C Magazine


Issue 134

Juan Cisneros Neumann: It Was Something and Then It Became Something Else
by D'Arcy Blake

As I approach the entrance to Juan Cisneros Neumann’s first solo exhibition, I am greeted by the swelling sound of a live mariachi band and by the musky smell of dyed fabric and chilies simmering in a crockpot. With cardboard cut-outs of cacti hung from the ceiling, an ad hoc partition made from brightly coloured, striped sarapes (Mexican blankets) draped over a clothesline and a sombrero-clad quintet belting out “Cielito Lindo,” I feel as though I’m stepping into a barrio.

Sprawling across the two main walls is a mural Cisneros Neumann has drawn with handmade crayons fashioned from beeswax and the earthy pigments of crushed green, orange and red chilies. Third World Problems is at once comical and grim: it depicts three cartoonish, robot-driven bulldozers shovelling heaps of ghostly figures towards a pit crudely labelled “THE THIRD WoRLD.” Behind the bulldozers is a space free of the troubles seen on the adjacent wall, and in the safety of that area, atop a small hill, a pair of American and Canadian flags protrude. An arrow points to the hill, naming the whole thing “LA LA LAND.” Another arrow points to the wall that separates the gallery office: “THE RoBoTS ARE CoNTRoLLED FRoM BEHIND THAT WALL.” Among the humanoid figures, which all seem to be directed toward the pit of the “Third World,” are four words: “PRoBLEMS,” “NAFTA,” “MINoRITIES” and “RAPISTS” – buzzwords that have become fodder for American politicians and right-wing nationalists. Sombrero Galaxy, a small framed photograph of an actual galaxy nicknamed for its likeness to the traditional Mexican hat, also hangs from the wall, not immediately noticeable amid the gestural strokes of crayon.

I’m struck with sudden cinematic familiarity as I glance toward the door. I am, somehow, looking out the window at an expansive desert. After the momentary confusion, however, it becomes clear that what I’m seeing is another of Cisneros Neumann’s works, Perpetual Sunset, a set of posters that bear the image of windows overlooking a vast plain of cacti and mesas – presumably northern Mexico or the American southwest. But the fleeting spatial disembodiment catalyzes an awareness of placelessness that brings my surroundings into focus. Hanging overhead, True Nopal – a colour offset print of a cactus – repudiates what I see through the windows/ posters, revealing the artifice of both the image of the desert outside the fake windows and the fiesta (which has the atmosphere of a backyard party) occurring within the gallery.

The precarious boundaries between inside and outside, and between domestic and public, that Cisneros Neumann’s work probes can be transposed onto concrete, lived conditions in the unstable borderlands to which his work alludes. The desert, cacti, bulldozers and walls constitute material backdrops for the militarized border region between Mexico and the United States. Here, danger and uncertainty confront in various forms, be they poverty, drug wars, vigilante border patrol “agents” or the American border bureaucracy itself. Non-American lives are treated as expendable in these locations – a fact that Cisneros Neumann invokes as an amorphous mass of citizens is bulldozed into the gaping maw of the so-called “Third World.” As the smeared hoard of crayon-drawn people – rendered in the colours of the Mexican flag – swirls around the pit, these bodies seem to transform into the shapes of cacti, inverting distinguishability from human beings to vegetative backdrop. Far from new, however, this dehumanization is fundamental to the project of colonial modernity. As feminist philosopher María Lugones reminds us, the “distinction between human and non-human was imposed on the colonized in the service of Western man.”1 Echoing Lugones, Cisneros Neumann’s message is clear: the robots will callously bulldoze masses of dehumanized bodies to exonerate their own tactics of expansion. That these drivers are also non-human is irrelevant – it merely illuminates the necessary disassociation between the settler-colonialists and the objects of their colonization.

Resistance, however, can and must be enacted through measures of resilient optimism. Ricos Tacos, another floor-to-ceiling mural that Cisneros Neumann has humourously illustrated in a manner typical of Mexican political cartoons, enacts this resistance. Gouged deep into the paint and drywall, the image depicts a taco vendor refusing service to a wealthy-looking man. The customer – elegantly dressed in a suit, a hat and dress shoes – looks perplexed as he holds up two fingers in a gesture of peace, while the taco vendor, his head encircled by flies, waves the man away, saying, “Sorry, no service.” The defiant and self-determining act of refusal to participate in the businessman’s game also indicates an unwillingness to compromise cultural integrity for financial gain. Although the cartoon playfully conveys its message, it also asserts its permanence, both with its towering stature and the deep divots carved into the wall.

On the opposite wall, however, Third World Problems awaits imminent destruction: halfway through the exhibition’s duration, Cisneros Neumann will return to the gallery periodically to begin destroying the mural, periodically scraping off the crayon and white-washing the wall. And while the erasure of the inchoate accumulation of people circling the drain of the “Third World” draws obvious connections to colonial violence, displacement and destruction, the drawing that wraps around the gallery sits at jarring odds with the saccharine melody coming from the mariachi band. What better way is there to remind us, if only for a moment, that amid fear and injustice we can find strength in collectivity, mutuality and tradition? As the wax drawings are scraped from the wall, and the gouges plastered over, the imprint of what was destroyed will remain, haunting that which will survive.

When I returned several weeks later to see how the work had been altered, the mariachis were gone and the party was over: the space that felt like a once-vibrant town now abandoned – I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll by. Only a thin residue of wax penetrated through the fresh white paint that Cisneros Neumann had begun to apply.