Back in 1991, the Institute of Contemporary Art mounted "El Corazon Sangrante," a juicy, passionate show that used the Catholic and pre-Columbian image of the bleeding heart to delve into issues of death, sacrifice, and spirituality south of the border. The exhibit was steeped in Mexican folklore and culture, of which Frida Kahlo -- in all her heartache, spectacle, and commitment to art -- was queen.
The ICA's latest show, "Made in Mexico," demonstrates how far the pendulum can swing in 13 years. Religion, ritual, and human struggle make an appearance (as does Kahlo) -- and when they do it's stunning. But if this show is any indication, the Mexico of today's imagination is as much about urban sprawl, modernist architecture, abstract painting, and the politics of museum displays as it is about what it means to be Mexican -- or, for that matter, human.
Curator Gilbert Vicario, in his first major exhibition, aims to show how Mexico lights the creative fires of 20 contemporary artists, only eight of whom are Mexican. The country does have a strong community of international artists, who go there in part because they love the country and in part because producing art can be less expensive there than in the United States, or in much of Europe.
Vicario breaks his show down into three sections: "Local Identities," "Mexican Modernisms," and "Social Spaces." As succinct chapters, these work -- but a slew of conceptual pieces upstairs fall between the cracks and deserve their own grouping.
"Social Spaces" offers the meatiest work because it is plugged into the human heart and the not-so-pretty reality of life in Mexico today. And death. Mexican Teresa Margolles chills and enchants with "En el Aire (In the Air)." Soap bubbles shower from on high into the ICA's downstairs gallery. The work seems ethereal and playful, until you learn that the bubbles come from water used to wash corpses in the Mexico City morgue (it has been sterilized). Honoring the dead is a Mexican tradition; Margolles fixates on murders in Mexico City. Each bubble might represent a life, which can pop and disappear in a split second.
Andreas Gursky, a German photographer specializing in landscapes and scenes of chaotic overdevelopment, went to Mexico and brought back one image that pairs his two interests. The large-scale color photo "Untitled XIII (Mexico)" depicts a dump outside Mexico City; a man and a dog picking through refuse give a sense of the massive scale of the place.
This image hangs tellingly beside the color photos of Mexican Daniela Rossell, who shot the rich women of Mexico in their favorite rooms. Talk about conspicuous consumption! The women preen and sulk for the camera amid looming stuffed bears and baroque furnishings. The photos point up the self-conscious construction of identity of these women, who for all their glamour appear distinctly self-loathing.
None of the artists in the "Local Identities" section, which nods to Mexican design, are Mexican. Yasumasa Morimura of Japan has never been to Mexico, though he's a devotee of Kahlo and has made a series of his trademark transgender, art-historical photos of paintings of himself as her. "An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Hand-Shaped Earring)" beautifully conflates Mexican adornment with Japanese, man with woman, photograph with painting, postmodernism with handicraft.
The brilliant tones that mark Mexican crafts surprise in the work of Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian artist based in London who has spent time in Mexico. Known for the outsize birdcages she crafts to signal exile, domestic space, and feminine identity, Hatoum usually works in earth tones. She saw a fortune-telling canary in Mexico and replicated its cage in bright blue, pink, and yellow. The colors imbue her message of entrapment with a dizzy, carnival feel that makes it all the more surreal.
Upstairs you'll find the conceptual works that don't quite fit under any of Vicario's headings. Mexican Pedro Reyes's "Maquetas Arquitectonicas" is the keystone of the exhibition, drawing together the vernacular elements celebrated downstairs with the process-oriented, conceptual, and modernist pieces upstairs. Presented in a glass museum case, "Maquetas Arquitectonicas" sets up a system to create and display prototypes for sculptures. It's multilayered, even witty, but the meta-museum-display format, so common today, is an irksome bit of navel-gazing.
Melanie Smith, British-born and living in Mexico, satisfyingly tweaks all the high-minded art-about-art with her "Installation of Paintings (Variation) for Six Steps to Abstraction," a collection of abstract paintings leaning against the wall behind two video monitors. The monitors show "abstraction" in real life, in a discussion at an upholsterer's shop. The other video is of performance art and doesn't connect effectively to real life. Even so, Smith bravely reminds her audience that abstraction doesn't have to be esoteric; it has roots on the street and in your living room.
The "Mexican Modernism" section, also upstairs, exhaustively tackles modernist architecture through a Mexican lens, but it only rarely succeeds -- Claudia Fernandez's grid of photos of decorative iron gates beautifully ties modernism to local design, freighted with a message of fear and protection.
The rest of the work is intelligent but airless, and its Mexican connection seems tenuous. Russian Anton Vidokle videotaped his weeklong effort to paint the face of one building red. Canadian Terence Gower positions a mural-size black-and-white photograph of a building facade alongside red and white glass panels, in a reference to constructivist color schemes of Theo van Doesburg and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Yes, the building is in Mexico -- but is that relevant? Murals are a Mexican form, but large-scale photography can be seen around the globe.
Too many of the artists here appear to be hermetically sealed in the art world; they could have easily taken Toronto or Los Angeles as their starting place. As the world shrinks, artists forsake indigenous inspiration and detail. The result can be, as it is in this section, a depressing insularity.
"Made in Mexico" envisions a place far less romantic than "El Corazon Sangrante" did 13 years ago. Perhaps now is simply a more cosmopolitan, less romantic time. Back then, artists loved ethnic art; now it smacks of provincialism and divisiveness. At its best, this exhibit shows us a Mexico with all the moral complexity of an increasingly urban world. At its worst, it leaves the soil and blood of a rich culture behind and strands us in the suffocating world of art about art about art.
("Made in Mexico" at The Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St., through May 9; 617-266-5152; www.icaboston.org.)