Concerning Berenice Olmedo’s brutal idealism

Stefano Pirovano

Following up Berenice Olmedo’s first gallery show (at Jan Kaps) we asked the artist’s help to start our inquiry into the increasing role of ethics in art.

Berenice Olmedo, who is 31-year-old and lives in Mexico, has hardly ever been to an art fair – well, once she visited Zona Maco in Mexico City and she wasn’t at all impressed by that. But this is not a bad thing. On the contrary, when you come across her work you immediately feel you are experiencing something pure, spontaneous, bold and unashamedly straightforward. And to get an idea of what we mean it is enough to mention a couple of her pieces: the project with Mexican stray dogs, with which Olmedo took part to the Ars Electronica festival in 2017, and her solo show at Jan Kaps, in Koln, where the artist challenged contemporary art’s ordinary rhetoric with a work that if on the formal level appears to be even kind, it is almost brutal as far as the meaning is concerned. This is why we ought to proceed carefully.

Berenice Olmedo has never been to an art fair, as we said, but she has been painting since she was a young girl, thanks to her parents – her father is a journalist, her mother works for the government – who, as a child, have prompted her to traditional techniques. ‘Thus, the moment I decided I would have studied fine arts at university, I was already painting for eight hours a day’ she tells us. Of the university time at Universidad de las Américas of Puebla she remembers the advantage of the various departments gathered in the same place, so different disciplines could enrich each other. ‘I was studying fine arts, but I also had the opportunity to work in the biology’s lab, for instance, and to carry out researches with professors from subjects other than art’. So the project with stray dogs was born, documented by a video relating how Olmedo, through picking up corpses of dogs that had been run over, highlights the legal status of the dogs deemed as a mere objects by the Mexican Federal Civil Code. From dogs’ dead bodies the artist makes various products, including soap, shoes, a mantle, a jacket, a pair of boots; that is, similar articles to those that the industry silently extracts from farm animals. The video has many cruel passages, nonetheless there is such an innocence in the way the artist picks up the dead bodies from the street, skins the animals, isolates the body fat, or performs the processes of tanning that she manages to raise the discourse to a level that leaves nothing to the initial brutality. Quite the contrary, through the positive frankness of manual work (Olmedo des everything herself under the supervision of an expert), the artist refers to the hypocrisy our society hides behind, simply being content with ‘not seeing’, and perhaps ‘not knowing’. The visual ‘violence’ the viewer is exposed to has a very precise aim, therefore it is largely justified. The process ends up with the artist taking the ‘products’ of her transformation to the public market of Analco, in the city of Puebla, in order to show them, however not like artworks – that is what in the end Wim Delvoye and Damien Hirst did, just to name two artists who have worked with dead animals – but like everyday objects that, in this case, are addressing the illegal traffic of living dogs that is typical if the Analco market.

Hence it comes as no surprise that this project is rooted in the work of socially engaged philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze or Giorgio Agamben. Olmedo studied them with professors Laurence Le Bouhellec and Alberto López Cuenca at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, and later with philosopher María Antonia González Valerio, who teaches at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and researches in the field bio-media-based art. Olmedo has pursued her academic path with her; and this is the very same path that leads her to manifest at once her support for the new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (political party founded by Lopez Obrador in 2014). After all, when we ask Berenice Olmedo what making art means for her the artist replies: ‘art is an horizon of thinking, and entails all the possibilities and prospects of life, as well as the social and political issues’.

Berenice Olmedo’s first exhibition in an art gallery, which ended just a couple of weeks ago, took place at Jan Kaps in Koln. Before that it was mainly about festivals and institutions, and the healthy dialectic between art and art market that nests inside her work emerged only in occasion of a piece that Olmedo developed in collaboration with the inhabitants of the barrio Tepito, a poor, working-class yet fierce neighborhood of Mexico City, from which the artist has extracted a series of audio recordings, which has then organised in a sound installation presented at MUCA-Roma and at Casa Barrio Tepito, in Tepito. The project questions the Poleana, a board game of tactics and strategy that is played in the popular colonies and prisons of Mexico City. ‘At some point a journalist came up to me and asked me if my work wasn’t actually canceling out those same contents I gathered from the street and placed in the art context. I told him that I don’t think there is a place which is more suitable than another to show, or talk about certain issues. On the contrary, I’m interested in checking whether it is possible to tackle such challenging topics within the circuit of museums and art galleries’. And this is indeed an important problem. On the one hand, art keeps on being a fundamental place for freedom of thought and opinion; on the other, the exacerbation of the art market has made this space certainly less open than it used to be. ‘At some point we may realize that – continues Olmedo – part of the profits coming from the sale of certain artworks should be devoted to the realities that these pieces actually present or represent, or to the institutions, associations or persons working for fighting problems like physical disability, economic disadvantage, or lack of education’. Now, someone could remark that art galleries are commercial agencies and that artists only exist the moment they enter the market. This however makes no material difference, quite the contrary. During an epoch of enormous inequalities, and the resulting weakening of democratic powers, the ethical value of art becomes, if anything, even more central and determinant also for art galleries, which seem to be more and more similar, as far as their primary functions are concerned, to what museums have been in the second half of the 20th century.

Within this frame, the extreme idealism of Berenice Olmedo appears thus appropriate. The human prostheses presented at Jan Kaps are, before than being an effective metaphor, the expression of a ethical position within a specific context (the topic of architecture is also very dear to Olmedo). The construction of Olga, a central piece in the show, required the collaboration of three engineers in order for it to work. The ‘useless machine’ stands up and falls again. It doesn’t move the limbs of the child the pieces have been thought for, but his absence, as well as the living space that the child would have occupied. Are our eyes unable to see? Like the dead dogs’ remains, so the ‘missing’ disables. The artist somehow persuades us to look. And she will manage to do so even in the new project she is currently working on, a ‘science fiction crime’ whose protagonists are lab rats suspected of killing the scientists who were using them for their researches. ‘I’m not interested in beauty as such, but in something in between being amazing and being dangerous’, says Olmedo. And this is perhaps the best key to access an artistic practice that up to now has succeeded in marrying the strength of the topics the artist deals with and the kind of positive lightness Italo Calvino talks about in his American lessons.

June 22, 2021