On ViewMoMA PS1
April 15 – September 20, 2018
You take slow, experimental steps back and forth, waving your hands in front of things that might be sensors, but the two mechanical monarch butterflies of Papalutzin (2011)—whose wing patterns emerge from repurposed soda cans—are stoic. After you have moved on to other sculptures, maybe ten minutes pass, and you turn your head to glimpse the slow opening and closing of one butterfly’s wings, which might have gone un-witnessed.
In Ixtli in Yollotl, We the People is an exhibition of work made over the past two decades by Mexican artist and mechanical engineer Fernando Palma Rodríguez. Each of the mechanical-alchemical sculptures in the exhibition is rigged with light or ultrasonic sensors to be activated by observing bodies, which thereby become interacting bodies. The sophistication of these mechanical contraptions is offset by a messy patchwork aesthetic of extension leads and circuit boards, painted cardboard animal heads, and natural materials like rocks, dirt, hair, and feathers. Cheap plastic toys are glued on, and animalistic forms are cobbled together from recycled materials like scaly-green garden hoses and brightly colored aluminum food packaging.
Palma Rodríguez’s research into indigenous Mexican cultures, languages, and worldviews—in which animation often isn’t reserved for “living” beings—finds unlikely expression in this interactive mechanical environment. In Soldado (2001), an open hand is drawn with pencil on a square of plywood hanging on the wall, two eye-like sensors in its palm. When you get close enough to meet it with your own hand, you notice its drawn contours are made of little snakes—nestled, curving, and hissing: an animal whose presence is the sudden, unsettling shifting in the corner of your eye. And then the sculpture hooked up to the hand starts moving—a delicately bobbling cardboard coyote head, fearsome, yet endearing, shuffling slowly backwards on clumsy metal legs.
These creations appear like the awkward, misbegotten offspring of two antipathetic belief systems: the deeply spiritual and animistic Nahua worldview collides with that of the modern industrial west, in which even living beings tend to be treated more like mechanical (and distinct) systems. Here, animation is mechanical but the machine becomes magical: electrical guts hang out everywhere, extension cords link one piece to the next like a trickle of groundwater, but transparency of mechanism (our position of “knowing”) does not diminish the myth and mystery of these symbolic, enigmatic objects. In one 2017 sculpture—its title six lines of un-translated Nahuatl verse—a stone skull protrudes from a slab-like stone torso adorned with a necklace of large stones. The being’s mechanical arms end in curled, talon-like fingers made of garden hose. Its right hand spins a small wooden chair, while in its left it shakes a stone in an open palm like a dice about to be thrown. Stones carved with frog faces sit on its shoulders, while stones painted red are strewn on the ground next to a tied bundle of reeds.
The chair is a recurring motif, possibly a marker of the human project of verticality—the process of rising, or aspiring to rise, above the earth. In Axcan Zan Niman (2011)—one of two paintings with light-up electronic elements—flashing neon chairs furnish both the depths and the surface of a cosmic clod of earth. This clod is tugged into the sky—neatly, like a slice of cake—by the clutch of tree roots which dangle just beyond its edges. Realistically painted, outsized fall leaves drift away from a digital trunk, rendered like a glitching computer graphic. The clod has glitches, too, replaced by Mondrianesque geometrical segments in primary colors. Sitting on chairs, above the earth, does not exempt us from nature’s cycles of death and rebirth.
A wall painting made for the show represents the Nahua hieroglyph that provides its title: In Ixtli in Yollotl. Translating literally to “his eye, his heart,” this schematized, cartoonish painting shows the two titular organs wielded in two floating hands like rattles—a grasp of personhood filtered through an all-pervasive sacred and ceremonial mode of engagement. Palma Rodríguez’s yoking of this phrase to the constitutional language of “We the People” seems to posit a middle ground between settler and native worldviews commonly perceived to relate only in the antagonistic mode of colonizer and colonized.
Their more complex interrelationship is emphasized by a 2004 sculpture, Techpactia tlein quipano ipan Milpa Alta, in which a life-size wooden horse lies on its side on a mound of dirt, struck by arrows, twitching and dying. Wall text relays that the horse—an animal essential to both native and settler populations—became extinct in North America several thousand years ago, before its reintroduction by the Spanish in 1493. Our stories, like the lines between mechanical and spiritual, are not so clear cut.