Early this year, art became the center of a controversy in Mexico. Conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco, who had previously started the most heated debate about the path contemporary art has recently taken and if it these pieces can really be considered art, presented a new exhibition at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City. It’s well known that contemporary art tends to be contrasting and a bit baffling at times, but it seems that this incendiary artist has crossed the line this time.
He put together a functioning replica of a very popular convenience store in Mexico. People attending the gallery were given fake money, similar to the Mexican peso and the American dollar, and they could buy any of the products exhibited there. Basically, he opened a convenience store and some of the items would have a special sticker showing it was his work. So how much would you pay for his work? Some of his pieces can go from 5 to 50,000 dollars, so we’ll let that sink in for a while.
So, what’s the point of all this? He just wanted to start a debate on the commercialization of art and how it acquires value through marketing. He wanted to show how contemporary artist base their art solely on their name and the brand they’ve built around it. Art is just a new currency, a product that is consumed and bought. So can a couple of stickers and a store built in a gallery be called “art”? My personal answer is no, but many do see art as a concept that is open to interpretation. So, basically I leave it up to you.
Orozco isn’t the only one exploring this idea through contemporary art, Fritzia Irízar has based her artistic career on this subject, which then takes us to one specific piece titled: [Untitled (Nature of Imitation)]. Similar to Orozco’s convenience store, she wanted to question the importance society places on material assets versus people’s lives.
As a Mexican-based artist, she has been exposed to the contrasting economic classes and the uneven distribution of wealth in the country. To expose this discrepancy, she asked an indigenous community, known as the Tarahumaras, to donate a piece of their hair and, through a complex carbon extraction process, she turned it into an artificial diamond. She also took pieces of hair and sent them to a lab to analyze nutrient levels. The results were disheartening, they suffered from severe malnutrition.
The diamond exposes the economic inequality of the country and the value we bestow on things. The idea of a diamond as a symbol of wealth, luxury, and status, is contrasted with the basic needs this indigenous community lacks.
It exposes our complete apathy for the people who suffer to create these pieces. Historically, diamonds are dipped in controversy. On the one hand, they convey the famous “diamond in the rough” image where beauty is hidden in the ordinary. On the other diamonds tell a tragic story of exploitation, colonialism, and crimes against humanity.
The piece itself is extremely valuable, not because of what it is, but the human code used to create it. Within this DNA code lies Mexico’s greatest wealth: its cultures spanning thousands of years and which are now dwindling away because of this indifference and apathy. In some way, by turning this into a precious stone, the artist is immortalizing the cultural essence of the country, and, naturally, this essence not only includes all the rich and beautiful traditions and cultures, but also its inequality and abuse, just like regular diamonds.
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