Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mexico's Olympic Tradition

The Games of the XXX Olympiad of the modern era concluded Sunday.  Mexico, birthplace of the Mesoamerican ball game and team sport jubilantly celebrates a thrilling gold medal in soccer, the most popular game in the world.  

As I watched the 2012 games, I thought back to the 1968 Olympics and Mexico’s unique decision to hold a “Cultural Olympiad of the Games of the XIX Olympiad.”  During the Olympics, and the preceding two years, Mexico was host to a wide variety of artistic and cultural events.  All subsequent Olympics have followed Mexico’s example. 

Tangible, indeed concrete, memories of the Cultural Olympiad remain in Mexico.  They are the 19 enormous sculptures that since 1968 have lined Mexico City's Periferico expressway along a 17-km span known as the Ruta de la Amistad.  

In preparation for the Olympics sculptor and art historian Mathias Goeritz proposed an “Olympiad of Sculptors” that would renew the ancient Greek Olympic tradition of combining physical contests with sculpture.  This was facilitated by his close collaboration with famed architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the award-winning designer of the Museum of Anthropology and the Aztec Stadium who also happened to be the president of the organizing committee of Mexico’s Olympic games.

Goeritz, originally from Germany, was familiar with the European grand avenues lined on either side with sculpture with the distances between sculptures primarily dictated by urban walking.  Goeritz wanted to relate sculpture to roads but from the perspective of a driver who travels much faster than a pedestrian walks.  He was dismayed by the increasing ugliness of highways and saw a need for the involvement of the artist.

Goeritz opened the inaugural session of the International Meeting of Sculptors, June 17, 1968, in Mexico City stating, “There is an urgent need for artistic design focused on contemporary city and thoroughfare planning…The artist, instead of being invited to collaborate with urban planners, architects and engineers, stands apart and produces only for the minority that visits art galleries and museums.  Art integrated into the inception of the urban plan is of fundamental importance in our age.  This means that artistic work will leave its surroundings of art for art’s sake and establish contact with people as they go about their daily life by means of total planning.”  

Karel Wendl, himself a sculptor, was the International Secretary of the project headed by Goeritz.  In describing Goeritz’ vision Wendl later wrote,  “The Ruta de la Amistad was to be an international event with the unifying theme of brotherhood of all the peoples of the world.  The sculptors' artistic liberty had only three restrictions:  the sculptures were to be made of concrete, be monumental, and be abstract.  Furthermore, the sculptors were asked to keep in mind the unusual nature of art that, for the most part, would be seen from automobiles passing by on a superhighway. 

It was Goeritz’ vision that the sculptures would represent all continents, all races, both genders.  Selected sculptors meeting these criteria were invited to submit models.  All material was donated and teams built the sculptures in place.  The Olympic Committee approved all decisions but Goeritz and his team of sculptors had considerable control over the project.  Ultimately they decided where the various sculptures would be placed and whether their size would be increased or decreased from the proposed size by the artist.  

The 17-km stretch of the Anillo Periferico connecting the various Olympic venues was chosen as the site for the sculptures. The artist teams arrived in June 1968 to already completed foundations.  They had only two months to supervise the execution of their work.  Many of the artists asked that the pieces be left in the color of natural concrete.  Goeritz preferred different colors.  In most cases he let the artist choose the color but later said it was a mistake.  “All sculptures should have been painted the same color – perhaps a bright orange.”

Once the sculptures were in place the International Olympic Committee asked Mexico to proclaim one of them the winning piece of sculpture.  Mexico refused, saying they are all winners, and reminding the Olympic Committee that it was here, in Mesoamerica, that the concept of teamwork in sports originated, a concept that allows many participants in an event to be winners.  

The sculptures have faced numerous threats through the years.  Neglect and vandalism were their greatest enemies before the building of a “second floor” to the Periferico, which is now underway.  Some of the sculptures will need to find a new home as a result of the highway construction.  Nonetheless, through it all, they have survived and now have received the protection of the World Monuments Fund currently restoring the sculptures.  

As a result of Goeritz’ vision, Mexico City now has the world's longest sculpture corridor.  Thankfully they aren't bright orange.  

Next week will feature the various sculptures and artists along the Ruta.

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