Poetics of Failure: A correspondence with Joaquin Segura

Exercises on Selective Mutism 2012. (Installation view) Handmade protest banners, wood, rope, steel wire & latex paint

SS: In a recent interview with Brett W Schultz you state:

“As I've made clear in the past, I don't really believe in the notion of 'identity' or the idea of 'nation', which I find totally laughable and heartwarmingly passé. I'm convinced that these are totally outdated models of understanding our differences and similarities, expanding our already immense and irreconcilable cultural abysses instead of bringing them together, thus resulting in their total dispersion among the complex and extremely arbitrary weaving of contemporary social nucleii. Pretty much a frankly bad joke, if I may say so. The fact that I live and work in Mexico is a completely random geographical and temporal factor, which of course affects what I think and what I do, but I've chosen not to be limited by this specific circumstance. In the past, while working abroad, I've taken advantage of this preconception of Mexico—to be more exact, pretty much all of Latin America—as one of the last barbaric bastions of western civilization. Totally amusing, if you ask me about it. I consider my practice to be, among other things, a gonzo strategy of deceit: there are quite a few roles you can adopt in this approach that may actually reveal themselves to be a privileged vantage point. In my experience, the gentle savage is one of the most effective ones to establish my standing position. Thus, I'm a Mexican artist if I need it to prove my point. If it's not necessary in a specific circumstance, I'm not. Quite simple, I think. Said in other words, it's just an ace I can play to win a particular match. It has worked so far, at least for me.” [1]

I am also very interested in the idea of postnationalism that you refer to in the above quote, and am trying to a get a sense of the idea as it exists beyond political theory. I know that when I'm working in Sydney I tend to feel quite confined, entrapped. Like you, I take no truck in the notion of 'identity' or 'nation', however sometimes when I'm working abroad I have a sense of being 'made in Australia', in that certain events and ideas have shaped the concerns that I find myself returning to.

JS: I’ve spent much time lately thinking about those very notions you touch on. Overall, I think the importance we consciously or unconsciously convey to localisms may be, in the end, a survival strategy. It may very well represent a desperate attempt to rely on uniqueness as an exchange token in the market of symbolic capital. In other words, to make a rather fragmented context mean something somehow. In the end, perhaps we’ll be able to see it from a distance and perceive that it always was about totalitarian systems of thought — in every sense you can possibly imagine. This is exactly what I refer to when stating that perhaps we must adopt our cultural differences and use them as a departure point to attempt to empathize with everyone else. Which may very well be a botched battle from the start, but hey, we can try and no one can blame us for that.

Untitled 2012 from the series The Messiah Syndrome

Along with postnationalism, the idea of failed states is one that has been haunting me over the past few years. I consider my work to be a sketch on some sort of poetics of failure and disenchantment. There are a few key concepts that I’ve briefly incorporated along this glorification of downfall: impossibility, absurd and nonsense as vital driving force behind any human act. Wherever this may have taken me, I’m always experiencing a deep feeling of disenfranchisement; not as something I’ve been pushed to but as a strongly personal choice. After all, I may be more interested on the sole existence of these concepts as an idea. I’ve grown sick of the idea of contemporary art as a tool or platform striving towards meaningful social change. Not at all. I don’t believe in change, I believe in failure. I’m strongly convinced that if you’re actually interested in bringing down any social structure you should take the streets and torch a car — not work within the safe limits of a studio, producing commodified objects that are easily integrated into a market dynamic that actually relies on harsh ‘critique’ to reinforce itself.

I think my work is, indeed, an attempt to deceive, understood as an effort to get rid of the sociopolitical framework that took us — or me at least — to this point in history.

SS: You’ve exhibited in a number of prestigious shows, received several prizes and garnered international acclaim, yet when Laura and I contacted the Mexican consulate here in an attempt to bring you out as a representative of the country's ‘dynamic contemporary arts scene’ we suspect you weren't the kind of artist they had in mind.

JS: Quite fair. I could perfectly imagine that. It would be totally natural as I do think I’m not really the artist I myself expected to be.

I believe the situation is of course far more complex and I view it as the logical outcome of the strategy I’ve devised over the past few years. I think I am now where I wanted to be some time ago. My practice relies on understanding legitimating structures, the way they’re built and how they operate. The next step is to use these conjectures – however deep or superficial they may prove – to cause a collision within the structure itself. I’m absolutely repelled by the idea of state and institution. I cannot deny that I’ve received support from institutional structures in the past – and continue to do so – but I don’t see this as a contradiction to what I’m stating in these few lines. I think it is one of the most pressing duties of a contemporary artist nowadays: confront, discomfort and challenge. Although I can always wear a mariachi hat and drink my brains out if strictly necessary.

For the Grace of God 2012

SS: I'd like to discuss how artists operate in largely self-determined ways, but are obliged to make certain concessions in order to secure institutional support. Certainly there are a number of artists that have come out of Mexico over the last decade that have achieved international acclaim that contribute to the perception of the country as an incubator for subversive or confrontational practices. Immediately I think of Teresa Margolles and Yoshua Okón, alongside Santiago Sierra when he was there in the 1990s. It gives the impression that the Mexican art world has a lot of game, however it seems works that overtly critique the ironies and extremes of contemporary Mexican life still ruffle some feathers?

JS: My generation seems to be located at this unbelievably complex point in which we are situated in a privileged position where we are beginning to enjoy a fair part of the attention the artists you very well mention attracted initially because of their provocative modus operandi, not only practice-wise, but as icons of rupture. It’s just that it turns out this has not been as positive as it sounds. I can see that the excessive attention brought down on Mexican contemporary art in the past few years has contributed to what I think is a certain loss of edge; at least in the younger artists that came after — and from which I’m undeniably part of, willingly or not. Think of it as the unavoidable hangover after a rather eventful night out. A process of normalisation; but I think that happens to any particular energy that might have taken you by surprise at a certain time.

Truth is you can’t really have fun all the time. There’s a moment in which you are forced to stop and reflect; this may very well be the actual point where we failed as a generation. Yes, the artists you mention all paved the way but there is one point when my generation should have taken command, or at least share their provocative mindsets, not just get the free drinks. I think we missed that critical moment – perhaps it happened over a museum cocktail or during the annual Mexico City art fair-; even though, it’s definitely not too late. I think there are still a rather solid group of artists sharing this set of concerns: think of Artemio, Ruben Gutierrez, or younger artists like Cristian Franco or Edgar Cobian. These are some of the most cynical, interesting and challenging people over there. They’re just not too interested in the spotlight but boy, are they interested in fucking stuff up. Talk about professional suicide, and then again, maybe not. Maybe we’re part of the same problem, just sold in a different package.

SS: Obviously, different strokes appeal to different folks and art audiences are as varied as the artists they endorse. There has been a buzz around contemporary art in Mexico in recent years. Cuauhtémoc Medina, who was in Australia earlier this year (2012) to discuss his curatorial projects including this year's Manifesta, has also been subject to your critical provocations? Could you describe what happened?

JS: This is a long story, and a rather funny one. I still believe that the contemporary art apparatus in Mexico has definitely a univocal operating procedure. What is meant to be a dialogue doesn’t really constitute one; it’s pretty much about implanting standards through pontification and submission. A few years back, me and a fellow young artist with whom I used to collaborate back then talked a lot about this; how the figure of the few Mexican art critics we had were pretty much quasi-religious icons; untouchable and unattainable, with the power to demolish or project a young artist’s career to the stratosphere with the almighty touch of their magnanimous pens and rather ambiguous writings. This, rather than frustrating, was absolutely amusing to me. I’ve always been interested in the nature of any form of power, its inner workings and how it is obtained. So we were on a cigarette break during the installation of Damien Hirst’s first Mexican show where we both functioned as glorified laborers and we came up with this idea of making a Buddha sculpture in the likeness of Cuauhtémoc Medina, who as you very well mention, is a Mexican curator with a highly international profile, in Latin America and pretty much everywhere else. This was because, at least to us, he was the most visible face of this apparatus we were trying to understand and challenge. What follows next could take up the whole extension of this interview, so I won’t go into any further detail, but it was rather revealing. Cuauhtémoc got the joke after some time and he even had one of those over at his place at some point. I don’t know if he still does. In the name of truth, he wasn’t delighted at all when all this happened, but I guess he thought it over and understood our exact point: we live among constructs and even when some may be taken as absolute truths, there’s nothing like that anywhere. The position he occupies is just one of those constructions. It was really never personal. Absolutely everything is there to be challenged, denied and taken down. At any cost.

Cuauhtémoc Buddha 2006 Joaquin Segura & Renato Garza Collaboration

SS: You are also on record for being critical of the international art figure Gabriel Orozco for claiming to be a Mexican? For me your position on 'being Mexican' is somewhat confusing. In a recent email you indicated that you think it was time for you to get out of Mexico for a while. Why so? Is Mexico still home?

JS: I think being Mexican is not really what is confusing; Mexico is. Call it a love-relationship if you will, but I’m convinced that the whole place is falling to pieces. Which is really exciting from a certain point of view but it’s also consuming and exhausting. My interest on Gabriel Orozco is not really on the particular aesthetic he has managed to create and cultivate in the past couple decades, although I mostly consider it to be a highly exoticizing and marketable take on the improvised spirit that permeates our country — or whatever the hell it can be called now. In other words, it’s always about politics. I’m rather intrigued on the position he built from himself in the Mexican art circuit and how at some point everything else seemed to revolve around him. I don’t believe he’s the demi-god a handful of people think he is. I believe he stopped making interesting work years ago; as I don’t believe in the possibility of poetry, I consider his ‘highly-poetic’ practice to be rather corny and pseudo-nostalgic. But it’s undeniable he knew how to play his cards; deciphering the trick is way more appealing to me than a clay lump held by a bare-chested guy.

I don’t know if Mexico is home, as I don’t know if it ever was. It’s definitely a place I understand despite all its blatant contradictions, rampant disparities and unbelievable energy in other aspects. It’s a place where I can think and make work but it’s so demanding on a daily basis that I also feel I should establish distance and learn to relate to this non-territory from away. It’s one thing to believe in the seductiveness of disaster and chaos and a completely different one actually facing it day to day. I guess I’ll always go back there one way or another; after all, food is good and ladies are quite alright. Beer is also dirt-cheap.

Untitled (Gringo Loco) 2009

SS: Early in your career you earned a reputation as a provocative upstart. One incident in particular concerns the work Untitled (Gringo Loco) (2009), an exact replica of the sign that welcomes visitors to Las Vegas that reads “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” in lights. Your homage however reads “Fuck Off You Chili-eatin' Gringo Loco Up Your Ass”. Given the history and politics of the region I'd expect that a degree of antagonism towards the US is quite the norm in Mexico, so I was surprised to learn that your sign is was more specifically concerned with issues surrounding a proposed Guggenheim Museum in the city of Guadalajara, and was commissioned by the city itself. Days before the project opened the Mayor of Guadalajara de-authorised your work and had the police escort you from the site where you were installing at gunpoint.

JS: The whole thing was actually a joint project between Arena Mexico, my gallery in Guadalajara, and the city cultural commission. It included a show in a state-operated space that displayed work from a period of about eight years, a second exhibition in the gallery showcasing all new projects, the public sculpture you mention and a three day seminar with fellow artists, curators and writers around the themes that inform my production. We worked on that for almost a year and in the end that was what made me come to Guadalajara in the first place as I had spent most of that year in Los Angeles and trying to cover all that from a distance proved a bit complicated. To cut a long story short, yeah, you got the facts pretty pinned down. The city pulled off just before the unveiling of the sculpture claiming they were not aware of the actual content of the sculpture, but hey, the secretary of culture himself participated in the press conference on the whole thing. After that, they clumsily sabotaged the rest of the program as was widely documented in local and national press and pretty much enacted what came out to be a poorly acted slapstick sketch. That was a bit amusing actually. This guy was so paranoid about everything that was going on that he was sure we were taping all our conversations with him to bring him down. It wasn’t really necessary. He was stupid enough to do it by himself, we just watched.

SS: It was a dramatic sequence of events, was there any other fall out?

JS: Not really, although I would say my relationship to official exhibition spaces in Guadalajara became a bit complicated. Not that I particularly care. They would still invite me to develop projects but they never happened, such as the exhibition that I was asked to propose to the Museo de Arte de Zapopan in 2011 and in which I spent months working, with lots of genuinely interested people collaborating in the project, just to have it put on hold a few weeks before actual production, allegedly because of ‘adverse political climate’ in words of its director. Now, that makes me wonder what the ideal political climate for contemporary art might be?

SS: This incident adds an extra layer of irony to the work – which I understand you have exhibited recently (where?) – but anecdotes such as these also serve to affirm a perception of Mexico that is, as you say, ‘one of the last barbaric bastions of western civilization.’

JS: The sculpture remains unseen as we speak. There have been a number of proposals to show it here and there but for some reason, they never seem to go ahead. It doesn’t really bother me at all. The sculpture is stored in this beautiful open-air workshop, with weed growing all around it, as in a carefully controlled decay process. I think that perhaps that’s the way some works should function: as a trigger in ad-lib socio-political experiments and not as objects with an exchange value within the art market. The physical work itself was important because that was what made everything happen, but when it all ended, perhaps it’s nothing else but a fancy souvenir. Quite bulky too.

SS: Are there plans to show it in Guadalajara?

JS: God, no. Although messing with cultural officers and city authorities is actually my idea of good old-natured fun, it takes too much time and I’m a bit busy at the moment. They must wait. Maybe in a couple years I’ll be back for round two.

SS: The Guggenheim franchise has also copped some criticism of late over human rights violations of workers building the museum in Abu Dhabi. Given your recent escalating status if you were commissioned to produce a work for the Guggenheim, what would you do?

JS: Something absurdly huge and expensive. Something horrid and pointless, I guess. Those all seem to be prerequisites for almost any public project financed by an institution of the sort. Which is not necessarily bad at all; it can still be fun.

Things left unsaid (but not forgotten) #1  2011

SS: I was in Mexico over 2010—11, a period of time marked by celebrations for the bicentenary of Independence and the centenary of the Revolution, but also as violence between warring organised crime cartels — the so called 'Narco Wars' — escalated at an alarming rate. The regularity of killings, the very visible and often formally arranged displays of death, the trophy videos and narco communiqués were both horrific and banal, and often the topic of conversation – to paraphrase Margolles, ‘what else is there to talk about?’ However, I was also very conscious of being a gringo and commenting on a situation that I could simply walk away from.

JS: That’s perfectly ok. I do think it’s a privileged position but when I find myself in a similar stance, I have no prejudice towards using it in my own favor when confronting a specific set of problems in a different context than the ones I’m used to operate in. We should pretty much take advantage of that when located in that liminal point when you can enunciate a clear statement even though there are aspects of it that may or may not reveal themselves at the time. After all, and talking specifically about what you saw in Mexico, a severed head in an ice cooler is pretty much universal.

SS: We first met at the opening of Simon Fujiwara's exhibition at Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City where he premiered the work Letters from Mexico (2011). Letters… is a series of semifictional missives addressed to ‘Yorop’ Fujiwara’s observations (and deliriums) as he travelled to sites of historical significance over the last days of 2010 – a year that marked the bicentenary of Independence, and the centenary of the Revolution. Fujiwara had dictated his thoughts touching on colonial legacies and class discrepancies, in English, to street typists who transcribed his words as a phonetic Spanglish that needs to be read out aloud to be understood. Fujiwara’s account takes some clever narrative turns and there is a final twist where the typists themselves revolt.

Fujiwara often presents his work as an autobiographical fiction playing off his mixed race heritage, and cosmopolitan upbringing with homoerotic figurations and gestures. He has become something of a pin-up boy for “multiethnic, multidisciplinary”[2] postnational practices; a globe-trotting transcultural commentator, who teases out the ironies of race, identity, sexuality and history via a self-reflexive ficto-critique.

I still think of Letters.. as a rather elegant collaboration, that makes use of mistranslation and self-effacing humour, but I recall the patrons were divided?

JS: I found it to perfectly fit with one of my most personally dreaded sub-genres of recent contemporary art in Mexico – el arte de turistas. Famously practiced by Gabriel Orozco, a tourist in his own country, yes, but with a solid following in the years after him. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a Ryan Gander invite for his show in a major Mexican museum. It displayed three bottles of local soft drinks lined up on a rosa mexicano coloured tablecloth at a street restaurant somewhere in Mexico. The show was actually named after the combination of the beverage’s brand names. Really? I don’t think that postnationalism has anything to do with exoticisation at all. I think it actually has to do with the denial of that exact same notion.


[1] Schultz, Brett W. “Gonzo Strategies of Deceit: An Interview with Joaquin Segura”, continent. 1.2, 2011, pp 117-124.
[2] Morgan, Jessica “Simon Fujiwara”, Artforum International September 2010.


An edited version of this interview was Published in Das Superpaper Issue 25: Periférico, November 2012