Interview with Teresa Serrano, Zurich, 3 june 2016

HH: The period spanning the first two decades of this century has been crucial for Latin American art, don’t you think?

TS: Latin America has grown, yes. Before, there was nothing. Or rather, no one knew about it. Art was totally divided by countries. Very enclosed behind borders. What was made in Mexico stayed in Mexico, what was made in Colombia stayed in Colombia… 

Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, despite being very nationalistic, created a conceptual basis for art. The others have encountered more stumbling blocks in this process. Venezuela was very important and was destroyed. Cuba was completely destroyed: many artists left the island and a political art was enforced, just like in the Soviet Union. Criticism was crushed because it had to submit to the political agenda.

I think we have grown. We are not perfect yet. We could do better. But more interest has been building.

And what about Mexico and its strong relationship with the United States?

A 3000-kilometer-long border separates us from the United States. It is impossible to deny this relationship. There is always a lot of conflict. They look at us like they look at the rest of Latin America. We are starting to become interesting to them, but only because of the tragic aspects. They are not interested in the rest. We are just Latinos to them. As for the art, it has excelled in Houston thanks to Mari Carmen Ramírez, whose work has contributed decisively to veer the attention towards practices in Latin America.

What Mari Carmen has done is admirable: a huge challenge for a Latin American woman, especially in Texas. How do you see Miami, New York, and Los Angeles from a Mexican perspective?

In California alone there are eight million Mexicans. Eight million! We should be more important, but we are not. These are poorly educated peasants who have learned a very basic English in order to survive. The intellectuals who are supposed to make our art stand out have not yet emerged.

With its Basel Art Fair, Miami is looking more towards Europe. Florida is almost a country; a Latin American extension. But it stays local. Miami’s art is local. In Basel Miami, the buyers and exhibition spaces are European. It doesn’t have much of an impact on Latin America despite the new Pérez Museum. What a horrible thing to have given millions in exchange for the name!

It’s very difficult to work in the United States. I lived in New York for thirty years and I never saw anyone paying much attention to us, with a few exceptions. For example, Benjamin Buchloh met and befriended [Gabriel] Orozco at the Whitney Program, and gave him a lot of advice. Orozco learned very well how to navigate the North American market. His early works were extraordinary. I really liked them. They were talking about Mexico. Now his art is very international. It has no more to do with his identity. I am not a nationalist; I think rather universally, but I cannot deny that I am Mexican and that I care about my country. When I speak, I speak from my country, even though the problems I’m talking about are understandable anywhere in the world. Orozco is a very intelligent artist. Brilliant, I’d say. But I no longer see his Mexicanism.

He started with a gallery in New York that—along with some European centers—helped him conquer the market. What I mean is that his success didn’t come from Latin America at all.

Exactly.

You know about the academic situation in the United States, right? Nowadays, courses and programs focused on Latin American studies have multiplied. Entire university departments revolve around Latin American art. However, all of this often stays there, and the same old ideas are always being recycled. 

At least there is more presence now. What do you think?

There are small groups of artists and academics that are being established because some curators decided to do something new.

They are very politically correct and their intentions are good. But in the end, they don’t work well.

Because no true knowledge is being produced and no collections of Latin American art are being created, except for small showcases.

And they don’t travel enough.

I studied in Canada and my roommate thought that in Mexico we went to school with feathers and riding a donkey. She told me that she knew Mexico because she had been to the border. “Which border?”, I asked her, and she answered: Vancouver. She had no idea where Mexico is. Some don’t even have a passport, you know? No matter how much you read, you cannot get to know another culture if you don’t travel.

That problem is getting worse and worse. Because of my work with the Daros Latinamerica Collection, I was fortunate to be able to travel as long as I wanted and wherever I wanted. That was and is impossible for my European colleagues. They don’t have the money or the time, and so they always repeat the same misperceptions, they always fall into the same trap. Brazil is the best example. Brazilians treat you wonderfully, like royalty, until you realize that it doesn’t mean much. 

Due to the digitization of everything and the lack of time, many people no longer seek to learn in situ. They take everything that is secondary as truths. The same happens with secondary literature: you read a book about the book that you will never read. Even the synopsis on Wikipedia is good enough. The same goes for works of art. Many young scholars, curators, and even artists no longer want to see the works in person or to take the time to really observe them. Instead, they just want to check whether what they read more or less conforms to the pseudo-theories they have in their heads. They make their academic checklist: if several criteria match with what they see, they draw their conclusions, thinking that the more a work matches their list, the better it must be. Exactly the same happened to me in New York gay clubs in the eighties: “What are you into?” they always asked, checking my answers with their sexual-preferences checklist. With ten things on their list, three or four matches weren’t enough. This globalized utilitarian primitivism that abounds today bothers me a lot.

You are very cosmopolitan, Teresa. Do you feel more Mexican, gringa or European?

I am very Mexican. Once a gallery owner in New York asked me to show her my work. She liked it very much and suggested that I exhibit with her. She then asked me where I was from and when I told her she said: “Ah, that’s a problem. We don’t work with Latin Americans.” No one had ever discriminated against me like this! I felt brutally humiliated. At the same time, I also feel quite international. But Mexican culture is in my blood. That doesn’t mean that I am asking for mescal in other countries or that I eat mole every day. I don’t think that way.

Teresa Serrano and Carlos Cardenas, on the set of “WW”, New York, 2006

Remember what Bolívar said shortly before he died: “America is ungovernable… This land will infallibly fall into the hands of unbridled masses and later controlled by petty tyrants almost too puny to notice.”

I think in the end he was telling the truth. He was deeply disappointed. Perhaps his early illusions were too great. Latin American art and culture suffers from the syndrome of caudillismo [strongman politics]. I see it in Mexico, in Cuba, in Chile… Men and women. And it carries on and on. When we begin to free ourselves, we return again to the same thing. What is happening in Latin America is a sad regression. The Spaniards were bastards, but they also left us wonderful things, like our language. Spanish America could be much more important than it is. We don’t have that many religious problems. We have a common language. Why can’t we achieve something together? We have mines, gold, silver, food, oceans, everything. Yet we cannot understand each other. This individualism is atrocious and our nationalism is a horrendous misunderstanding.

My idea with Daros Latinamerica was to unite in one way or another the different sides of that great continent. It still doesn’t seem like a wrong concept to me. Nor does it seem naive to believe that it makes or made sense. What do you think?

The idea was wonderful. You assembled a collection with works from each country, at the same time creating a continent through that collection, and that is a very good thing. I don’t think anyone else has had that vision and that ability. If you had kept the collection in Switzerland, it would have been better. Brazil is too nationalistic. And it displays the overprotection of a very closed culture. The collection would have been more powerful in Switzerland. The concept of uniting Latin America in Latin America is impossible because we cannot understand each other.

Staying in Switzerland would have been very imperialistic.

No. To have been able to see what you assembled in Switzerland would enable us to realize what our continent really is because the artists talk about the same problems. We could experience Latin America’s unification through the artists’ thoughts. If you had chosen Colombia or any other Latin American country, it would have been the same as what happened in Brazil, you see what I mean? The nationalism that prevails in each of our countries is too strong. So stupid. We are still children. 

Your idea of getting a Mexican or a Colombian and a Brazilian together so they can establish a conversation is beautiful! That is true communication. It’s the same idea that Bolívar had: everyone gets together and talks to one another. To me, this way of doing things is remarkable.

True imperialism is the kind of art that Europeans always tend to favor and impose. In Mexico, those who count the most are artists like Orozco, and in Brazil, artists like Cildo Meireles. I believe that the most celebrated Brazilian art has been of a European nature. I’m going to say an aberration, but for me, Tunga is one of the few real Brazilians: the only great artist who talks about coal mines, about Brazilian Indians, the only one who tosses his head out to the sea… His work speaks of Brazil.

Tunga said a great thing to me once. It has stuck with me forever: “Here in Brazil, before educating the poor we must educate the rich.”

Same as in Mexico. Ignorance rules. People are very ignorant even if they have a lot of money.

Is there still an inferiority complex in Latin America? I thought, and hoped, that this would end.

It will take many centuries for that to happen.

And always blaming others. It’s a huge projection.

Sure is. We hold an enormous grudge. A rage. We are a different race: neither Spanish nor indigenous. A mixed race. Why do we still hold that resentment? Enough!

Almost all the lousy things produced in this continent are homegrown; they don’t come from outside. These words are being said by a German who works for a Swiss company. They are going to kill me!

Prickly situation! You can’t address these matters. I don’t know why people get so offended.

Moralistic sermons annoy me.

With good reason.

When do you think a work of art is good?

When it’s authentic. When it has quality and is well done. When it speaks with a heart. Banality abounds.

Teresa Serrano, Ciudad de México, 2015

www.teresaserrano.com

  1. A wonderful interview! Ms. Serrano is a highly intelligent human being and I enjoyed her comments on the art world, Mexicanismo and the relationship in the US of the Americans toward the undocumented. Please interview her again. Patricia Stevens

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