I was standing with Rolando, looking at ¿por qué no fui tu amigo?, a solo show by Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba, curated by Chris Sharp, currently on view at Kurimanzutto, in the rear gallery. We were looking at an array of audiovisual equipment — rechargeable batteries nestled in their recharger, an audio recorder, a printer, a hard drive, an iMac, a mouse, a keyboard, a couple GoPros, some stands for cameras or audio, headphones, and so on — on the floor of the gallery, against the smooth white walls. Rolando was telling me, pointing to the thick-stock, laminated gallery notes he was holding — he had the ones for Aguilar Ruvalcaba’s show, I had the ones for Minerva Cuevas’s show, in the main gallery — that the equipment had been used to shoot a video, that would later be shown elsewhere, and that now it was for sale on MercadoLibre, the eBay of the Spanish- and Portugese-speaking world. I was saying something stupid about how great of a MercadoLibre photo it probably was, or was going to be, when a gallery attendent walked in and asked us, in Spanish, “do you understand?”
In his later writing, Roland Barthes employed the figure as an organizing element. In each figure, anecdote, history, and philosphy collide, usually with notes in the margin about where they are from: Symposium, Taoism, Werther, A.C. Barthes describes the figure beautifully, longingly, as “what in the straining body can be immobilized,” something that sticks in the memory, but is somehow incomplete, something that we catch in a moment, “insofar as we can recognize.” The figure is necessarily incomplete, and in its incompleteness foregrounds that which suspends it. For me, this is the best way, or perhaps the only way, to talk about ¿por qué no fui tu amigo? There are three figures in the show: first, an ad in the newspaper am, distributed in the state of Guanajuato, in central Mexico; the second, two white-backed counterfeit bills, one MX$100 and one MX$200, each folded as if it were a tiny book; the third, the audiovisual equipment set up for a prosumer photo that Rolando and I were standing in front of when the attendent walked in. The blunt visual presentation of each figure—everything looks like exactly what it is—bounces attention away, into the notes or the guided presentation, teasing, cajoling, or maybe just forcing the viewer to learn about the various trajectories and interpretations that each figure strains between. It is in this learning that each figure becomes more complex, begins to blur, and the beauty of the show emerges.
The show is arranged in narrative order, beginning with an the ad in the newspaper am, which is distributed in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico, where Aguilar Ruvalcaba is from. The ad originally appeared in am on December 31, 2014; and January 2 and 3, 2015. This is the first context in which the ad appears, and the first public to whom it appears. This public, people in the state of Guanajuato who purchase am for MX$10 and have an interest in the classifieds, viewed the ad in its original context, as an ad. At this point, being viewed by the classifieds-reading public of Guanajuato, the ad is not an artwork, it is an ad. It does not matter, at this point, that Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba, an artist, has printed this ad, hoping to use it as the starting point for a body of artwork. It does not matter that Daniel’s father, Juan Manuel Aguilar, owed a debt to BBVA-Bancomer, nor that Daniel has recently received a grant for emerging artists from BBVA-Bancomer. It does not matter that Daniel has decided to use this grant from BBVA-Bancomer to try to pay off somebody else’s debt to BBVA-Bancomer, more specifically somebody else named Juan Manuel Aguilar, not a particularly uncommon name. The ad is constricted by its context, in the paper, spread across somebody’s lap, or a table, or a bar, maybe rolled up in a ball and stuffed under the grill to get the coals going. Maybe a few people in Mexico City knew about the ad, knew about it as an artwork, but am is not distributed in Mexico City. They couldn’t help. The classifieds person-seeking ad, though, is a sort of visual-literary form, and this particular ad is interesting within that form. It is situated in tense relation between the sort of extortion schemes typified by the Nigerian prince e-mail, self-help product advertisements, and missing persons advertisements. Especially here in Mexico, where extortion, phony aspiration, and disappearance are all common, sometimes compounded into one: a few months ago I read that cartels often use the form of the aspirational ad—”this job could change your life!” sort of thing—to lure people into building tunnels, transporting goods, etc, for them, usually killing those hired once the job is done. Importantly, these are qualities available to any person in Mexico reading the classifieds; it is not necessary to be part of any sort of art-appreciating public to see any of these relationships. These are qualities the ad holds as an ad, and nothing more. Indeed, this is one of the things most engaging about ¿por qué no fui tu amigo?, how deftly it engages everyday visual forms without hiding behind a mask of faux-irony.
Then Juan Manuel Aguilar called. As the story goes, Juan Manuel Aguilar had two debts, a large one and a small one. The artwork could be created: the fake bills are printed in an edition to match the large debt of Juan Manuel Aguilar, and will be sold for an equivalent amount of real bills to an heir to the BBVA-Bancomer fortune; the audiovisual equipment could be purchased and used to shoot a video, supporting the provision of the BBVA-Bancomer grant that asked for part to be used in “production.” Finally, the ad could appear in its second context, in the gallery. In the gallery, the ad, which is no different than the nearly 50,000 ads printed in the three days of am’s production, is an artwork, in limited edition, presented to an artworld audience by a gallery attendent who explains it as such. Here it exists in relation to a history of artworks that have appeared in public newspapers, and here it holds a different kind of significance, a different sort of interest. Whereas many artistic interventions into public newspapers involve some degree of poetry, symbolism, or irony, this ad seeking people named Juan Manuel Aguilar who owes a debt to BBVA-Bancomer is exactly that, an ad seeking people named Juan Manuel Aguilar who owes a debt to BBVA-Bancomer. The “general” public, the ficitional public invented by all specialized fields to designate all those who are not in that field, who are assumed to receive something “beneficial” from art, often tied to antiquated ideas of enlightenment or genius, receive nothing. Juan Manuel Aguilar, one particular Juan Manuel Aguilar who decided, against the odds, to call, receives debt relief. This is also not aspirational—”just try!”—for if Daniel were a cartel, Mr Manuel would likely be dead.
Indeed, in the gallery, towards an artworld audience, the ad is almost hostile. There is nothing beautiful about it, there is no evident hand of genius. It does not neatly tie in with global discussions of any sort, being tied inextricably to two individuals, both named Juan Manuel Aguilar, to a Mexican financial institution, BBVA-Bancomer, to the particular local strangeness of BBVA-Bancomer giving grants to emerging artists. The ordinariness of the ad—sure, it’s a little weird, but it’s definitely not a piece by Jenny Holzer, you know? it makes no effort to explain or contain itself, it doesn’t get deep and it certainly isn’t universal—bounces the viewer’s attention elsewhere. This, I suppose, is where the notes and/or the explanation comes in: they are necessary to see the work. They are necessary to see the ad straining between its trajectories between the newstand and the grill as 50,000 papers, the newstand and the gallery as a limited edition, the newstand and the collector’s home, the newstand and the homes of any number Juans Manuel Aguilar; straining between being unread and unnoticed in print or presented online with the importance accordant to one of more important galleries of Mexico City; being interpreted by the concerned parents or fried or lover of one Juan Manuel Aguilar as a bad idea, don’t call, you’ve heard about this kind of thing, and another very different Juan Manuel Aguilar as perhaps not so bad an idea, why not give it a try?
Each figure in ¿por qué no fui tu amigo? is like the first, straining in some way between locations, trajectories, interpretations, their mundanity initially deflecting attention to the web of possible trajectories and probable interpretations suspending them in their current position, making them shiver and blur. I am tempted to call this contingency “radical,” but of course it isn’t, it is a very mundane, very commonplace contingency. In their mundane contingency, the figures that comprise ¿por qué no fui tu amigo? reflect the daily strain of most objects and most bodies, caught in a momentary, yet brutally constricting, context, straining anonymously towards the next.