45…FortyFIVE

Mexico

Saturday-45

Kitsch can be understood as a monetized solution for the shame suffered by a culture’s middle class, a way to market their declaration of social mobility.  By simultaneously romanticizing and condescending artistic elements of authentic, specific culture, kitsch renders them digestible for a wider audience and for profit than the original element would have otherwise attracted.

“The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends” Clement Greenberg Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939.

Greenberg, one of the most influential visual art critics of the 20th century, goes on to examine in his essay the relationship between the development of kitsch in relationship with social class and political manipulation.  And while he describes kitsch in terms of an artistic style which had spread, even at the time of his writing, into the global he does not examine the relationship kitsch has with the tourist.  Diverging at this point with the trajectory of his essay,  I am interested in looking more carefully at the role of ‘cultural ambassador’ that kitsch has marketed for the benefit of the outsider.

In order for the appropriation and resulting mutation to meet the successful (read profitable) end it seeks, kitsch must attract a customer. When doing so internationally it must respond to a demand for culture made by an audience that constructs it’s own identity through collecting representations of the exotic.  As a result the producers of kitsch are able to market their sanitized version of a culture from which they have removed themselves and the collector is able to recognize familiar social cues stemming more from a socio-economic language than from specific geographical locale.

While kitsch necessarily deals in cultural iconography it is not to be mistaken for craft, for the product of an artisan working within a culturally relevant vocabulary and set of materials.  It is true that many artisans produce kitsch, and this can be understood as a response over time to the demand made by the middle class consumer for such easily digestible versions of culture and the extremely complex set of political networks which have placed many artisans in the crosshairs of profit.  Sadly this combination of factors has resulted many times in the annihilation of the original inspiration and ultimately culturally relevant bodies of work.  Nevertheless there is something more serious being whispered just below the surface of the flamboyance and manufactured nature offered by kitsch initially.

The traffic was thick as we approached San Luis Potosi, as all of the side roads connected to the highway from all directions.  Ahead of us, a long procession of lightweight trucks packed to overflowing with bags of goods for sale and upon entering city limits the streets were also packed with people selling any number of items to the slow moving lines of vehicles.  Commerce was in the air.  Money changing hands, travelers of all ages dragging, hauling, and hoisting  merchandise everywhere we looked.  The whole city was close to tearing open and spilling all of us out into the desert.

Looping and looping around the pulsating central business district we were finally able to park the car and stumble dazed into the chaos.  So saturated was the city that it took more time that anticipated to locate any vacancy for that night’s accommodations.   Once settled into a large dark room without windows, we weighed our options and decided to remain there for the night.  After having washed some pertinent articles of clothing in the bathroom sink and having engineered a clever line from which to hang them, we went to bed. Grateful to find that the car had survived an entire night of hustling and remained intact, we made our way back out of the city, quiet as it regrouped for the next evenings financial circus to begin once again.

Following the highway south, later that day we arrived in the small town of  San Miguel de Allende.  At one time almost unknown to tourists from outside of Mexico, San Miguel quickly gained attention as it’s neo-Gothic church at the heart of the town was ‘discovered’ by foreign artists and as a result several educational institutions were established.  It became an important location for the study and production of Mexican art, as both foreign and national students were attracted by the chance to study with famous Mexican artists such as the prolific painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.  This hybridization of the populous was nothing new as it had long since been a crossroads between territories of the silver-rich north and the commercial center of Mexico City – Spanish, indigenous and later Criollo peoples had been loving, fighting and trading in the area for hundreds of years.  

Entering San Miguel for the first time was like driving right onto the glossy set of an idyllic Mexican postcard.  It was the perfect, brightly painted, bougainvillea draped, Mexico only our fantasies could have conjured and we had arrived on market day.  Gone were the suspicious tricks of hand and burdened masses of merchant pilgrims stuffed into the dark corners of a capital city.  People did not wander the street selling wares, instead they were clearly organized into rows of shop fronts and doorways seducing pedestrians with images of Frida affixed to any number of objects, each shop striving to outdo the previous with it’s unexpected placement or juxtaposition.  The whole fantasy reaching climax as the streets merged into the Mercado de Artesanias – the central crafts market.  

Right in pace with the frenzy of ‘one of every color’ mentality and nearly floating on a cloud of ecstatic, if not somewhat voyeuristic, wholesaling of Mexican culture – we entered the market. It was here were the balance was tipped and I was able to comprehend the dimension of the world in which I had entered.  Every passageway was lined, shoulder to shoulder, table to table, rack to rack with objects for sale in each and every internationally recognizable  ‘indigenous’ format.  It was intimate, it was personal, it had all been produced for me, to satiate my orgiastic longing to posses all of Mexico.   In that brief pause of humid transactions, cash for culture, I recognized myself as fuel and my somewhat lecherous desire to collect, a choice I had made to prioritize owning over knowing.              

41….FortyOne

Mexico

41 - MondayFINAL

Fine white sands slide between your toes with each step,  slow rolling turquoise waters meet a cerulean sky just as the deep red hues of sunset are staining it purple.  There is a breeze, but just enough to blow your hair from your face romantically as you walk with a pair of designer flip-flops dangling from one hand.  The other hand holds a drink…something tropical with a small paper umbrella stuck into the blended ice.  Before heading back up the beach for dinner on the veranda of your sky-scraping resort hotel… you stop to watch the sun sink below the waves, you breathe out with a sense of victory and a smile… all this and for so cheap!

In the 1970’s Cancun was a small town on the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico – a small town with a beautiful climate, white sandy beaches and gentle waters.  It was just too idyllic to leave alone and within the decade the Mexican government – according to the public statement – began to promote hotel development along the coastline in order to produce a tax revenue for Quintana Roo an area wrestled from Mayan indigenous communities in 1915 and registered officially as a Mexican state in 1974.   Masquerading as an eco-friendly, well controlled plan the developers soon had title to the entire coastline and audaciously named it the “Mayan Riviera”.

Removing the soil-supporting shrubs and beach vines which retained the beautiful white sand, clearing mangrove forests which broke up the force of seasonal storms and subsequently adding intensely heavy structures has all led to severe erosion of the coastline. Apart from the complete alteration of the regional eco-system, erosion of beaches represents loss of tourism for the area and in turn loss of hotel earnings and ultimately jobs.  It has recently been calculated that the money generated via tourism in the Cancun area produces 1/3 of the national total.  So influential are those tourist dollars that in 2010, directly following an especially severe hurricane and an equally severe loss of sand from around 8 miles of its’ beaches, the Mexican government decided to invest the equivalent of 70 million US dollars into a project to replenish the sand by vacuuming the ocean floor.  A hopelessly temporary solution and one that causes long-term damage, some scientists report, to the worlds second largest coral reef structure just off the same coastline, the sand was re-deposited onto the beaches in front of hotels and the tourists continued to arrive.

I had been living in Tlaquepaque for about a month when I met Jen at the university in Guadalajara.  I was in the habit of ordering freshly made quesadillas and a cup of cafe de olla from the small kitchen on campus in the afternoons and sitting to read at a table near the open air courtyard and she began to sit with me.  A Canadian, she was in Mexico studying soil erosion and dropping water tables at Lago Chapala, a large fresh water lake which had supplied the city for generations.  We began exploring the city together, becoming regulars at  a delicious Italian restaurant with wild mushroom pasta, a fair trade coffee shop, and the most delicious Sunday brunch.  Apart from eating we had decided to do some traveling together.  Our first destination was a remote beach named Maruata on the Michoacan coast.  We took a highway bus, transferred to a local version and then jumped off at a small road sign with the beaches name.

Unclear about the full “lay of the land” and only seeing open-air hammocks, we accepted the offer of a friendly looking woman, agreeing to pay a fee for the night in a wooden shed behind her small restaurant. The rest of the day we enjoyed the beach and spent some time swinging lazily from hammocks strung in rows under palm from palapas.  It was so beautiful, the weather was perfect, and we seemed to be the only travelers around.  The postcard quickly disintegrated as we returned that evening to our dark shed, the flies and heat which were both trapped miserably inside and set to a soundtrack of stray dogs curious enough about our scent to circle the shed continuously – made for a deliriously sleepless and somewhat paranoiac night.   As soon as the sun rose graciously above the horizon, we escaped the shed to scout for alternate options.

The charm of secluded beaches relies in part on their inherent lack of hotel selections.  Apart from the random hammock, there were really no fixed hotel rooms for us to rent out.  Except the ‘eco-cabanas’ built on perhaps the most privileged cliff side of the entire area and nearly three times our anticipated budget.  Faced with leaving our packs unattended in sand while we swam and slept or the miserable shed we decided to stretch for a private cabana and move on with the day in paradise. Rocky islands reaching out into the water separated each of the three beaches and provided for distinct swimming environments. Incredibly, we had all three beaches nearly to ourselves.  We gravitated to one of the beaches in particular and spent the rest of the day swimming.  Sometime during the middle of the afternoon a woman balancing a large covered basket on her head approached us.  Carefully managing the graceful loop from crown to knee, she displayed her wares… fresh-baked empanadas of all kinds.  Miraculous! I could not understand the logistics of running an oven on the beach until… inviting me into her beach tent, she proudly revealed her sand-floor kitchen and small oven in question.

Our new accommodations included a private hammock strung up outside the room and overlooking one of the beaches.  The second morning I woke early to enjoy the morning light bleeding into the sand below.  My bare toes gripping cement, swinging quietly I contemplated my role as tourist in a place like Maruata.  The light dispersed in a cool yellow, and I watched small groups of men help each other flip over fishing boats and push them through the sand into the waves.  Later that day we would seek out a shady plastic table and one of their wives would plate their catch for us, perfectly aware that we had slept in the most expensive hotel in the area. I took a drink from a water bottle in my hand and thought about Cancun.

7….SEVEN

ITALY

Catastrophe – Pompeii is one of the most famous versions.  One day in late August, the people of Pompeii celebrated their Roman god of fire, the next day Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  In just six hours the city was buried with 25 meters of volcanic debris.  In a moment, every creature was dead as a result of the intense heat and then preserved  by a blanket of thick ash.  When this story is recounted, historians typically emphasize how quickly the city was decimated, highlighting the expressions of shock and terror on the dead citizen’s faces. Nearly 2,000 years later, I sat in the outdoor cafeteria with one of my roommates eating lunch.  The exciting, morbid curiosity that had caused us to stop in Pompeii on our way to the Amalfi coast, had all but faded completely.  The low quality, bland tasting, over priced food and the sprawling noisy gift shops combined with the suffocating number of tourists – if I squinted my eyes just right, I could have sworn I was in Disney Land.  As I was squinting and trying to imagine the orange service tray in front of me offering anything but the oily pasta I had ended up with, something rubbed against my leg under the table.  By the time I had regained composure, my roommate was lavishing attention on the street dog and gently massaging its greasy head.  It was time to go.

We approached Sorrento and the air-filled with the lusty scent of citrus, it was incredible… I could literally smell the botanical seduction.  The lemon orchards were everywhere and perhaps it was the sensuality of the trees pollinating but the entire coastline with infused with an epic sense of romance. The area between Sorrento and Salerno, just south of Naples, is gaspingly beautiful; lush, scented cliffs drop straight down into the most perfect, clear, blue sea.  A road follows the dramatic contours of the cliffs and villas hang like floating castles off their faces.  Leaving Sorrento, we took a local bus to Amalfi and sat on the beach watching the ocean and absorbing as much beauty as was possible in one afternoon – until it was clear that a couple nearby was in desperate need of some privacy.  Returning to the small city we decided to climb the stairs of the main cathedral and from its grand entrance looked out on the colorful cafe umbrellas which populated the cobbled stone plaza below.  Briefly, we explored the dark interior of the cathedral and then headed down the coast to Salerno.

I had not booked a room in Salerno and because of this we were forced to get creative – all of the hotels in our price range were full that evening.  In the guide-book a campground was listed and as a last resort we walked along the coastal road a short while out of the city and discovered a group of tents clustered together in a wooded area above the beach.  After negotiating with the supervisor I managed to secure the use of a small camper parked towards the back of her property.  That evening we explored the city by foot for a few hours and then happily returned to the camper to spend the rest of the night eating chocolate, drinking wine and talking about history – all the while the scent of lemons.