Why you should care
Because a gallery isn’t all white walls and stiff paintings.
The first thing you see when you walk into the gallery where Fritzia Irízar is showing her latest work is a man in a lab coat posted up at a desk, importuning you to fill out a form. You decline, distracted by the buffalo head emerging from the floor, but then notice that the stack of filled-out forms at his side don’t contain the contact information of various art aficionados. Instead, they’re an inventory of all the gold in the world.
Irízar’s “Golden Green – Greening Gold” examines our understanding of value by juxtaposing gold’s aesthetic and monetary utility to water’s life-giving properties. Irízar was shocked to learn that gold mines use thousands of gallons of water per second — even in northern Mexico, where clean water is scarce. She considers this theme throughout the exhibit: We encounter a gold-coated water sprinkler and two more lab coats — one covering animal bones with gold leaf, and one removing that leaf. Irízar’s previous work has been just as bold: She’s hidden diamonds in piles of salt, collected labor workers’ sweat and even launched a nonprofit that provides good-luck charms. A global audience is starting to take notice of her stunts. Since 2015, she’s shown her work in Brazil, Italy, Austria, Spain, France and the United States. This year she was awarded residencies at San Francisco’s Headlands Center for the Arts, Mexico’s Casa Wabi and France’s Les Récollets. Artsy named her one of the 16 Emerging Artists to Watch in 2016, and The Wall Street Journal named her one of the 5 Artists to Watch in December’s Art Basel Miami Beach.
Dena Beard, executive director of San Francisco’s The LAB, a former labor union hall turned experimental art space, calls Irízar’s work “sublimely anarchic.” Beard identifies Irízar’s attempts to challenge our notions of value as part of a contemporary artistic trend in Mexico, where many artists are examining “the savagery of capitalism and the … horrors of the state.” These cutting-edge creators are responding to a political and economic reality that has long felt as surreal and nonsensical as the current political landscape in the U.S. feels now: Think femicide, missing people and connections between government officials and drug cartels. Yoshua Okón, who founded SOMA, a prominent Mexico City–based art space, praises the “undeniable connection with real [or] social surroundings” in Irízar’s work. And Beard says it’s impossible to have a “simple white-guilt relationship with” what Irízar produces, which personally implicates its privileged audience.
She went to a notoriously poor community, asked for donations of hair and used a process of extracting carbon molecules to compress all that hair into a .02-inch diamond.
The artist herself thinks her work might be “closer to sociology than the fine arts.” After all, her path to art was a “fortunate mistake,” she says. After missing the deadline to enroll in school for humanities, she was told to “go across the street to the art school,” which turned out to be Mexico City’s La Esmeralda — National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking. And that’s what she did.
Art allowed Irízar to address large issues from a theoretical standpoint, while sometimes playing the scientist or politician (her professions in another life, she ventures). In one recent piece, “Untitled (Nature of Imitation),” for example, she went to the notoriously poor Rarámuri community and asked for donations of hair. She then used a process of extracting carbon molecules to compress all that hair into a .02-inch diamond that, next to the human materials and social interactions that went into making it, seems ridiculously inconsequential. Or consider “Untitled (Powder)”: She systematically sanded off the ink of each bill, reflecting the transience of money. Though these works can be read simply enough, initially, Irízar says her work becomes more complex “to those who are really interested” — for example, one can find meaning in the beauty of the powder made from those sanded-down bills.
It’s not easy for a nonnative English speaker in the contemporary art world. English, which Irízar knows well enough to use in her work, is everywhere from art schools to galleries. When artists are called upon to discuss their work, a grammatical slip or a strange word choice could cause them to be unfairly judged.
On the other hand, perhaps a Spanish-language art center is emerging, or reemerging, in the city Irízar has long dominated. Okón tells me that a contemporary “cultural renaissance in Mexico City started in the ’90s” but dipped in the past few years due to funding cuts and government corruption. Monica Bravo, a lecturer in the history of art and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale, has recently noticed a “renewed interest in Mexico” among North Americans and Europeans. She points out that contemporary political situations in those areas could make some flee to Latin America, producing a cosmopolitanism that resembles — if only slightly — that of the Mexican Cultural Renaissance of the 1920s.
Back in the exhibit, I watch a woman covering a reconstructed bird skeleton with gold leaf. Denial of life is everywhere: Behind me, sprinklers with a heartbeat-like rhythm eject air at a lifeless floor, and the woman refuses to talk to me. With life rejected, the inconsistencies of this system suddenly become personal. Irízar is forcing me to see how deeply surroundings implicate the individual, and asking me to pay just as close attention to the world outside.