Full of color, texture and detail, the photographs Ramiro Chaves presented at the Museo Experimental El Eco reveal their subjects and sources slowly. For nearly two years, as a professional photographer, Chaves documented the exhibitions and events at El Eco for the museum’s archive and publications. From the beginning of this assignment, Chaves asked if he could have access to the building at all hours, in order to work concurrently on an art project involving the play of light within this unusual building designed by Mathias Goeritz. This series of pictures is tied to previous works of Chaves’s examining modernist Mexican architecture, and the intimacy he developed with El Eco soon grew into a larger conversation with Goeritz’s work, involving research in his archive at the CENIDIAP-INBA, as well as visits to the various public and private projects built by the German artist that still exist around the city.
Time significantly structures these images both technically and conceptually. Chaves is particularly interested in long exposures, fixing the camera in one place and leaving the shutter open for thirty to forty-five minutes, or even for several hours. This process allows the light in the spaces he documents to “accumulate,” as its shifts and changes are captured and layered in each photograph. The resulting works hover between documentary and abstract images, capturing processes that the naked eye cannot perceive. In one piece, for example, bright rays of white, blue and red light are projected onto a wall at a dramatic angle, from the edge of a black door. The picture involved a thirty-minute exposure that captured the light of police cars and other lights from the traffic just outside El Eco’s closed front door. These referents to site are perhaps recognizable, but are obscured behind the drama of the abstract forms produced in the photograph. These long exposures also address the history of the photographic medium itself, referencing the time needed to produce a photographic image in the nineteenth century. They also structure a meditative relationship with the sites they depict, involving Chaves in an intense process of living in and observing each space for significant amounts of time.
This project features images taken of Goeritz’s projects in and outside Mexico City, including the Aragón Faculty of Advanced Studies of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, the Camino Real Hotel in Polanco, the Unidad Habitacional López Mateos near Ciudad Satélite, the colonial church at Tlatelolco, and a private home in Temixco. These studies by Chaves perform a quiet archeology of a particular moment in Mexican modernism, exploring the 1950s and 60s as aperiod of dynamic urban expansion and architectural innovation, when Goeritz played an active role in development projects. Most of these monumental and once isolated structures have now been consumed by the urban sprawl and dramatic density of contemporary Mexico City. The images the artist produced reveal a fascination with this past historical moment, which serves as source material for his elegant compositions. His use of light challenges the monumentality and assumed permanence of Goeritz’s massive concrete structures, while it simultaneously pays homage to their own unique play of light and shadow. In his Emotional Architecture Manifesto, Goeritz critiqued functionalist modernist architecture, calling for the need to provoke emotions in the viewer. Chaves’s photographs activate this legacy: through their reflected light, projected shadows and saturated colors, they stimulate our senses and emotive capacities, offering a subjective view of these historical forms.
Not all of these photographs involved projects by Goeritz, however: several captured more personal moments of the artist’s, revealing his interests in portraying movement and the passage of time. Chaves has recently produced several images of the night sky, following the trajectory of lights on the horizon. A related image, showing the constellation known as the Southern Cross, is included in this exhibition. This asterism, which lends the exhibition its title, is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere and has personal implications for the Argentine-born Chaves. Stars and the outlines they articulate, in this case a cross, were spiritual forms that Goeritz used in multiple sculptural projects. The starry sky is also associated with the sublime and the metaphysical, relating to other aspirations that Goeritz had for his works. However, this specific image of the night sky shot by Chaves seems quite banal and material. On closer examination, the viewer discerns stains and patches of differently colored paint in the “sky,” revealing it to be a painted, artificially illuminated vault (at the Museum of Natural History in Mexico City). The materiality and artificiality of this image and site, combined with the latter’s visible disrepair, refer metaphorically to the current state of the ambitions of a previous generation of artists from this cultural context, while Chaves’s entire body of work concurrently demonstrates how their dilapidated dreams might be productively reactivated.
Tobias Ostrander, curator.