by David Theis
In Mexico, as in the United States, art exhibitions sometimes have the power to stir public protest. In the late 1980s, an exhibition of post-modern, mostly playful images of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Guadalupe in a bikini, etc.) at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno brought out crowds of angry guadalupanos, who managed to shut down the exhibit. For gringos, the Guadalupe/Moderno affair echoed the flap over photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” image. More recently, Mexico has experienced a culture war that has rocked not only the world of the intelligentsia, but the nation itself.
In 2002 photographer Daniela Rossell published a book called Ricas y Famosas. Her 89 color-saturated images of decadent upper-class women (actually, there are a few pictures of men, and a few from outside Mexico) provoked a round of soul-searching on the part of public intellectuals such as we seldom, if ever, see north of the border—at least not in response to art. It seemed as if every cultural figure in Mexico passed judgment on these photographs of women and their kitsch religion, and their kitsch sex, and their kitsch houses. Or rather, on what the photographs revealed about the country itself. How could such concentrated wealth, ostentation, and vulgarity coexist with the poverty and dignity of the masses? How could the Mexican rich be so crass and heartless as to flaunt their wealth and bad taste in this way? Is their impunity such that they don’t fear judgment on any level, legal, moral, or aesthetic? There are no answers to these questions, but at least we can see what the fuss was all about. Ricas y Famosas, an exhibition of photographs from the book of the same name, is on view at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery through June 13.
In Mexico Rossell’s photography touched a nerve in part because she was chronicling not just the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” but because the ricas y famosas were the literal heirs—the grandchildren and great-grandchildren —of the Mexican Revolution, which continues to be of sacred memory, even decades after it ground to an effective close. More precisely, the subjects of her photographs are the descendants of the politicians who oversaw the Revolution’s demise. Yes, that hard-looking young blonde who has one foot propped up on the head of a stuffed male lion, and who is dressed in a “Peep Show #1.00” tennis shirt, is the granddaughter of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. As President of the Republic in 1968, Díaz Ordaz ordered the pre-Olympics massacre that killed hundreds at Mexico City’s Plaza de Tlatelolco (after which it was hard to talk about a humanistic revolution with a straight face). And one of the few men depicted in the book is the son of disgraced president Carlos Salinas, whose maldito administration applied the final punctuation mark to the Revolution.
Rossell’s photographs didn’t celebrate the triumph of the oligarchy—far from it—but they did rub the painful truth in Mexico’s collective face.
Apparently many of her subjects were not amused. Rossell belongs to the same milieu as her subjects; friends and relatives obviously trusted her completely. Since the book was published she’s lost a lot of friends and has even been the subject of death threats. “Mostly from women in Monterrey,” she once told an interviewer.
Rossell herself is an interesting case. She grew up a member of the upper-class, but as a teenager took up art, studying painting in the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City, and theater in UNAM’s famed drama program.
Considering all the publicity she stirred up, Rossell keeps a rather doggedly low profile. About herself, she’s said that she has “trouble talking,” and that she started playing around with cameras as an alternative form of communication. She says that she first realized that she had a full-blown art project on her hands when she took some early, but surprisingly revealing photos of relatives to her psychiatrist, who encouraged her to keep going.
Using her theater skills to stage fantastically intricate tableaux—the ricas y famosas photos are more about setting than about the women per se—Rossell set out to photograph “the smallest minority in Mexico, the ultra-rich,” as she has described her project. (In her few pronouncements, it’s hard to tell just how firmly she has a tongue planted in her cheek—I’d say it was pretty deeply.)
Critics have called her work anthropological, as if Rossell were intruding on an exotic tribe. But the scenes are so fantastically artificial—a harem from 1001 Nights, numerous girls seated to look like a member of their own doll collection—that it’s a rather strange anthropology, one in which the subjects are hyper-aware of the investigation.
Rossell has said that her subjects took eager part in the creation of their personas: “It was easy to get them to pose.” In the brief foreword to her book, she declares, “The following images depict actual settings. The photographic subjects are representing themselves. Any resemblance with real events is not coincidental.”
So, why the death threats? Perhaps the photographs, once published, served as a kind of truth-telling mirror for some of the women. Some have said they simply object to the project’s ironic title. “I’m rich, but not famous,” one subject has said.
But there’s no doubt that Rossell knew what she was doing. She had had her own epiphany regarding inherited wealth and the meaning of life long before. She certainly knew how decadent, and even depraved, her “friends” were going to look. According to the Mexico City daily La Jornada, to guard her privacy, Rossell took the rather unusual step of hiring an actress to “play” her at the book’s presentation to the press. She staged the press conference like a play, with written dialogue for the actress. Rossell pretended to be a reporter.
So yes, she likes to make her points, and she likes to have her fun.
But what about the photographs themselves, as stand-alone works of art?
Frankly, on my first visit to the Blaffer, I was disappointed. After all the hoopla, the images didn’t seem quite horrifying enough. I had to admit that they were well composed, and that Rossell used shadow about as effectively as you can in color photography. Still, the images looked so much alike—carefully framed, with oversaturated colors, and lots of stuffed animals (both of the teddy bear and the wild-game trophy varieties), and lots of obviously ironic religious paraphernalia, and extra lots of suggestive but un-sexy poses—that the oversized prints blended together for me, with a couple of notable exceptions.
One young woman is more menacing than her sisters. Seated on a saddle-chair, her feet resting on the stuffed remains of a crocodile (alligator?), cowboy hat perched on her head, she stares in utter insolence at the camera while she flicks cigarette ash on the croc. This image makes the most overt statement of any in the exhibition because, behind the “rider,” we see a portrait of Zapata. The old horseman’s eyes look a little sadder than usual.
In another photo, the same woman squats in front of an oversized crucifix, grinning widely as her male dachshund humps his female companion. There’s even a pink flash of unsheathed dog penis. And then there’s the picture of four young women (including, I think, the bad girl of the above described photos) chowing down on a boxful of communion wafers.
But by and large the photos are indistinguishable. The subjects are not identified, and the images are not titled, so you’re own your own when trying to make sense of them.
But on a second and third viewing, the theatrical quality of the photos kicked in, and the women inside them started to move. Yes, they are as decadent as all hell, and you do wish the once holy Revolution had bequeathed Mexico with more ethically developed heirs. But there’s pathos here as well. The women apparently see themselves as dangerously seductive, but the harder you look, the less glamorous they appear. Not particularly beautiful, sometimes physically coarse, they are more creatures of the telenovela than of Hollywood. The fantasy that they’re aiming for is hardly worthy of a life’s work.
And some of the women who had at first seemed to be straining pitifully hard to present themselves as pouting sex kittens now look to me like they’re in on Rossell’s joke, and that they’re not taking themselves as seriously as the rest of Mexico did.
All in all, this is a more ambiguous show than I’d originally expected.
David Theis is the author of a novel, Rio Ganges, set in Mexico. He lives in Houston.