How Great Trajectories Are Made Of Minute Heartfelt Steps in Time
María Inés Rodríguez or MIR—as we also know her—is an extraordinary curator, whose experience spans several countries, both as an independent curator and an institutional one. Over the years, she has developed strong friendships with the artists she worked with, and the other curators she collaborated with, creating exhibitions that not only expanded their respective careers, but also benefited the museums and platforms where these exhibitions took place.
Early Days, from Bogotá to Geneva
“I think my desire to work in museums started when I was living in Bogotá, I was part of a group of museum exhibition guides at the Luis Ángel Arango Library, […] a very important documentation and exhibition centre in Colombia” remembers MIR. Artist Beatriz González, (whose work, MIR would end up showing years later at the CAPC Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and the KW Institute in Berlin) was managing the groups of guides and researchers of the Library. Including, González, they were a small team of ten, all art students at the university, who learned how to organise and hang exhibitions, and who helped with documentation. González, for whom the ideas of mediation, and how to show an exhibition to the audience, were very important, strongly influenced young MIR. “I think that for me, to create an exhibition, and create the links to open exhibitions to the audience was very important since I was 18, because I grew up in that context” she recalls.
As it is often the case, MIR had initially wanted to be an artist. She studied art in Colombia, her country of origin, then went to Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD) in 1990. With other artists friends, they started working in video: “at the time, we didn’t see much being done with the medium” she notes. They traveled to festivals, in and outside of Switzerland, they called themselves Genlock (after a video technique that made sense then), and every month, they showed someone’s work in a little space in Grütli—a building bustling with cultural associations and activities in the middle of Geneva, “we were young and enthusiastic” she laughs.
Using the space of one of her side jobs with a gallery located in L’Usine, a non-profit cultural center in a converted factory, she organised a festival of Latin American video art. “I wanted to show where I was coming from, since I am Colombian. I showed works coming from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina”. She enjoyed the process of getting to know and understanding the works of the artists, all the while realising why it was important to show other’s people work, and she chose to pursue in that way. “My first big curatorial project was for my thesis—instead of showing my own work, and with the approval of my thesis supervisor—I presented the work of Colombian conceptual artist, Antonio Caro”.
After that, she got a scholarship and went to study in Paris, where she joined the entourage gravitating around the Atelier Christian Boltanski, that was around 1995. “Meeting Christian Boltanski and his atelier, was very important for me” she emphasises. In the atelier, people shared about their works. At the time, MIR was still making works as an artist too, but she found it fascinating to listen to other’s people talk to Boltanski. “He was very generous with his students, and taught them how to see things around them, and not to be afraid” she recalls. He was also their key to Paris, an otherwise hard to approach art scene.
For one exhibition, that she and other art students organised together at the Cité des Arts, she designed the invitation card, but showed nothing else within the exhibition. At this point it became clear to her that perhaps her thing was to “create a context or give a space for others to be there” she pauses, “not to do works myself”.
“Then I met, Hans Ulrich Obrist, through South Korean artist, Koo Jeong a, who was a school friend”. At the time, MIR had a project that didn’t end up happening, but it kept her and several other friends going for a while. “It was the idea to open an artist residency in Bogotá” she notes. Obrist proposed that she could show his “do it” project in the future residency space. Now one of Obrist’s famed projects, (based on do-it-yourself artists instructions), “do it” was still in its early stages then: it had just begun with a conversation, Obrist, and, Christian Boltanski, had with, Bertrand Lavier, in 1993. MIR’s residency plans failed through, but she found a space for “do it” instead, at the Luis Ángel Arango Library, no less. “Back then, there were only 16 instructions” she smiles.
A Transatlantic Curator
Showing other people’s work was happening naturally, and she didn’t even notice that she wasn’t creating art anymore. Projects were connected to her environment and friends, and to the people around her, and her friends’ circles. In the beginning, MIR liked to maintain a link with Colombia, by showing what was happening in Colombia in France, and by bringing interesting projects from France, to Colombia. In that same group she was involved with, she met, Paul Armand Gette, a French visual artist and professor at the École des beaux-arts in Paris. He was a great friend of Boltanski and Obrist. She showed his work in Cali, at the Museo de La Tertulia, in 2000. It was an ambitious project where everything was created on-site: drawings, paintings, and a large installation. “Back then, Gette, was about 77 already. It had been a beautiful encounter. I was always interested by the idea of knowledge transmission” she explains, especially when I ask her why she had been inclined, so early, in showing artists who were two generations, or more, her seniors.
“I believe that what attracted me to work with, Boltanski, or Gette, is that they both are great at oral transmission, and they are both interested in transmitting knowledge. I think that is also why I was always interested by people such as, Yona Friedman. I had so much pleasure working with Friedman, for example. I felt that there was so much important knowledge there, and that it was essential to show it, and make it more visible”. With Friedman, it was also that he was an eager continuous learner himself, “and he was a very generous person. Every time we met—a new project emerged. It was a magnificent collaboration” she remembers fondly. Their conversation was on-going and developing throughout the years, until the Hungarian-born French architect passed away in February this year, at 96 years old. Together they made two books, postcards projects, and several exhibitions.
MIR was settling in Paris as an independent curator. But one challenge was to convince institutions, and to find a format that would allow her to do things without a space. “To find independence within that independence” she says with a smile. MIR was attracted by magazines, ephemera, pamphlets, and all printed materials that could travel easily. She started a series of exhibitions called, “Tropical Table Party”, for which she would only really need a table. “I started inviting other people to work together, such as, Pablo León de la Barra, who was an architect at the time” she remembers. León de la Barra is currently an independent curator and Curator at Large, Latin America, for the Guggenheim. For MIR, he created the table and the exhibition environment for the Barcelona edition of the, “Tropical Table Party”, in 2004. The idea was of an exhibition that could fit in a box, with all the elements for the show ready to be put together. “It was not just a table with things on it though, but it also had a space to sit, read, and watch” she explains further.
With, León de la Barra, she collaborated a lot, clearly drawn to work with artists who were also architects, and to the idea of making exhibitions that can travel and be versatile depending on where they land. In 2002, she worked on the theme of the teenage body for an exhibition titled “de la représentation à l’action” (“From representation to action”) at Le Plateau in Paris, a space that had just opened that year. It was a time when teen press was booming, and in it, teens bodies were hyper-sexualised, changing the parameters of what it meant to be a teen. This project traveled also. From the body, she then extended the concept to the body’s environment, from how one perceives the body, to the question of where do these bodies live? That second chapter was called, “Habitat/Variations”, and also had several editions shown in Paris, Geneva, and Madrid, with performances, films, and seminars.
Body, Home, and Publishing
“You know, with our bodies we express a lot of things, who we are, and how we live”, notes MIR. “Those questions were also related to my personal life, many shows were done from questions I was asking to myself […] When you are an immigrant, living in a country that isn’t yours, those themes of the body and the body in space, and housing, are crucial. [..] Am I staying? Am I leaving? If so, where will I live? What is a place of life, a house, that one can call ‘home’?” she develops. These projects unfolded one after the other, also morphing depending to the city that was hosting them each time. “Projects are like windows through which you can see what’s happening elsewhere, but also, from which you can see what’s going on on-site” she adds. This work method of building on her subject from one show to the next, and growing with each peripatetic edition, is something that she enjoyed for a while, and so she continued curating this way.
In 2003, she created, “Tropical Papers Editions”. It happened during the, “Tropical Table Party”, show in Barcelona. It was the issue 0, and the first of her small publishing house project. She also begun by creating postcards with artists, very simply. She was printing them in Germany, thanks to an artist friend who lived there. She would keep some, and then let the artists distribute the rest as they wished. It wasn’t for sale, and she sponsored the project herself. It was only later that she received support from a Mexican patron for the website chapter of the project that she started in 2011 (tropicalpapers.org) where she hosted interviews with artists and such (a website that she recently revived and grew, a subject I talk with her in Part 2 of this interview). But for the postcards, they were just “a very simple, but enjoyable project” remembers MIR.
MIR was also the editor of, Point d’Ironie, between 2008 and 2010, a periodical that came to existence from a discussion that Boltanski and Obrist had with French fashion designer agnès b. in 1997. At that point, two things were already driving MIR’s interests grandly, “the first was publishing, and I was able to make collaborations thanks to, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and, agnès b. in, Point d’Ironie, where we created beautiful projects. Independently, I was still constantly publishing the postcards project. […] The second, was my interest in museums. Museums as a space for knowledge and exchange. So at some point, I really wanted to work for an institution” she concludes.
Jeu de Paume
For MIR relationships are key. “I can name people that were fundamentally important in my life, such as Maria Angelica Medina, a Colombian conceptual artist, Beatriz González, Christian Boltanski, Cherif Defraoui, a Swiss artist who was my professor in Geneva. Of course, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and, Koo Jeong a. So you see, meeting them was very important. Most of them became friends. We worked together with some of them, or we introduced each other to people we ended up working with. We always shared our network of friends and acquaintances, and it always created a friendly context of solidarity” she recalls, of a way of life where friendship and support were natural in her circles.
And so, one such important person in MIR’s life was, Marta Gili. Gili was the director of the Jeu de Paume when they met (Gili was there from 2006 to 2018). She invited MIR as a guest curator for the museum’s Satellite programme for a year (in 2008/2009). There, MIR was in charge of creating a coherent programme of four exhibitions, and two additional online shows “as a way to inhabit the virtual space with specific projects” she says. She exhibited the works of Agathe Snow, Vasco Araújo, Mario García Torres, Irina Botea… For her, it was the opportunity to see how an institution functioned over a longer period of time than just one show. “I was inside, but I was still just a guest. But it was important to see how one negotiates from within, and how one brings a project to fruition; how to work with the artists, and how to work with the hosting teams” she explains. It was following this experience, that she was invited to become the Chief Curator of the MUSAC, in Spain, where she developed a great working relationship with its then director, Agustin Pérez Rubio, who is currently one of the curators of this year Berlin Biennale (11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art).
Spain, Mexico, Berlin, the Bronx
At MUSAC, MIR launched an old dream of hers, which was a collection series of books on art and architecture. She published a book with, Yona Friedman, titled “Architecture with the People, by the People, for the People”, and another with, Alexander Apóstol, “Modernidad Tropical”. Following her work with MUSAC, she got a proposition to work in Mexico. “I thought Mexico was a fascinating place!”. She knew the art scene a little, having already done some projects there. So she accepted, and was consequently the Chief Curator of Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC-UNAM), in Mexico City. “I learned a lot there, especially because the question of education was very dominant” she recalls. Among others, she organised an extraordinary exhibition with Teresa Margolles titled “The Promise”, that toured internationally. It was the result of Margolles’s investigation into some of the most violent realities of life in Mexico, more specifically in Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua. The title of the exhibition comes from the failed promise to the people moving to Ciudad Juárez, but it also has a behind-the-scenes meaning, as the first time when MIR spoke with Margolles about her project was in Madrid, during one of their regular meetings in Café Gijón. She thought that project was very strong and important to show, “a key work” and so she made a promise to Margolles to make it happen one day. “When you promise something and you manage to keep your promise, it’s really something!” smiles MIR. Two years later when she arrived to Mexico the museum had a funding for a project on immigration, it was the perfect occasion, and though “it was complicated to achieve” she remembers, they made it happen.
“Time flew!” she exclaims, who after three years in Mexico, went to Berlin. For a year, she developed independent projects, notably on architecture. One such was a project she co-curated with Holly Block, who was then the director of the Bronx museum. “another fabulous encounter”, emphasises MIR, “Block was an extraordinary woman [Block died in 2017] who directed the Bronx museum for several years. She gave me the opportunity to do a research, that I had wanted to do since a very long time, on what remained from the fury of modernist architecture in Latin America, and how artists and architects perceived this legacy. We made a seminar and an exhibition.
As I close this first chapter on MIR’s curatorial life*, I can’t help but notice that great curatorial careers are made of smaller steps and conversations, of trust, and not necessarily by strategising or by interest. “My network consists of important friendships, and friendships are important for me. Showing artists means a friendship develops, and so does the respect for their work, and thus the desire to follow a conversation over the years. Along the years the conversation changes or gives way to new projects, for me this continuity is very important” says María Inés Rodríguez, which is something we will discover further together in Part 2 of this double fold interview.
*Part 2 will include MIR’s work at the CAPC in Bordeaux, some of her life wisdom, more on her relationships with the artists she has exhibited throughout the years, and some on her current work with MASP in São Paulo, as well as updates on Tropical Papers.
María Inés Rodríguez
Director at Tropical Papers, lives between Paris and Brussels
Adjunct Curator at MASP, São Paulo
Since 2018, María Inés Rodríguez is adjunct curator for Modern and Contemporary Art at Museu de Arte de São Paulo, MASP.
Between February 2014 and August 2018, Mrs. Rodríguez held the position of Director at CAPC Musée d’art Contemporain of Bordeaux. The core of her project was to consolidate the museum as a platform for knowledge through the exhibition, cultural and educational programs. Her program at CAPC includes major retrospectives with significant artists like Judy Chicago, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Franz Erhard Walther, Beatriz González, and site specific projects for the nave of the museum with Danh Vo, Leonor Antunes, Rosa Barba, and Naufus Ramirez Figueroa. In addition, she worked on exhibitions projects dedicated to emergent artists and curators, in co-production with Jeu de Paume, Paris, and Museo Amparo, Puebla. The Collection was also one of her main responsibilities, and it was at the heart of the program concerns, to expand the Collection visibility, as a heritage and educational tool. Since October 2016, a permanent exhibition entitled [sic] works from the CAPC Collection curated by José L. Blondet, presents a selection of some hundred works of the Collection displayed across the second floor galleries. Interested in artist books and printed editions, she has organized exhibitions with public collections dedicated to artist books from Serralves Foundation, CDLA-Limousin, and Beau Geste Press.
Between 2011 and 2013, Mrs. Rodríguez held the position of chief curator at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, where she led the public, collections and exhibitions programs. She has worked with the team on exhibitions and research projects exploring the appropriation of public space in art, design, education, architecture, and urbanism: Yona Friedman, the Boroullec brothers; and developed ambitious projects with Teresa Margolles, Nicolás Paris, Akram Zaatari, Jonas Meckas, Carlos Cruz Diez, and La Ribot among others.
From 2009 to 2011, she was chief curator at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y Léon (MUSAC) in Spain, with a program dealing with the links between artistic production and historic, political and social contexts, favoring a dialogue on the local and global. This approach was reflected in a series of solo exhibitions that included Claire Fontaine and Alexander Apóstol, as well as in group exhibitions such as El Grito, and Model Kits, and in the collection of monographic editions Arte y Arquitectura AA MUSAC.
Parallel to her curatorial work, Mrs. Rodríguez has organized public lectures and exhibitions around the topics of printed matter and architecture. In 2005, she formed Tropical Paper editions, which now exists as an active website dedicated to contemporary creation in the Tropical region.
She has been awarded the following grants: Fondation Patiño – Ville de Genève, American Center Foundation, Apex Art Center in New York, and Davidoff Arts Initiative. Since 2017, she is President of Comité Art Citoyen France, Fondation Carasso, and Member of Martell Foundation Board in France.