Andy Grundberg's Essay


Conversación is a collaboration between two artists, one from Mexico and one an annual visitor to Mexico, that uses photography to probe the possibilities of cultural and visual exchange in a digital age. Taking place over the Internet, with one artist in Mexico City and one in Washington, D.C., the conversation is a wordless interplay of information and meaning situated somewhere between the Surrealists’ poetic practice known as the exquisite corpse and the ballroom dance called the Paso Doble, in which a couple re-enacts the thrusts and parries of a bullfight.


Conversación began last year with a single photograph sent by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio as a digital file to Muriel Hasbun, who replied by sending back one of her own. This exchange went on for months. Each responded to the next image in his or her own way, not knowing where the accumulating sequence was leading or what its narrative content ultimately might be. Ortiz Monasterio selected his images from the archive of photographs he has made in Mexico during his 30-year career. Hasbun chose hers from work made in the last two years in San Miguel de Allende and in Mexico City, including images from her project encarnado: embodied, made in and around a slaughterhouse in San Miguel. Other than agreeing on the ground rules, they did not discuss what they were doing while the exchange was taking place.


It would be easy to take Conversación as a game of inside/ outside, with one artist the native and the other the tourist; however, both artists are too cosmopolitan and complicated for this reading to stick. Hasbun is originally from El Salvador, and much of her work addresses cultural dislocation and the physical traces of memory, including her memories of a childhood interrupted by a violent civil war. Ortiz Monasterio is recognized internationally as one of Mexico’s most distinguished photographers but also functions as an editor, archivist, and image entrepreneur in the model of Alfred Stieglitz. His work is in dialogue not only with Mexican cultural traditions, as in his documentation of the rituals of the Huicholes, an indigenous people in Mexico’s northwest, but also with contemporary ideas about how photographs both store and manufacture memory and history.


In a sense, then, the artists are more partners than opposites, although they each take their own parts in the dance that is Conversación. At times their responses seem to come from the subject matter at hand: a drawing of a nude woman marked up as pieces of meat leads to a pornographic piece of pottery, and then to a close-up of a man’s face, all silver except for his open red mouth. Other sequences work off color or other formal elements, as when Ortiz Monasterio answers an image of meat hooks with a view of a mountaintop that echoes their triangular shape. Things seem to get more complex and rich as the sequence progresses, and as bright color gives way to tans and grays and corporal presence is increasingly subsumed by its remnants and specters.


Conversación is ultimately about how art is made and how meaning is constructed. Every move the artists make is smart in an intellectual sense but also deeply intuitive, a gesture of not knowing more than it is of knowing. To trust each other in this process, to collaborate in the territory of risk and uncertainty where one can feel vulnerable and even foolish, is as much an accomplishment for these artists as is the beauty of the individual images and the mystery of their sequencing.


– Andy Grundberg, 2011