I’ll be your mirror: Alejandro Cartagena’s Presidential Selfies

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing, foreword, The Golden Notebook)

I always thought people were essentially bright. Distracted, sure, and weak, and beaten, but never stupid. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Oh my god. I have become television. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Within a capitalist consumer society, the cult of personality has the power to subsume ideas, to make the person, the personality into the product and not the work itself. (bell hooks)

I’m compelled to mildly disagree with hooks. Its not solely to be found in a “capitalist consumer society.” I have faith that the evil we do is not confined to one political system, one format, one space (the inappropriate, black gales of laughter I enjoyed, then stifled, then burst loose again, watching The Death of Stalin testify to this).

As you enter the VISA Gallery space at the Marilyn I. Walker the monochromatic starkness will strike you first. All four gallery walls, and the alcove by the entrance, have large black and white photographs, that could be the same image, and any observer will begin to see similarities among them. There’s the smiling, yet interchangeable, nameless, people – or acolytes, crowding about the phone / camera and the man, either of which could be said to the be main subject of this exhibition. There’s the upraised arms of either Enrique Peña Nieto or those “saluting” him as they take their “own” pictures. The specific photographs are uniform in size, but are installed in a cinematic manner, so that each of the walls has a “filmstrip” of multiple images (sometimes seven, sometimes five). The same smiling man appears in them all (I am reminded – as I am, too often, lately, with various political situations, of Gary Callahan, whose true name was The Smiler, from Transmetropolitan. If Peña Nieto is Callahan, then Trump, if we continue to reference Ellis’ series, is surely his predecessor in the Presidential office, whose appellate was The Beast).

But before I engage with the exhibition more, as, despite the apparent simplicity of images and installation, each time I’ve visited I’ve found another layer, another issue, is unwrapped, like the skin of an onion (and perhaps equally tear inducing), here are the words from the press release: Hosted in the VISA Gallery and Student Exhibition Space, Presidential Guide to Selfies asks people to question the motives behind Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s vast collection of publicly shared selfies.

Cartagena has curated a selection of these selfies (currently posted to President’s Official website) as a means to examine whether these images are being shared to show the Mexican President’s engagement with the people of his country, or whether it is merely an exercise in vanity as he ‘poses with his fans.’
Cartagena has also created an accompanying photo book for this exhibition in which he details the events surrounding each selfie.

[Amy] Friend [one of the finest instructors and photo based artists at Brock University, I would add] noted that in an age of cell phones and social media, and with Canada’s own Justin Trudeau often affectionately and critically called ‘Prime Minister Selfie,’ the exhibition’s exploration of politics, social media connectivity and celebrity culture is exceptionally timely.

More “official” words: The deliberate use of merchandising strategies in presidential campaigns and governmental communications have in the past decade sought out ways to close the gap between the people and their candidates or government officials. The epitome of such strategies can be found in one section of the official website of the Mexican president, entitled: “My picture with the President.” Now, 6 years into his presidency, it seems clear that the only thing president Enrique Peña Nieto has been interested in all along was looking his best with his fans.

In the history of religious painting, there’s the theme of the donor – the person(s) who paid for the altarpiece or diptych, of the crucifixion or the angel announcing to Mary her ‘delicate condition’ or the image of god on his throne, attendant by various saints, supplicants or his son – being presented on the edge of the composition, kneeling in devotion, in the divine presence, but not intruding, just luxuriating in the scene. There’s an element of that, here, a basking in a presence that graces the unwashed, unworthy masses, and look how grateful they are…wallowing and revelling in the Presidential presence.

A Presidential Guide To Selfies is part of a much larger project, specifically a book and some online components, so what’s in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA is a fraction of a larger endeavour by Cartagena: a satellite, if you will. In that respect, the work exists differently here in St. Catharines than in Mèxico, and is influenced, perhaps even redefined by ‘here’– as this place permeates it – and I know my sense of ‘here’ is shifted by Cartagena’s work, as well.

I’ve commented before that in #mySTC synchronicity has defined many interactions and has led to an awareness of certain veins – like a spiderweb – connecting seemingly incidental and benign facts. In engaging with Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide To Selfies, several streams of thought have been informing my interpretation, my reaction, to this show, on what I must admit is a somewhat visceral level. When I first visited I was almost belligerent in my distaste for the work: but when I experience such a response to an exhibition or other cultural phenomena, I consider it my responsibility to further explore (perhaps like picking a scab) why such a gut reaction was evoked.

I must, since we’ll be wading into the effluvia of politicians – the Petrowski that you try to avoid stepping in, on the sidewalk even – mention Nietzsche’s admonition about gazing into the abyss and how that does not leave you unsullied. When this show opened, the civic election was underway, and there’s been a heightened level of pundit jabber and posturing about next year’s federal election. Adding insult to injury, we also now, in Ontario, are funding Doug Ford’s government propaganda pretending to be news. I can hear Bruce Cockburn so reasonably requesting that “the world retain in memory that might tongues tell mighty lies.”

A recent spot on Global News – or CTV, forgive me, I lack the will to split hairs among the mainstream media mimic morons – that I failed to avoid refers to Trudeau as our “celebrity” PM, and also mentions that bigoted nonentity Scheer who so often guffaws, à la Howdy Doody, about “PM Selfie.”

Returning to Niagara, this recent civic election has offered some interesting optics too. I’ve walked by a billboard of deposed Regional Czar – oh, sorry, I mean, Chair – Alan Caslin that declares Niagara has too many politicians, and I wonder about the self regard and arrogance that didn’t anticipate that many voters would respond by turfing his malfesant ass out of office.

Oh, politicians; I’d say they’re like that witch bullying the magic mirror into averring that yes, you are the fairest of them all, but I hate to insult the witch by association. Perhaps more Spider Jerusalem is required: “They say they like politicians but couldn’t eat a whole one.” Perhaps because they make you a bit sick to your stomach, I’d aver…

Some of Cartagena’s appropriated scenes are reminiscent of the frenzy around Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada over two decades ago, or some of the same populist posturing we’ve seen from the current Pope, Francis: and now, as the Catholic cabal hurtles headlong towards canonizing JP II, more and more and even more evidence is emerging that no one, in the history of the world, has done more to aid and abet the rape of children than the former Karol Józef Wojtyla and that Francis’s hands, like all in that space, are filthy, oh so filthy. I assure you, ahem, that your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is surely not gloating at all as he quotes Jesus (Matthew 23:27, KJV) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Before my hyperbole gets further out of hand – if not already too late – lets examine further what Cartegana offers us, in the VISA space and his wider practice that is as grounded in politics and community as it is in a university gallery space.

Alejandro Cartagena was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic but lives and “works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues. Cartagena’s work has been exhibited internationally in more than 50 group and individual exhibitions in spaces including the the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris and the CCCB in Barcelona, and his work is in the collections of several museums including the San Francisco MOMA, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Portland Museum of Art, The West Collection, the Coppel collection, the FEMSA collection, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the George Eastman House and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and among others.” You can read more, about the many things he’s done, here.

An impressive list of accomplishments, and one that lends weight to Selfies. Conversely, the record of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has included not just appropriate concern over the manufactured media persona (spending 2 billion over five years, on publicity, the most EVER spent by a Mexican President) that Cartagena samples for us, but much more horrifying actions. A smattering of shame: allegations of espionage against journalists (a report in the NY Times was even titled, “In Mexico it’s easy to kill a journalist”) to foster silence regarding reportage on the many allegations of corruption, and this has extended to civil rights activist whom have also been deemed “problems” for the Peña Nieto regime. There is also – unbelievably, it would seem, as we get distracted by images and forget facts, perhaps – how in “September 2014, 43 male college students were forcibly taken then disappeared in Guerrero. The forced mass disappearance of the students arguably became the biggest political and public security scandal Peña Nieto had faced during his administration. It led to nationwide protests, particularly in the state of Guerrero and Mexico City, and international condemnation.”

I am again reminded of The Smiler. When you visit A Presidential Guide to Selfies (or purchase the book) hold these – and go and search out more information about jovial and jocular and jaunty President Peña Nieto – and other abuses of power made by this seemingly happy, harmless facade of a man in mind.

Returning to Cartagena’s informative and lovely site: when I visited I also spent significant time with his other works, specifically Carpoolers, and this offers a tonic to Selfies.

The statement regarding that work indicates that Cartagena uses his lens – or as with Selfies, the lens of others – in examining his, and the wider, socio economic world. The statement for that work: Offering a different take on ‘carpooling’ Alejandro Cartagena continues his pointed investigation of the multiple and complex issues relating to unhampered suburban expansion. These images show how carpooling is practised by workers in México.

They are an acute observation to overgrowth issues in Mexico, where suburbs are being built in far away lands with no proper public transportation to the urban centers causing greater commutes and consumption of gas. Even though these workers are not conscious of the ecological impact they have by travelling this way as they are doing it to save time and money, they are a silent contributor to the preservation of our city and planet.

These are works that are disturbing immediately, with the obvious poverty and suffering of the ‘carpoolers’, and offer an interesting contrast to the euphoric – if somewhat vacuous – public in Selfies.

When Trump blundered into the American presidency, via the machinations (successful and failed) indicative of the corpulent yet cancerous American political system, I remember being fascinated by a political “leader” who could communicate directly with people, through Twitter. Put aside the execrable content for a moment, that the format is limited intellectually and can foster spiteful spittles of foolishness, and consider that there was no mediation, no barrier, between what “leader” and “followers.”

Yet, we’ve seen this not only fail but become an embarrassment: in this same manner, the “presidential selfie” has potential, yet by its very nature resists any real content, or real application or utility. I was present at one of the events in St. Catharines where PM Trudeau visited, and though there was time for these brief interactions, they were more mob-like than anything, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Perhaps that’s not just the Sontagian dilemma of how photography invites projection, but also that in the essence these politicians – whether Nieto or even Trump – were empty and inviting us to fill them with whatever we liked, only to find that was a ploy, a con. To return to the idea put out by hooks, of the “product”, one must always – especially in politics, these mad days – practice caveat emptor / buyer beware. After all, there’s no warranty and though it might look good, as in the case of Peña Nieto’s record, it has been somewhat of a lemon. Or perhaps, as with the manufactured sales pitch (2 billion over five years), Peña Nieto can be said to be an impulse purchase that played upon disinformation and unethical salespeople, and now there is no returns policy in place, and still a large price to be paid.

If I return to the initial distaste and touch of anger I experienced when first visiting Cartagena’s work, the explanation may be found in the words of Neil Gaiman’s hustler, Wednesday: On the whole, I make my money from people who never know they’ve been taken, and who never complain, and who will frequently line up to be taken when I come back that way again.

A Presidential Guide to Selfies is on display in the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts until November 6th, 2018. The gallery hours are 1 – 5 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. The situation Alejandro Cartagena‘s work addresses, however, is ongoing, on our televisions and online, and in our regional, national and international discourse, as you read this. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site or media releases, or shot by the writer.