Hard Structures and Soft Power: Terence Gower at Americas Society

Grayscale facsimiles of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s still lifes, portraits, and paintings of horses paper the walls of Americas Society’s ground floors. These reference the late Mexican artist’s works hung in the same space in a 1970 exhibition, at a time when the Park Avenue venue was named the Center for Inter-American Relations. These digital prints, titled Partial Facsimile (2021), are now part of Terence Gower’s exhibition “The Good Neighbour,” where it serves as a specter of this institution’s role in fueling open dialogue, culture, and markets across the Americas since the time of its founding in the 1960s by David Rockefeller.

Gower is a Canadian artist who has been making work in and about Mexico for nearly three decades. Many of those works are represented—as maquettes, drawings, and images—in a delightful table arrangement resembling a cityscape-in-miniature, set in the center of the galleries. A scaled-down billboard promoting a popular local brand of shampoo (Gower previously took such an ad from the street in Vanart I & II, 2000) sits alongside videos playing on small upright monitors (Ciudad Moderna, 2004, and Polytechnic, 2005). Models of the artist’s architectural pavilion projects (Bicycle Pavilion, 2002 and Projection Pavilion, 2005) add to this urban simulacrum.

View of “Terence Gower: The Good Neighbour,” 2021, at Americas Society, showing Partial Facsimile, 2021, and Tlatelolcona, 2008.

The 2008 maquette project Tlatelolcona—its parts dispersed across the table—is not modeled after Gower’s own designs. Instead, the four cardboard boxes with differing dimensions that comprise the work are printed with the black-and-white gridded facades of the Tlatelolco housing complex in Mexico City. Those residences were constructed en masse during the country’s boom in urban planning and modernist architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. What the work’s orderly design fails to convey but the disposable quality of its materiality indicates, is the provisional nature of the housing project: most of the buildings were lost in a 1985 earthquake.

The formal intrigue and social ramifications of Mexico’s mid-century architectural history motivate Gower’s work. His projects approximate both the glacial, antiseptic quality of high modernist designs by architects like Corbusier as well as the more general aesthetics of speculative urban plans that attempt to shape the future. Given the absence of human representation elsewhere in the tabletop cityscape, the mini screens showing Gower’s films Ciudad Modernaand Polytechnic at first seem to offset the show’s eeriness simply by depicting people. In the former, Gower isolates the modern architecture of a glamorous Mexico City private home central to a marital dispute depicted in the 1966 film Despedida de casada, and in the latter, he animates still photographs from the 1964 opening of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional. Yet Gower’s manipulations highlight how the bickering couple and clean-cut students are mere accessories to the aspirational story of what a modern country should look like: a culturally, technologically, and socially progressive society.

Gower arrived in Mexico City in 1993, during the early days of the tri-national diplomacy of NAFTA, which represented the realization of Rockefeller’s free-market dream. Americas Society’s exhibitions continue to play a role in that vision, as vehicles for soft cultural politics. Gower saw Siqueiros’s works (specifically his large public murals) during his first year in the country; his decision to reproduce the painter’s 1970s exhibition here seems to pinpoint the conflict between Siqueiros’s labor-oriented, Communist leanings and America Society’s agenda—a conflict of socioeconomic values perhaps best exemplified by Nelson Rockefeller’s endorsement of the destruction of Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco Man at the Crossroads (1934), which prominently depicted Lenin.

The artist has used this history of international relations as fodder for his projects, but in this exhibition, he also intertwines Americas Society’s narrative of national and transnational imaginaries with his self-narrative. “The Good Neighbour” overtly links the conditions of Gower’s practice—which, through its display in the United States, straddles the three NAFTA nations—to its mode of production and exhibition: a Duchampian Boîte-en-Valise-like presentation of his oeuvre that could easily be packed up and carried away.

At Americas Society, Terence Gower locates the sociopolitical aims of the Americas in Mexico City’s built environment, and in the venue’s past.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, Americas Society, David Alfaro Siqueiros, David Rockefeller, mexico city, terence-gowerARTnews.comRead More

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