01 November 2008

Mondongo, Telling Tales

Written by Published in Art & Culture

Mondongo is arguably the most prolific and ebullient of the new wave of the Latin America's contemporary artists, and have recently collaborated with Rei Kawakubo, founder of Commes Des Garçons. The collective, formed in 1999, comprises three artists – Agustina Picasso, Manuel Mendanha and Juliana Lafitte. they fuse thread, beads, tar, wax and plasticine in a painstakingly slow process that produces intricate mixed-media paintings. The works tackle archetypes such as love, death, creation and sex with a style that hovers between playful and perverse.

‘There are many ways in which the thing I am trying in vain to say may be tried in vain to be said’ Samuel Beckett: Three Dialogues

When I first heard the word ‘Mondongo’ it seemed to me like an image for all that’s indigestible in Argentina, an immensity of mess, flatulence and slaughter. But when I saw them I thought I was up against some kind of post-punk group cut out to serve fashion magazines. Then I went to the studio and thought I had come across a sweatshop run by orientals for immigrants from Europe. In other words, I was about to miss the point.

Mondongo emerged onto the scene amid the splatter of cultural alternatives. They espouse a group aesthetic collaborating closely, almost incestuously, together, sharing ideas, playing with them, pushing them around, abandoning them, and then putting into practice whatever passes their three-pronged test: namely, their intellectual concerns with regard to the history of the medium of painting and the production of images in a society such as our own; their stance towards reality and their ironic predisposition to almost anything that life serves up – a kind of modish ‘liteness’ infused with critical distance. In other words, it is a conceptual process that depends upon the rhetoric of irony for making its points, or perhaps, even more specifically, upon parody and pastiche. They seek to undermine systems, whatever the form, whether it be the myth of the individual artist; the author as author-ity; the idea of institutional power; or the art system itself. They do so by rooting themselves in the popular, in the glitter of the tawdry or in the products of the supermarket. It is here that they find their material in what we might call the Ground Zero of consumer society: trinkets, cookies, sausages, jelly babies. You name it, they'll use it.

Today things can’t have a single explanation – that is, they have no single definitive answer. Works need to build up complex referential fields in order to hold the attention of an increasingly capricious audience. A single reading is immediately exhausted and we rush on towards the next cheap thrill or stimulus. Art has developed strategies that are more subtle and complex, refusing to surrender its meanings up to a hungry public. It provides possible readings that never fully hold, and readings that can themselves enter into a certain conflict. Mondongo’s use of materials seems like yet another slap in the face of the bourgeoisie: a willed defecation. It might also be seen as some kind of self-indulgent and infantile regression to junk food! Yet these materials also have a symbolic role, particularly in the case of the portraits, where they stand as a loose psychological indexing or as a parodic registering of how society sees whoever it is that is portrayed. These are society portraits with a vengeance, hurled at a society so immune to insult that it immediately queues up to buy one! They are an antidote to Warhol’s portraits that opted preferably for social icons and sought to ratify cultural eminence. Warhol suggested the rich were OK and legitimated the social elite of the day, turning them into an acceptable fiction. He belonged to that moment in the 60s when the easy social mobility towards the upper levels shuffled people – from showbusiness, art, government, crime (especially drug-pushing), fashion, and that whole clique of infectious celebrity that goes under the name of the jet set or the ‘beautiful people’ – into the deck of inherited corporate and professional wealth. Mondongo knows the rich are not OK, that they embody the murderous indecencies of division that have been only too often the history of their continent.

Mondongo makes their own portrait gallery where each work combines a play between material and personality: the portrait of the passionate Ruth Benzacar is constructed from matches; Britney Spears with supermarket price tags as a mass consumption pop icon; David Bowie from his brand of make-up as a glamour rock idol of the 70s; the Spanish Royal Family from small mirror fragments that suggest opulence and glitter (but also potentially carry an ironic message about Colonial power referring to the period when the Spanish Empire was built on trading glass beads for gold; and also to the present moment when Argentina is living a second imperial invasion by Spanish business enterprise). These are quick takes but they revive an abandoned genre.

Mondongo’s pornographic series of images is downloaded from the net according to categories (like so much else in our culture it is served up at low-cut prices, you don’t even have to think about what you want, the choice is made for you in whatever mass or limited market you happen to temporarily inhabit). Whenever there has been a major technological advance – video, internet, cable television, digital camera – pornography has invariably emerged as a recurrent public demand. Pornography, in fact, is seen as an adequate metaphor for the sickness at the heart of western society and even more specifically for so much of the sociopolitical behaviour that has littered the texture of Latin American society itself. Things stink and no wonder Mondongo has even thought of making a work out their own faeces. They didn’t, they chose biscuits, this time, equally heinous since they are what the wives of the military would have nibbled on at tea-time as they told stories to their ‘adopted’ children. This is a large series and it threatens to be an endless one! The images are blunt, uncompromising, frontal but in societies such as our own that suffer a sensorial overload they consciously risk turning into a blur, a background music while we’re ironing or cleaning our teeth.

Needless to say, Mondongo sees pornography as a metaphor for a larger arc of political and economic behaviour, from globalisation to the thirty-odd wars that now litter the planet, to our massive indifference to social injustice. They tell me that in this series they are concerned about ‘the de-sacralisation of sex, now offered as market goods at any website’ and they use the kind of cookies that are directed at young kids to suggest ‘a generalised slump into infantile behaviour where everybody is anxious for the next image’.

In using food Mondongo picks up on the bloated excesses of contemporary living – the waste, profligacy, greed, gluttony and sense of satiation. The Pornography series is done with cheap brand biscuits that now litter the world like the images they represent. Globalisation makes these products omnipresent and kills difference so that taste becomes wretchedly reduced to the lowest common denominator and vulnerable cultures find themselves swept up into a cheap-food market!

Yet beyond this obvious metaphor it is also an aesthetic recognition that any material serves to make a picture, and that materials themselves provide subtle chromatic distinctions. Mondongo’s version of Hell reeks of decaying meat; its sensuality is literally the sweet, aching lyricism of the flesh – what Carolee Schneemann called ‘Meat Joy’ in the 60s when liberation found its visual metaphor in taking your clothes off and for a decade hardly managed to get them back on. In retrospect it was fairly tame stuff where the banal, the aggressive or the grotesque were aestheticised before our eyes and where in this instance the lovers, having undressed one another, paint the flesh of the other as if not quite sure what now to do in public. Schneemann’s own notes show how she side-steps content: ‘The focus is never on the self but on the materials, gestures and actions which involve us. Sense that we become what we see, what we touch. A certain tenderness (or empathy) is pervasive – even to the most violent actions: say, cutting, chopping, throwing chickens.’ Very 60s in tone, but now we suffer from bloated satiation. It’s just one more screen, like Eno’s Airport Music. Mondongonian Hell is an infinite and inexhaustible supermarket but it is also the excesses and the waning of the flesh, the unbridled hedonism of so much contemporary sexuality.

Inevitably we recall Dante, and I am thinking of two lines from the first canto of the Divine Comedy: ‘Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,/I woke to find myself in a dark wood.’ And that’s where our flesh takes us, mortal as it is, into a dark wood and into the dark wood we go anyway. Dante’s poet sees a path and follows it through the wood until he comes to a portal, one whose threshold he must cross if he is to begin his journey through Hell and Purgatory and make his way to Paradise. There at the portal Dante meets the poet Virgil, a figure both guide and guard, who will serve as his companion, accompanying him not only through the portal into the landscape of the afterlife but also, and perhaps more significantly, through the portal and into the poem itself. The poet seeks to get beyond the poem, to cross the very limit of language, and thus reach an unmediated, beatific experience of Paradise. The figure of Virgil can, then, take Dante as far as ‘paradise’ but on reaching it he will have to turn back. Paradise can only be contemplated in silence, it cannot be reached, our destiny is to travel through Purgatory. Hell is what we’ve got!

Mondongo’s first UK exhibition took place 21st November 2008 to 10th January 2009 at Maddox Arts, 52 Brook’s Mews, London W1K 4ED



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