'Poolside' art dives into Mexico City's untidy transformation

Seventy years ago, Club Condesa was a women's-only swim club. Today, it's a temporary home to 50 artists' work, trying to spark conversation about the city's constant growth and change – and what gets erased in the process.

Whitney Eulich
Abraham León stands in front of his artwork on the grounds of the former Club Condesa in Mexico City on July 20, 2017. He's one of more than 50 artists participating in an unconventional art exhibit and 'intervention' here before the building is knocked down early next year.

The past is never far from the present in Mexico City, a capital built by the Spanish upon Aztec schools, temples, and ceremonial ball courts. History often resurfaces as this quintessential megacity constantly changes shape – expanding outward, upward, and even below ground, taking on traffic and a growing population. Earlier this summer, archaeologists uncovered a more than 500-year-old temple beneath a 1950s hotel in the city center. Last year, digging under a supermarket exposed ruins that date back 200 years further.

Yet, for all that is uncovered, the constant construction here can also mean an erasure of more recent history. That’s part of what drew curator and art historian Angelica Montes Cruz to commemorate a seemingly forgettable space here – a 1940s-era women-only swim club.

Club Condesa, coed since the 1960s and shuttered in 2015, is scheduled for demolition early next year. But in the meantime, more than 50 artists have come together to use the space – while it’s here. The crumbling high-dive is covered in graphic strokes of pink, blue, yellow, and green. A dilapidated recreation hall missing its roof and two walls is now filled with murals, mosaics, and a sculpture using found materials like a steamer trunk. A former steam room is covered in fake monarch butterflies, and a water tower, partially hidden by overgrown tree branches, has the imposing head of a gorilla painted on it.

By turning the run-down, sometimes musty-smelling space into a temporary art gallery, Ms. Montes and property developer Antonio Cordero hope to not only bring art beyond gallery and museum walls but also to spark conversations about the changing city and the role of art in memory and preservation.

“This city is transforming constantly, devouring the past and building up the future,” says Montes, standing on the roof of one of the club’s dilapidated structures, where members once sunbathed. “Art can play an important role generating discussions and action around the idea of change.”

Whitney Eulich
Artist Nando Lelo painted the high dive overlooking the dilapidated four-lane swimming pool at the former Club Condesa in Mexico City. It was originally an all-women's swim club, opened in 1940.

Gallery amid the ruins

When the Club Condesa first opened its doors 77 years ago, it was a unique space. At a moment when women in Mexico still could not vote, the capital’s first all-female club not only offered room for recreation and sport but also provided a place to talk freely about politics and current events.

“This was really revolutionary, really modern for the time,” Montes says. Nationally, women were granted the right to vote in 1953 and didn’t cast their first presidential ballots until 1958. Middle-class women, like those who frequented the club, were credited with pushing that fight forward.

But recently, as 24-hour gyms and athletic club chains started popping up across the city, this space couldn’t compete. It shuttered in 2015, and there are now plans to build an apartment complex on this land in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Roma Sur.

There are pieces of artwork that directly commemorate the pool’s historic heyday, like paintings of women in ‘40s and ‘50s swim caps and bathing suits painted wistfully across retired, rusty lockers. Other artists found their inspiration in the materials abandoned here, but less overtly connected to the building’s history. One fused together old gas tanks, creating a series of landscape-painted-spheres that hang from the ceiling of the gym’s entrance hall and swing as though ready to demolish whatever’s in their path.

It’s a mix of gallery and ruins, with telltale signs of a former gym mixed in with the periodic placard naming an artist or the title of a piece of work.

Montes made an effort to include well-known, contemporary artists alongside up-and-coming creators. The artists had to provide their own materials, but, once selected, were given free reign.

Abraham León is one of the newer artists. He gives tours by appointment every Thursday, the only day the El Ahuehuete Art in Transition space is open to the public. His work – etching over-sized peso bills with the face of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata on a wall behind the pool deck – is meant to represent the instability of the economy and touch on the privilege of the club’s original members.

“The structure and the space inspired me,” Mr. León says. “Some people criticize or question me for how much work I’m putting into something that is going to be torn down,” he says. “But I think the tearing down part is significant.” His work is called “the fall of the peso.” 

Many of the installations are painted directly on the structure and will be destroyed come demolition, a part of the artistic process Montes says she plans to videotape.

'The first wave of gentrification'

Once the building is torn down, Montes hopes to maintain a sense of history by including a commemorative plaque on the new construction. Preliminary building plans also include an arts corridor that artists could legally use for murals and graffiti.

Some question how well the plan has really involved the community. While climbing up the three-story high-dive, León’s attention is caught by a construction worker on the roof of the building next door.

“Can I paint something?” he asks León, mentioning his preferred brands of spray paint. León tells him to knock on the front door sometime to share his contact information.

Later, out front, one of the worker’s colleagues says he’d be surprised if he gets to participate. They’ve been working next door for weeks and had no idea what was going on.

“I don’t know how you’re supposed to have a conversation ... if you don’t know it’s happening,” he says, asking that his name not be used.

Montes acknowledges outreach could be better, but says the entire project is coming out of a place of passion – and organizers’ pockets.

“If we wait for the Secretary of Culture to open a space for art and dialogue, it will never happen,” Montes says.

She may have a point. But across town, two artists embarking on an unrelated art project about changing communities say it’s vital that artists recognize their role in transforming neighborhoods, like Roma Sur, and how that can displace long-time residents.

“Artists are often the first wave of gentrification, and we need to recognize our role in that,” says Sandra Valenzuela. She and Jorge Baca are the artists behind Santa Mari la Juaricua, a “saint” decked out in a charming straw hat and glasses, who is raising awareness about gentrification in Mexico City. Ms. Valenzuela found the small relic in an apartment she purchased in another part of the city that’s also quickly changing, and was inspired to give the damaged statuette new life in the form of a conscious-raising art project. 

Artists often end up going into neighborhoods before they are hip, Valenzuela says, because they need lots of space for little money. But whether it’s an organic process where others follow, or something more organized, like the art exhibit, “artists end up helping builders for free. And then they leave,” she says, on to the next affordable and soon-to-be-cool neighborhood.

Blueprint for today

Many of the buildings currently getting tumbled in Mexico City, like Club Condesa, are the slightly forgettable architecture of the mid-to-late-20th century. “That was a period when Mexico City’s population really exploded,” says Ben Gerlofs, visiting assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth, who studies gentrification in Mexico City.

However, some architectural gems like the grand, beaux-arts-style Profirian buildings from the early 1900s are being preserved. And, in a way, so is the story of that time: a dictator, violence, and repression. But what is possibly getting lost in the demolition of buildings from a period when Mexico’s population swelled from some 1 million to more than 8 million in a span of just a few decades is still at question. It was a moment that, in many ways, laid the groundwork for what Mexico City is today: a sprawling metropolis made up of people from all corners of the country and the world. 

“We can’t let modernity erase our memory,” Montes says. Whether it’s the Aztecs, a repressive government, or an exploding population, “It’s something we can’t forget.”

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