Contemporary art gallery in Mexico City

El águila y el dragón
Marek Wolefyd

"... the mechanical crafts of the Spanish have all ceased, because they all dress and wear with sangleys, for being very good crafters, in the style of Spain, and they do everything very cheap..." (Domingo de Salazar, 1590)

In the letter by Fr. Domingo de Salazar: Of the things of China and the Chinese in the Parian of Manila, sent to King Felipe II, the first bishop of the Philippines, the Dominican friar describes –sometimes with curiosity, others with true anguish – the ability of the sangleys to almost perfectly imitate the merchandise and other “curious things” that the Spanish had brought to the islands of the South Sea and that they needed for their subsistence and exchange. So skillful were the sangleys at copying Spanish objects that Domingo de Salazar warned that it was a matter of time for them to replace European artists and craftsmen: "The churches are being provided with the images they make, those that had previously been missing, and based on the skill they show in portraying the images that come from Spain, I understand that before long we won't need the ones made in Flanders.”

To think that objects made in China are always cheaper and they'd still show an undeniable artistic quality became a commonplace since the -apparently distant- 16th century. However, what value has the illusory less expensive? What tools do we have at our disposal to deliberate upon these objects that emerge as copies of an original that, yet, end up being lost in time? These problems are addressed by Marek Wolfryd in the third installment of his series The Infinite Path, where the artist confronts us with a number of artistic questions that arose during early modernity and that continue to be surprisingly contemporary.

All the objects that make up this exhibition are copies of other artistic objects (which in turn refer to some older ones); in addition, they were totally or partially produced in China, to later be assembled in Mexico. This has become a characteristic feature of the artist's production: his works, as well as those of early modernity, are born in a context of multiple temporal contacts and varied transpacific connections.

It is significant that the artist borrows, in addition to the title, some provocations that the historian Serge Gruzinski developed in his book The Eagle and the Dragon. European excess and globalization in the 16th century. In the conclusions of his book, Gruzinski suggests that we compose a new history of global renaissance, a story in which the impossibility of the political conquest of Chinese territories by the Spanish would not prevent the focus of cultural exchanges from shifting to the Pacific Ocean, where the Philippines and the New Spain would become the new centers of the world.

It is precisely where Gruzinski decides to stop his narration, where Wolfryd's works make their intervention and effectively offer a new story of a global renaissance that is projected to this day. The objects produced by the artist and his collaborators and suppliers in China copy some of the most significant objects that were exchanged during the voyages of the Manila Galleon, in the different ports of the Pacific Ocean. For contemporary historians, such as Christina H. Lee and Ricardo Padrón, the voyages of the Manila Galleon inaugurated a new global exchange space in the Pacific Ocean that also had profoundly different characteristics from those carried out in the Atlantic Ocean. If the Spanish domain profoundly changed the political and social reality of the territories in the Atlantic, in the Pacific the presence of the objects that traveled on this trade route (which only made one trip a year) was enough to create a space with original cultural characteristics.

What is the value of the objects produced to be transported in the Manila Galleon and that are copied and recreated by Wolfryd in this exhibition? What kind of questions can we ask about the objects produced in both contexts? Art historian Alexander Nagel argues that when early modern objects, such as those that traveled each year on the Manila Galleon, crossed geographical boundaries, they also entered a new temporal imprint: “…the object has assumed a retroactive life as part of an ancient world. The importation produces a temporary instability and that instability is deepened in the field of representation.” Faced with a series of objects made in a context of contacts and connections, the question of their origin loses relevance. The works in this exhibition invite us to think about those moments in the history of art in which the objects produced are destined to always belong to another geography, always to another temporality.

Long before the Spanish founded the port of Manila in the 16th century and renamed that group of islands as The Philippines, a group of inhabitants from the coasts of southern China had been engaged in commercial exchanges with the native populations in the region for some time. Chinese merchants had traveled all over the coasts of Southeast Asia, and their cities had been visited by Asian, African, and European explorers. The objects they produced were never fixed, nor were those they copied in the context of trade with the Spanish. The pieces in Wolfryd´s exhibition assume the instability of these objects, always produced from and for another, and transport them to the present. Alessandra Russo tells us about the strangeness of asynchrony in art and how it would be much more interesting to assume it as something natural, in her words: "We need to work to make visible those situations that, although they are still unknown to us, are perfectly coherent."

Mónica Ramírez Bernal