Year of Germany in Mexico Round Trip Ticket to the Afterlife

For the exhibition
For the exhibition "Einmal Jenseits und zurück" Germans and Mexicans packaged a suitcase for their "last trip". | Photo: José Jasso

This June, the Year of Germany in Mexico began at the same time as the Year of Mexico in Germany. Some of the events revolve around the subject of death and the question of how extreme violence can be worked out artistically.

Xilotepex Cemetery in Xochimilco looks like a folk festival: the graves are decorated with luminous orange cempasúchil flowers. Also many people have brought the favourite foods and beverages of the deceased along. It is 2 November, and today legendary Día de los Muertos is being celebrated in Mexico. It is said that on this day the souls of the dead pay their relatives a visit and a celebratory reception is prepared for them with food, drink, and music.

Xochimilco is located on the outskirts of Mexico City. It is a district where one can still feel the history of a country that began long before the “Conquista.” But also in the more chic, amazingly green inner city districts of Mexico City, in quarters like Roma and Condesa, one cannot escape death these days. Pictures of skulls, skeletons and the Grim Reaper are found on almost every street corner. It is a frivolous game with death and its symbols. To us, who have largely made death taboo and banished it from our everyday lives, this approach may seem strange. But it has a long tradition in Mexico. It also has to do with pre-Columbian ideas that life and death were phases of an infinite cycle that repeated incessantly.

Packing suitcases for the afterlife

In spite of cultural differences, however, we need to be cautious with generalizations. For the death of good friends or family members naturally affects Mexicans very deeply, says Walther Boelsterly, the director of the Museo del Arte Popular in Mexico City. Since the end of October it has been showing the exhibition “Einmal Jenseits und zurück” (Round Trip Ticket to the Afterlife), just one of many events sponsored by the Goethe-Institut as part of the Year of Germany in Mexico in which the focus is on violence and death.

A suitcase for the hereafter. A suitcase for the hereafter. | Photo: José Jasso For the exhibition, Germans and Mexicans packed suitcases for their “final journey.” The results are lovingly assembled pieces of luggage, which, in addition to personal memories, often contain photos, candles, flowers and books. The attached explanations reveal that dealing with death has stimulated them all to think about essential questions. Some even did without material objects. For instance, in one suitcase there is only a white pillow with the word “Nothing” in black letters. Next to it, we read a quote by Kurt Schwitters: “Immortality is not for everyone.” According to Walther Boelsterly, the exhibition mainly shows one thing: “Death is a universal event that no one can escape.”

Conference on art and violence

In early November, the Dark Matter conference took place very close to the Museo del Arte Popular. Curated by the German cultural scientist Anne Huffschmid and the Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball, forensic anthropologists, artists and curators from all over the world were invited to the MUNAL National Art Museum. In a transdisciplinary dialogue, they explored how the arts can handle extreme violence.

The conference The conference "Dunkle Materie" invited forensic anthropologists, artists and curators from all over the world to the National Art Museum MUNAL. | Photo: Goethe-Institut The project "MenschenDinge" was one of the works presented. With photos and video interviews, Esther Shalev-Gerz gave a voice to everyday objects found in the blood-soaked earth of Buchenwald concentration camp. Laura Valencia wrapped statues of Mexican patron saints from the 19th century with a thick black cord. The Mexican artist made the monuments disappear to commemorate the tens of thousands of “disappeared” people in her homeland.

The Mexican historian and anthropologist Mario Rufer introduced the term “necropolitics” to the conference. He describes systematic violence in post-colonial times as it has prevailed in Mexico’s “war on drugs” since 2006. The concept was based on Foucault and developed by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, who defined it as “subjugating life to the power of death.” This describes the rational logic of acts of violence directly aimed at the body for the demonstration of power and its preservation.

First Otto Dix exhibition in Mexico

The work of Otto Dix can be seen in Mexico for the first time. The work of Otto Dix can be seen in Mexico for the first time. | Photo: Mario Dominguez That the violence that dominates everyday life in some regions of Mexico has not just one cause and above all it is not an anthropological constant that affects Mexico alone could be observed at the MUNAL right next to the conference. There, disturbing works by Otto Dix are being shown for the first time in Mexico for the Year of Germany. The large show of the life’s work of the artist, which runs until the middle of January, shows how strongly Dix was affected by the traumatic experiences on the front of the First World War. “Dance of Death,” “Shell Crater,” “Shot to Pieces”: Dix’s drawings at the entrance of the exhibition show how quickly humaneness can fall apart in the barbarism of a war.

By Ole Schulz

The Year of Germany in Mexico is being organized by the Federal Republic of Germany. Under the direction of the Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut and the BDI (Bundesverband der Deutsche Industrie e.V.) are partners on the steering committee. Project management and implementation is the responsibility of the Goethe-Institut Mexico.

Coordinated by the German Embassy, a close network of German organizations is collaborating on site (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Deutsche Zusammenarbeit in Mexiko, Deutsch-Mexikanische Industrie- und Handelskammer, Kulturstiftung der Deutschen Industrie and other cultural mediators). In addition, there is a board of trustees of high-ranking representatives of industry and culture. Other actors and participants in the Year of Germany are the Federal ministries, the German Bundestag, the Federal states, associations, universities, institutes, MPG, DFG, AvH, foundations, churches, Deutsche Welle and German development cooperation organizations.