by Sergio de la Mora
Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 102-105
Video artist Ximena Cuevas is the bomb! A poet of everyday life, she is a master of self-portraits, a perpetual explorer of lies under the layers of the performer's artifice. Cuevas is also the fairy godmother of a new melodrama, as excessive as that of the classic Mexican cinema but boldly defying taboo subjects with a lightness and a self-conscious sense of humor that is changing the shape of Mexican film and video history. She examines life's intimate quotidian pleasures and sorrows with a passion that distinguishes her from all of her contemporaries both inside and outside her native Mexico. With a unique childlike sense of curiosity and wonder, she invests magic in the familiar subjects that surround her. Her hyperlayered, exquisitely scored, and intensely personal videos are ferociously surprising and imaginative.
Her oeuvre includes over twenty films and videos spanning almost two decades. Although bestowed with prestigious international laurels, her videos are best known outside of her land of birth. In the U.S. her tapes have screened at Sundance, New York's Museum of Modem Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and most prominently in the groundbreaking touring film/video series, Mexperimental Cinema.Since the early 1980s Cuevas has worked in the Mexican film industry, most recently as editor on Arturo Ripstein's EL EVANGELIO DE LAS MARAVILLAS (Divine, 1998). However, she has produced all of her own work independently. Her videos expand the legacy of her father José Luis Cuevas, the leading visual artist of his generation who in the 1950s launched a scathing critique of the social realist aesthetics of the Mexican muralist tradition. The elder Cuevas, best known for his grotesque drawings that recall Goya's "Caprichos" and José Clemente Orozco's sobering portraits of Mexican post-revolutionary society, is considered both a living national monument and a monster rolled into a single figure. While Ximena Cuevas inherited her father's visionary, iconoclastic perspective, she is an extraordinary artist in her own right.
In the delirious CORAZÓN SANGRANTE (Bleeding Heart, 1993), a multi-award winning music video made in collaboration with the flamboyant postmodern performer Astrid Hadad, Cuevas parodies Mexican nationalist iconography with an intensity akin to religious reverence. Part kitsch, part syncretic baroque, BLEEDING HEART takes an irreverent perspective on the mythic masochism of Mexican womanhood in a hybrid melodramatic mix of boleros, rancheras, and tropical rhythms. Cuevas has also collaborated with Jesusa Rodríguez, Mexico's cutting-edge feminist performer, on VÍCTIMAS DEL PECADO NEO-LIBERAL (Victims of Neo-Liberal Sins, 1995). This tape is both homage to classic Mexican melodramas and no-holds-barred, agitprop satire of the corruption under Carlos Salinas de Gortari's presidency, whose administration was notorious for political assassinations, betrayal, deceit and intrigue, the very stuff of melodrama.
Never lacking humor, recent videos like CAMA (Bed, 1998) and EL DIABLO EN LA PIEL (Devil in the flesh, 1998) — featured in her new video collection, DORMIMUNDO VOL. 1: INCOMODIDAD (Sleepworld Vol. 1: Discomfort) — pay ironic homage to Mexican visual vernacular forms, in this case melodrama The first playfully juxtaposes vintage pornography, both straight and queer, with an image of the ideally pristine, middle class bedroom while in the latter, a hybrid-horror masochistic love story, the artifice of tears which drench telenovelas[open notes in new window] is exposed for the viewer with a truly arresting effect. While DEVIL IN THE FLESH may seem like a throwback to avant-garde works from the 1970s that depict self-inflicted physical torture, Cuevas' visceral imagery of the artist's rubbing VapoRub and chile in her eyes exceed the shock of emotional manipulation.The experimental documentary MEDIAS MENTIRAS (Half Lies, 1995), takes us on a tour through her beloved Mexico City. HALF LIES is Cuevas' most self-consciously "political" work to date. Through her car window and through pages in her journal, she provides glimpses ranging from autobiographic material on her family to the sights and sounds surrounding her daily life. The work is a dazzling, biting satire on Mexican national icons and its political and popular culture. Using a mixed technique of video inserts and animation, Cuevas weaves together personal and private spaces to comment both on the Americanization and resilience of Mexican culture. This is seen in sequences such as the one where she playfully juxtaposes a figure of Bart Simpson in masquerade as a Mexican charro (cowboy) against a serene image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.Cuevas' dystopic perspective on lesbian romance and obsessive, compulsive fantasies is dissected in CUERPOS DE PAPEL (Paper Bodies, 1997). In this multilayered video, the rosy romantic bolero heard on the soundtrack is interrupted when one of the lovers mentions how much she loves that particular song. "With whom did you hear this song?" says the off-screen voice as we suddenly see the record loudly being snapped in two. Visually, body parts, such as aims and legs, begin floating across the frame in a surrealist gesture, indexing the disintegration of the relationship and the lover's mounting jealousy.
What follows is an interview I did with Cuevas in the summer of 1999. It was conducted over email in Spanish and was originally prepared for a screening of Mexican experimental film and video that I organized for the ¡Cine Latino! Festival in San Francisco in the fall of 1999.
How long have you been working in film and video and what pushed you to work with these media?
This year is precisely the twentieth anniversary of my professional career. In the summer of 19791 began to work at the Cineteca Nacional National Film Archive in Mexico City] "repairing" films. What I mean by "repairing" involved cutting scenes that were going to be censored by Gobernación. The supervisors saw the films in a private screening room. When a scene or simply a word appeared that did not contribute to good Mexican morals, the supervisor, who was generally speaking a very decent housewife, would shout into a microphone, "Mark!" With that cue, the projectionist would use a white pencil to mark the beginning and end of the forbidden. I would "repair" the film in the basement. There I was with white gloves cutting and cutting films. Before working at the Cineteca, movies entered through my eyes and ears, but once I began working at the Cineteca I became an addict to the smell of celluloid as I touched each film frame. Since that moment I haven't stopped having an absolutely passionate, religious relationship to the moving image.
Three years prior to working at the Cineteca, I saw Busby Berkeley's LULLABY OF BROADWAY and knew that I wanted to live inside movies. I was hypnotized in seeing how Berkeley in less than ten minutes could achieve such ruptures in space and time. I began to see the possibility of the impossible in movies, how within a frame everything is possible, like in the tornado scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ where Dorothy stands in front of a window and sees her whole life flying before her. An image is enough to surpass any border between fiction and reality.
Why do you choose to work with video?
When I was a little girl, my favorite game was to climb over fences into other people's houses, hide under a table and listen to the everyday conversations of strangers, of whom the only thing I saw was their shoes. From down there, where I was invisible, I would reconstruct those people's lives. The video camera continues to exert that fascination for secrets over me. I would not change the private act of videomaking for the big apparatus of film.
Tell me about your relation to the Mexican national iconography (such as the cactus) that you so often use in your videos, including CORAZÓNE SANGRANTE.
Mexico's mass media is full of borrowed images. That borrowing seems to them very professional so they feel they belong to the first world and use "American" images. This never fails to surprise me because Mexico is a country rich in images that surround our everyday lives. Walking down a street you'd need to be blind to not see all that richness. Images in Mexico are beautiful but also disturbing. The country has brilliant colors on the surface and black and white on the inside.
If you aren't blind, from infancy you can be marked with a certain delirium. I grew up visiting a gigantic marble monument where I saw a glass jar in which a president's hand floated. I grew up with the mummified nuns of the Del Carmen Church. Ever since I was a little girl, I would go to Frida Kahlo's house where the sight of her body's shape still marked on her bed would fill me with morbidity. I never doubted the veracity of an exhibit at our annual fair, which presented the woman who turned into a turtle because she had misbehaved.
When Astrid Hadad and I made CORAZÓN SANGRANTE in 1993, we were approaching the four hundred year celebration of the meeting of the two worlds, the Conquest. Precisely at that moment Salinismo was at its peak with Mexico masquerading as a first world nation. For these reasons, to return to neo-nationalism was crucial in order to not die from asphyxia. At that moment, to return to the cactus represented a vital necessity to grab onto any root.
What is the concept structuring your most recent work DORMIMUNDO VOL. 1: INCOMODIDAD?
DORMIMUNDO is a work-in-progress that began with MEDIAS MENTIRAS. Formally I'm interested in creating something like a laboratory of life. DORMIMUNDO is a series of postcards documenting daily life. The camera looks directly at private moments. Nothing is staged; nothing is acted; life is shown in the raw like it really is. I experiment when I choose a frame. The framing is very specific — it encloses, structures. And that life which is in principle "natural" takes on representational dimensions. While in post-production I explore different genres to highlight specific emotional states.
DORMIMUNDO is also a documentary about the discomfort of being Mexican — the Mexican dream of not being one's self. We are a country of masquerades; of moral dislocations; of American dreams made of cardboard sets; a servile country; a country ashamed of its own race; one where self-destruction is a form of religion to reach heaven through martyrdom; of American mirrors with fears of growing old; of solitude; and of echoes of the American desire for fame. DORMIMUNDO is once again another of my exercises in which I use mirrors so that I can look at lies.
Will you address the concept behind EL DIABLO EN LA PIEL and your experience filming ii? Are the chiles and Vicks VapoRub that you put in your eyes real?
Of course, the chiles and VapoRub are real! The lie isn't in those props; the lies are elsewhere. Lana Turner's palms were full of scars; the technique she used to reach melodramatic heights was to make tight fists and dig in with her own nails until she could cry. Today, actresses in Mexican telenovelas apply VapoRub to their eyes to cry. The audience's tears follow those false tears. In EL DIABLO EN LA PIEL the camera films the trick, but even then the action appears dramatic. This video is once again about my fascination for artifice, for fabricated emotions. It is about the Catholic search for pain in order to live passionately. And it is also about the family melodrama's discomfort.
A number of your videos (including CAMA) display an intense relationship to the "old" Mexican cinema. What place do those movies have in your sentimental education?
I am melodramatic in body and soul. I'm fascinated by the melodramatic excess of Mexican movies and, as I show in EL DIABLO EN LA PIEL, also in my daily life. Seeing those movies is like putting chile in your eyes. It is a pleasure to cry every time El Torito dies in Ismael Rodríguez' USTEDES LOS RICOS (You the Rich, 1948). I kneel before those movies that reinvented an entire nation. It was a cinema with a unique personality. There is no equivalent in the world to stars like Pedro Infante, Katy Jurado, Ninón Sevilla or María Félix. The classic Mexican cinema invented itself, exactly the opposite of today's sin — to borrow foreign imagery. Movies from Mexico's golden age give me an infinite nostalgia for something which perhaps never existed.
What is your opinion about contemporary Mexican film? Do you think the Mexican film industry is bound to the Televisa aesthetic and to serve the function of a maquilladora for Hollywood just in order to survive?
First, one must keep in mind that Mexico is a country that breaks ties every six years with the change in presidential administration. The country has absolutely no continuity except in its six-year collapse. Beginning with Luis Echeverría's presidency in the early 1970s, basically the state has produced film. And state-funded film production changes according to each administration's tastes and interests. For me, the most interesting state-funded films were those made under Echeverría, works by directors with very personal cinematic worlds such as Arturo Ripstein and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. I also like the work of Gabriel Retes, who began to make independent/quasi-industrial films just after Echeverría's administration. For me these are the only directors with vision.
I think the so-called boom in new Mexican cinema was another mirage produced by the Carlos Salinas de Gotari administration. It's a cinema fixated on the idea of being part of the "first world," a cinema divided into two trends. One the one hand, there's the "green card" trend, with directors who have used the state's money to go to Hollywood and who still today appear in newspapers portraying themselves as proud Mexicans. On the other hand, there's the more practical trend that has sold national folklore as if viewed from the window of a tourist bus. Today it's interesting to see how producers consider the most important Mexican media for export the telenovela. So they make films identical to them with problems involving idiotic couples, films that offend the spectator's intelligence. I believe the interesting stuff is happening in the "other" cinema, in the "minor" cinema, the cinema that's made outside of official institutions. It's the cinema of visual artists or "bad" students trained or rejected by Mexico's film schools.
How would you situate your work within the field of experimental Mexican film and video? To what generation do you belong and are there any general traits that characterize your generation?
In principal, I don't consciously belong to any generation. My work has always been done in complete solitude. In Mexico, videos are made as if we lived on islands. There is really no real video culture in Mexico, no place where one can go to screen videos. However, this year I got to know Silvia Gruner, and it has been very important for me to meet an artist who is my age and also Mexican. We have begun a very rich dialogue about our work. Out of our mutual desire to connect and our shared interests, we decided to curate BAÑO MARÍA (Steam Bath, 1999), a compilation of recent videos made in Mexico. Silvia, and later Enrique Ortiga (a curator who is a big fan of our generation), and I would get together to share our crazy desire to see videos. We began to find similarities, threads that joined diverse points of view from a single country at a very specific historical moment. Even in their differences, in their various dislocations, these videos have points of convergence so that one can speak about a generation, one that seeks reflections on identity from islands with closed doors. This generation has a lot of emotional intensity, an intensity which obsessively seeks to confront the camera-mirror.
What kind of support is available in Mexico for the production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion of independent film and video?
The most support for the exhibition and research of independent media comes from outside Mexico. The film/videomakers and scholars, Rita Gonzalez and Jesse Lerner, who curated the "Mexperimental" film/ video program came from California to Mexico to view material that nobody in Mexico seemed to give much importance to. They dug out from under all these rocks a series of underground works that have begun to rewrite the history of Mexican film and video. So now there is much more interest in independent media. There are also some precedents. For example, for a number of years now the Mexican Government has sponsored scholarships for media artists. Especially important is a scholarship fund targeted toward young artists (Jóvenes Creadores) because it provides a vital space for video as a mode of expression. There is also an annual video-art biennial held in Mexico City which every year becomes a bigger event. There is a short film festival also held in Mexico City that has now been expanded to include independent feature films.
But I believe that one of the great values of video and of independent film is that one can do this with or without financial support. It bothers me a lot to have to depend on someone else. With video one doesn't need to be dependent. You can film with very basic equipment out of your home. And I very much believe in home-based distribution. Furthermore, an artist's work nowadays doesn't end with production. The circle closes once the work is screened. This exhibition process entails hours of work on the computer, making copies of photos, written texts, running to Federal Express. The external support structures are like winks of complicity. They shouldn't be what determines if one continues to work.
What are some of your future projects and what's this I hear about you being the future Mexican Leni Riefenstahi?
Just as I don't hold onto the past, I also don't have future projects. My most important project is in the present so that I'm developing DORMIMUNDO with this idea about a response to the everyday. Since I have a cough today, I'm doing an expressionist exercise about the gesticulations one experiences when coughing. I'm always working. I don't screen everything, but I sharpen my eye everyday. Leni Riefenstahl? ¡Órale! Listen, the thing is that when I was awarded the biggest fellowship the Mexican government has sponsored, my best friend stopped talking to me because she said I was a corrupt sell-out. So I imagined myself making propaganda for the Mexican government…Actually, now that I think about it, I wouldn't mind making something in the public gymnasiums. And I'll use music by Wagner.
1. Telenovelas are soap operas that, unlike their U.S. counterparts, are aimed at both female and male audiences, aired on primetime, and composed usually of a series of episodes which run for no more than a handful of months.
2. Gobernación is equivalent to the State Department; before President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's regime, this branch was responsible for all activities related to the mass media.
3. The dominant aesthetic of the television branch of the multimedia giant Televisa is best characterized by its sleek production values and its conservative mode of entertainment.
Cuevas' tapes are distributed by Video Data Bank: 112 S. Michigan Ave, 3rd Floor. Chicago, IL 60603. Fax 312-541-8072.