whether her efforts should be directed to making contemporary art from now on. The question went further: how can I change so I can make art that keeps up with what’s contemporary?

The apparently simple question of that student in Lagos brought me to another, larger, question of my own. Why do we pursue art against a horizon of time? More specifically, what does it mean to root it in the present, in the contemporary moment? And once you have done that, if you can do that, how can that rootedness be preserved, should it be preserved?

Nowhere is this question more bothersome than when we speak about performance, or process art, art that is designed to affirm the present moment, but that it can’t seemingly be able to escape its own tendency to embrace posterity, be it through relics or representations that affirm to be the same thing to what they were. I ask the question to myself, who I believe to biologically possess the Lagos de Moreno bug, that desire of wanting things to last forever, but at the same time the impulse to kill that desire, perhaps as the very response to that chronic condition, of wanting to unequivocally affirm the present moment and refuse for it to be recorded or preserved in any way.

I believe this is essentially a problem of postmodernity in the way we redefine the notion of perspective. In his first book, The Poetics of Perspective, historian James Elkins talks about perspectival theory’s influence in art, and the monumental transformation it brought during the renaissance, probably the most important event in art until the appearance of abstraction in 1912. It is at that time that the notion of perspective migrates elsewhere, when Duchamp inserts a kind of conceptual perspective, which in other words we can describe as the historical self-consciousness of contemporary art. In process and peroformance art our desire to belong to history and to end it at the same time comes to a head in a particularly violent way. The collusion is the result of trying to make an art that transcends this problem.

In 2005, in an essay entitled Endingness, I wrote the following: “the possibility of thinking about and making artworks that are, at the same time, a visual and conceptual metaphor of perspective, a perspectival method of self-representation in time both conceptually and visually, and a philosophical meditation of our location in the world —a perspectivizational vehicle— for any viewer. In other words, a new art of memory that is able to provide, in its own intuitive and analytical introspection, a perspective of perspective itself.

The challenge for the art to come is perhaps to negotiate this construction of a format within which we can make works that contain their own time, their autonomous art history and logic without becoming incomprehensible or unrelated to external or collective narratives. In other words, be able to negotiate our romantic anxiety of permanent preservation with the equally romantic notion that we make art that is only about the moment. I would argue that neither of those ideas are completely attainable. We can’t preserve forever because the time/location context are irreproducible; and we can’t make art only about the moment because art only exists in a perceptual time continuum. It would be like having a conversation with someone who has no memory.

Going back to that conversation with the art teacher from lagos, who asked about how she could make contemporary art, I thought appropriate to say that, even though it is important and potentially enriching to learn about today’s art tendencies, just to make “contemporary art” out of imitation does not make much sense specially when one has not assimilated or understood the codes and references that constitute the visual vocabulary of this art. And whereas it is not desirable to promote a cultural agenda that sticks only to traditional forms, it is equally counter-productive to make conceptual art only because it is the kind of art made elsewhere.

However, I realized at that point that I had already inserted the bug of postmodern self-consciousness in this woman, from which there is no cure. I somehow felt I had contaminated that well-preserved past believed to be present in that location with the notion of evolution in art, which in it of itself may already be an antiquated idea.

I had the selfish impulse of going even further and saying no, that contemporary art, performance art, conceptual art should all be forbidden in Lagos, and that nothing ever should change there because there were already too many places where everything changes and that change only seems to generate uniformity of thought and creativity. Lagos is one of those cities of permanence, not of change, with all the good and bad things that come with this characteristic. And although it may appear evil to wish a state of inertia to any place (and aside to the fact that I was carrying with me the virus of contemporary art), at that time I left Lagos with a feeling of sadness, of not wanting to loose that parenthesis of memory that is symbolized by that unusual house and its countless family items, in a city that is well guarded by the hills of Jalisco and the ignorance of Lonely Planet. But those barriers of timelessness there are quickly eroding, as it is shown by the arrival of Wal-mart and of two U.S. chains (KFC and Domino’s) in the main plaza, along with two or three internet cafes. I am also well aware that the Lagos of my childhood, as the childhood places of every person, exist more in my mind than in the actual city, and perhaps my reaction is nothing else than the acknowledgement that the present finally invaded the last frontier of my private memories and my most intimate unrest. In any case, I pleaded to Carlos to help keep the oversized head of Pedro Moreno at the entrance of the town, perhaps not in the spirit of celebrating the local hero, but maybe as a celebration of those wonderful historic misunderstandings and the glorious jewels still protected by forgetfulness.

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