The (relatively) new José Vasconcelos Library is a fascinating structure. Entering it, one feels enveloped in a maze of cages, evoking curiosity rather than a sense of entrapment. It is a testament to Mexico’s visual acuity, even if (unfortunately) the expectations it raises are not matched by its book collection. The building itself is a work of art, and perhaps for this reason, the space is not loaded with various pieces. However, there is one important exception to be found on the ground floor.
From several sets of suspensions there is a whale skeleton hanging in mid air. One might assume that this is a life-sized representation, made with relatively light materials, but this is wrong. It is a real skeleton of a grey whale which weighs 1,696 kilos and 11.69 meters long. The installation is called Mobile Matrix (2006).
The story of these bones is interesting in and of itself, requiring incredible amounts of time, transport and travel, including air, boat, cars and ATVs. In the end, the skeleton traveled from Isla Arena in Baja California to the Valley of Mexico, thousands of kilometers to the east and over 2,000 km of altitude.
The concept was the brainchild of Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco who is famous for his installation and conceptual art. Obtaining special permission, he entered Isla Arena (part of El Viscaíno Reserve) specifically to find a whale skeleton in the right condition for the work. Orozco and his team traveled to island because it was known that fairly bare grey whale bones can be found in kilometers of nothing but sand dunes. Grey whales give birth in El Viscaíno’s bays and some will beach themselves and die here. Their remains are the property of the government, and trading in them is prohibited.
The team combed the shores of the island to find the right kind of whale carcass. The island is a natural cemetery, hosting all kinds of remains, not just that of whales, as well as vestiges of human activity. Essential in the search was the use of ATV’s, GPS and experts from various Mexican government agencies. They needed a whale carcass that was about two years old so that natural processes would eliminate some but not all of the animals soft tissue. In particular, the outer skin needed to be relatively intact because once that is lost, the bones begin to disperse.
Once the right carcass was found, it was clean with the help of specialists, but the artist and assistants had to also participate in the process to assure a clean surface for the graphite work to come later. Everything was recorded and classified.
The whale then “migrated” to Mexico City, making a stop in the great lobby of the Buenavista subway and commuter rail station. It provided enough space to work and is right next to the library. Orozco and his team spent months decorating the bones with graphite patterns. When this work was finished, it was hung in its current position, much like a mobile. This act, and the name, is meant to evoke mobiles in children’s rooms as well as the didactic decorations in the classroom.
The graphite work is an intricate blend line grids and circles, and cover the entire skeleton. This feat took over 6000 graphite pencils to complete. This work is best seen on viewed from the front but given its intricacy and position high in the air, most of the graphite designs are not visible. In fact, one needs to go to the piece and look for the graphite work specifically to see any of it.. The graphite patterns have various interpretations, but one is a reference to the decoration of bones (and bones as decoration) that has been practiced in Mexico since the pre Hispanic period. While it is definitely art, it is an artistic work with one foot firmly rooted in Mexico’s handcraft tradition.
All images by Luis Alvaz (CC-by-SA 4.0)