Our weekly feature Beyond the Headlines strives to find the people, projects, and stories happening in the shadows of the usual media hogs. We pick a place that’s been in the news for one reason, and we dig a bit deeper. We know it’s an ambitious feature to tackle every week, being London based and lacking a mainstream media budget that allows for foreign correspondents. But we do our very best, employing every tactic we can think of to find interesting, optimistic, and lesser-known stories from the places splashed across the news each week.
This week the G20 met in Los Cabos, Mexico. For those a little baffled by the G20 summit pulling European leaders across the world to Mexico only to discuss the problems back at home, you’re not alone! The G20 is made up of 19 countries plus the EU, which together is supposed to represent about 90% of the world’s GDP. They all come together to discuss global economic issues which this year translates to ‘what on Earth are we going to do about Europe?’ Well, if they’re taking a trip to Mexico, so is Beyond the Headlines and this week we turn you over to an artist to strives in all his work, to do just that.
Jasper de Beijer is a Dutch artist who spent months in Mexico researching and learning about the horrors of the Mexican drug trade for his most recent series of work ‘Marabunta’. Interested in how the media portray the Mexican drugs trade and what we onlookers take away from the coverage, de Beijer has created his own surreal representation. Meticulously put together layers of events, people, colors, and connotations leave the horrific reality of the drugs trade hanging in the balance somewhere between beautiful and hideous, opulent and destitute, Heaven and Hell. I had the chance to ask de Beijer a few questions this week about his series and realized his passion for turning real-life events and often hard-to-swallow issues into dreamy scenes that leave viewers hypnotized.
What was your time in Mexico like as you researched and learned about the drugs trade?
Quite good actually. I didn’t visit any of the border towns, but spent some time in Mexico City. I wanted to talk to people in Mexico who experienced the drug war from second hand; what was the impression they got from it in the media and how did it affect their lives? To my impression Mexico City felt rather safe and cleaned up; I saw a lot of police. It felt really laid back, so did the people. The city had the feeling of a metropolis, but not the rushed, impolite way people act in other big cities. The people really took the time to talk with me. I was completely charmed. This is why the contrast feels so big between the image that exists of Mexico (or Mexicans for that matter) and the reality on the streets. But once again, I was not in the front line.
What are you hoping people will take away/learn from your exhibition?
It is never my direct goal to give any moral judgment on issues like this. I simply function as a kind of filter, using the media to compose an image. My work is never about any subject directly, but about other people’s impressions of it. So if people see something cruel, graphic, beautiful or enchanting in the work it comes from a large kaleidoscope of hundreds of impressions and thousands of opinions. It is what is in our collective mind.
The unique thing is of course that in the drug war the collective mind is influenced by the cartels; the way they communicate using the dead is altering this image, making it more graphic and extreme every time (with exactly this purpose). This is one of the reasons why I took a more surreal approach; normally I tend to blow up the graphic or suggestive nature of a topic itself, almost making it ridiculous. With this it is too graphic and close to our own reality to superimpose in this way.
What inspired you to look into and do a whole series on the issues in Mexico?
A topic so suggestive can apparently be equally romantic (in the classic sense of the word) just like street gangs are romantic: Most documentaries about street gangs are filmed and edited in a specific way, with the right soundtrack; precisely how people expect it. Apparently everybody is happy with this idea of how something like this is portrayed: the viewers of the shows and the gangs themselves. They always try to make them look cool in a way; so you are not looking at a documentary about people, but puppets in a play.
As for the drug war the suggestive element is widely used in cinema and on TV, in a series like Breaking Bad, where the whole cartel thing is used in the same suggestive way. So even if reality comes so close to the image that there is in the media on this topic, it has nothing to do with reality, because it is too horrible and graphic to even comprehend.
The victims of this conflict are often used as warning signs to the other cartels, police or locals, they are hung from bridges, mutilated, covered with texts. On the other hand the deceased cartel leaders are put in enormous mausoleums, covered with texts to honor them. I imagined a world, an underworld (like the ancient Greeks had) where all those dead people wander around, being repeatedly honored and insulted by text and decoration. A kind of endless struggle of decoration, destruction and repair.
What is your next project focusing on?
I am now doing experiments with historical events, trying to get rid of the connotations around them. I want to see what is left of history if you don’t know what happened.
Marabunta will be on display through 7 July 2012 at the Asya Geisberg Gallery, 537B West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011.
By Erin Spens