Here & There
Identity has been a recurrently addressed subject within arts and humanities, which have insisted in seeing it as a hard to access field because of its ever-changing nature. From a couple of years on back, identity has again surfaced inside Mexican design; a goal that given the time and place could seem superfluous and overwhelmed by previous efforts. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand it in relation to the development of the discipline and to the moment we are currently living as Mexicans, as contemporaries. This is the only way we can justify it.
When reviewing previous efforts at solving this question we can see how identity has been researched with great drive. Episodes of national construction would be a good place to start a tale, but I mean to locate mi own meditation in a current terrain. First it is important to be clear in the fact that when dealing with this subject we inevitably enter into the realm of history, understood as memory and conformation.
I do not mean to launch into a broad historical analysis, but I do understand identity as a changing pillar that sustains both frames and which allows us to see ourselves as a national group, hence its relevance. The construction of new definitions of ourselves generally results from periods of schism and change, moments of transformation like the one we are currently experiencing in Mexico. Some thinkers, literary figures and artists have helped us understand and alleviate historical traumas while others have dedicated their meditations to interpreting the trances of a given culture, for example, its growth in the face of modernity.
Through the years, identity as concept and inspiration has stayed with us, or maybe we could say that it still haunts us. In The Labyrinth of Loneliness (1950) Octavio Paz first points out that the subject can be dangerous and then continues with an up-to date analysis of cultural interpretation that functions as an important reference when searching for clues that will help us recognize ourselves. Paz walks this complex idiosyncratic labyrinth; dichotomously threads variables and puts forth a call for conscious Mexicans to transit their own historical interpretation in order to construct a world both common and private. Although it drifts away from the character of the interests I seek to explore, it would be worthwhile to remember his meditation on the unlikely Mexican originality:
“The thing that can distinguish us from all the other cultures is not always the dubious originality of our character –result, maybe, of the ever changing circumstances– but our creations. I thought that a work of art or a concrete action could describe Mexicans –not only in what they express but also in that when expressing it, they recreate them– much better than the most penetrating of descriptions." 1
Our brief historical recount of the contributions to the concept of identity through artistic creations begins in the XX century, a time that generated discussion within visual languages. The symbolism of Saturnino Herrera attacked the national identity through referents derived from our myths and legends. With the help of other characters related to Vasconcelos, such as Ramón Alva de la Canal, the modern movement managed to establish an intellectual and iconographic code that at the same time enriched and described the new cosmos of our culture. The incipient movement managed to develop an iconographic and intellectual code for a culture that likes to employ myths and legends as self-examination mechanisms.
Soon after, Diego Rivera along with the great muralists established a somewhat imposing series of formal guidelines that were obeyed as the visual creed of the time. Through mythical tales, the messianic pretensions hoped to represent the ideal of the modern Mexican man. In order to achieve this goal, this indoctrination employed the narrative and formal construction of philosophical, historical and cultural questions that were developed mainly in murals and easel painting.
In the 1960’s, in another field of cultural production, the schism and the disappointment with the modern ideal generated new intellectual spurts. Literary figures such as José Agustín, Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, Vicente Leñero and Carlos Monsiváis amongst others, registered and subtly denounced the trances of a country that little by little assumed itself as modern, and that in order to achieve this had to break away from its tradition, instead of trying to integrate it into its new processes. This was a traumatic and unresolvable clash between the common customs of the public and domestic spheres versus the opening to new territories (mainly with our neighbor in the north) and the progress offered by modernity.
In the meantime, we modernized and incorporated into our vocabulary that had sounded like Chicanismos when we had first heard them in the Tin Tán movies and then slowly, imperceptibly, had become Mexicanized: tenquíu, oquéi, uasamara, sherap, sorry, unam, aíscrim, margarina, mantequilla de cacahuate. Coca-Cola buried the Jamaica, chia and lemmon water. The poor still drank tepache. Our parents got used to Jaibol, which at first had tasted like medicine to them. In my house tequila is forbidden, I heard my uncle Julián say. I only serve whiskey to my guests: we need to soften the Mexican’s taste.
This last quote reveals a fundamental particularity of our historical being that echoes directly in our meager history of design. Cancelling out tradition in order to embrace modernity remained an unhealed subject until new dynamics that incorporated tradition into their own discourses appeared; and that only happened until the 1980’s and 90’s. Before that, Enrique del Moral, one of the most important modernist practitioners in Mexico, and a character whom we appreciate dearly in the Archivo, revealed his own perspective in the text Tradition Vs. Modernity:
Science and the material being its main concern, (modernity) has left the spiritual values unattended and therefore has concluded in disintegrating man. In our country, the “learned” class has had access to these works, acquiring in greater or smaller amount its characteristics, while the non-illustrated class is practically in the margins of modernity, and as long as we fail to incorporate them the tension will be harsh and quarrel will remain between the two groups as long as they fail to find a common language that allows them to understand each other.
The above explains, thinking of the real, why the modern world, as it incorporates the non-illustrated classes, tends to push and alter, to contaminate (sic) the forms and expressions we call popular. This sign of no-contamination of the modern world seems like a “backwards” step in the face of authentic and thriving manifestations of popular art. 
It is nothing new to say that since the modernization of our country (the first major schism with the prevailing tradition of our recent history) we have supported ourselves in foreign echoes that have transformed our popular culture in different ways, and thus its cultural production. Ever since, it is a fairly recognizable attitude within our cultural production procedures. I found a quote by Federico Silva who in his Honoris Causa PhD speech recognized this trait with a critical tone. He pointed out how we have always functioned as a “composite of the universal with a strong presence of the Mexican”. It is important to bear in mind this description when dealing with subjects related to identity within design, especially since much of our material and industrial cultural has been imported.
Going back to Paz, at the beginning of his analysis he establishes a metaphor that is quite accurate in saying that the Mexican culture cannot withdraw from itself. Like a transitioning teenager in a growing trance, hence the term that I have been employing throughout the text:
What are we and how do we fulfill what we are?
I will establish a parallel with Paz’ idea and then will transport it to the field of design. I also have to say that this question emerges within a young discipline that is also suffering from the trances of its own development. Design has been a formal and institutionalized discipline for about sixty years in our country. Very recently, Paz’ line of thinking allowed me to understand that its relative youth justifies (much to my surprise) that it has recently concentrated on the subject of identity. This situation, together with the need to know oneself as contemporary, lead designers to languish in procedures that yielded little results and instead of helping them contribute to a discourse, it has pushed them away from more pressing matters, more contemporary urgencies.
Three years after having identified this phenomenon as a problem within local design production, the products and ideas are already changing thanks to the engagement of newer generations. The development is happening quickly. This text has the objective of closing this chapter in order to start elucidating the future along with the design community. How will the new paths be? With which will we identify ourselves? Which will contribute to a global history of design? A couple of projections: good design must lessen the importance granted to objects’ commercial aspect and work on achieving a positive impact in the development of our immediate social, aesthetic and ecologic spheres. Design cannot be merely deposited on an object. Nowadays such a solution is no longer sufficient.
For me, it is important to put in words the current need to refer and discover ourselves as contemporary Mexicans and to understand how to project such a realization. This is probably the main driving force of this essay, anxieties that were also set forth by the curatorship of the show I am presenting for the second block of the year at the Archivo, entitled Here and There. Already away from modernity we are experiencing a level of development never before seen in our country; we are in the face of a defining period that points in the way of a new tradition that we will work with in the upcoming years. We are about to exceed the trance towards maturity that is needed to develop innovative, and even more important, authentic proposals; to transcend whether through objects, systems, virtual or essentially technological proposals (hopefully); proposals that forget self-reference in order to become autonomous; proposals to talk about ourselves from the particular forms that we generated in order to solve problems, to attend all these new arenas. At such a time, we will be able to brag, following Paz’ metaphor, about having turned into adults; to transcend from paying attention to ourselves in order to pay attention to each other.
Museography: Mariana Águila
12.17.2012 - 05.18.2013
@ Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura
1. Paz, Octavio. El Laberinto de la Soledad, España: Cátedra p. 145
2.Ibid. p. 144
3. Pacheco, José E. Battles in the Desert & Other Stories. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1987
4. del Moral, p. 76
5. Silva, Federico, Acceptance speech upon receiving the honoris causa PhD from the UNAM, pronounced on September 20, 2010, Mexico City
6. Paz, p. 144
7. It is not the objective of this text to study the mechanisms that Mexican designers have employed when resolving such issues, since there are already other essays and articles devoted to this task.