Disponible -- a kind of Mexican show

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Across Mexico City, empty billboards reading "disponible" litter the urban skyskapes. Announcing available rental space, the billboards are a figurative sign of contemporary Mexico: full of room for advertising, without quite enough products to fill it. It is a country caught somewhere between post-colonialism and the promise of globalization, between a pervasive urban violence and a world-class cultural vibrancy. Disponible -- a kind of Mexican show at the San Francisco Art Institute's Walter McBean Gallery features four Mexican-born artists engaging with their homeland. Curated by Hou Hanru and Guillermo Santamarina, the show arrives concurrent with the bicentenary of Mexico's freedom from Spain and the centenary of their republican revolution. This is a critical and timely moment to celebrate and question what independence looks like in Mexico today.

The back gallery features two videos, one of them by Edgardo Aragón. Titled Matamoros, the artist re-traces his father's journey as a drug trafficker, filming (years later) his actual run from Oaxaca to Tamaulipas. At first glance, the video seems to be a peaceful ode to the beauty of the Mexican countryside, which makes it all the more horrifying to encounter the activity that takes place there. It is a deeply empathetic approach to his father's plight as a trafficker, while still critiquing the colossal upheaval that the drug trade has reaped on his country. The piece succeeds without moralizing, instead posing ethical questions for the viewer. What are the limits of personal responsibility in the context of structural constraints? In the context of desperation? Where do we draw the line for this man with a son to feed? And what are the limits of collective responsibility: In providing the main market feeding the illegal drug trade, is our own society at all accountable for the consequences to Mexican society -- of late, an overwhelming rise in druglord-organized violence that is undermining civil society in certain parts of Mexico? The elder Señor Aragón may continue rolling around in your mind long after you've left the gallery.

One of the most intriguing pieces in the show is Hector Zamora's installation, Essay about the smooth and the striated, which engulfs the main gallery. Featuring large drying racks suspended at varying heights from the high ceiling and lit from below with raw bulbs, Zamora uses a pulley system to re-configure the arrangement every week. Viewers must navigate, duck, and dodge the gently floating racks, and the effect is breathtaking. The curators, however, mention little of the work's intention other than to "transform new topographies;" this description feels a bit too bare. For example, what is to be made of the unusual and specific choice of materials? Perhaps the floating drying racks refer to Mexican labor, domestic or industrial, in a shifting cultural and geographic landscape. We are left to wonder.

The word "disponible" has a double meaning in Spanish: it means not only available but also changeable. Our neighbor to the South is both things. As these Mexican artists illustrate, instability is not only a problem or threat, but a position that can generate new solutions and models of creativity.

Disponible -- a kind of Mexican show is on view at the Walter McBean Gallery at San Francisco Art Institute through January 22, 2011. For more information visit waltermcbean.com.