In the first gallery of Juan Pablo González’s exhibition at the University of Texas Visual Arts Center, “Cómo hago para recordar /What I do to remember” is a four-channel video installation. Each 18-minute loop conveys a sense of rural tranquility occasionally accentuated by the sounds of birds and insects. The Mexican filmmaker favors using fixed camera views resulting in shots so still they seem to be photographs. And in the “Ejercicios de memoria / Memory exercises” (2019) the shots do seem to be still photos.
But then we see a breeze ruffle a corn stalk or the gradual darkening of the sunset sky behind a small country house. These four projected shots could be contemporary stand-ins for travel brochure clichés of a “timeless México” with green fields of corn and vast blue skies laced with white fluffy clouds. Of course the same images would have existed thousands of years ago, when indigenous people of México first domesticated wild maize. And in González’s lens, only an occasional modern intrusion, such as a parked tractor, reminds us of the present. The quartet of images in “Ejercicios de memoria” presents a simple view of rural Mexico that’s certainly real, but not the only reality.
“Ejercicios de memoria” sets up the presentation of González’s 2017 short film “Las Nubes” (Clouds) in the next gallery. “Las Nubes” offers a strikingly different story about a rural area in 21st-century México. This time the filmmaker’s stationary camera is not focused on the green rural landscape but on the rearview mirror of a pickup truck. Reflected in that widescreen frame are the eyes of a middle-aged man, Chuy, who talks with González who remains off camera as the two men drive. Whatever is in front of the truck — trees, plants, distant mountains, nearby hills, a blue sky, the red-dirt roadway — is a soft-focus blur, ever changing when the vehicle is moving, still when the vehicle stops.
“Las Nubes” is a road movie of sorts — a kind of bumpy ranch road movie which takes us into the life of a farmer and store owner in the eastern area of the Mexican state of Jalisco. In one continuous unedited 21-minute shot, the focus remains on Chuy and the story he tells from memories he can never forget.
The ride starts simply enough with Chuy giving González directions. There is a moment of humor as Chuy complains about the absurdity of having to fasten his seat belt while driving slowly over a ranch road; it’s the only way to silence the relentless warning bell. And then González asks his passenger a seemingly casual question: “How frequently do you speak to your daughter?” Chuy says he and his wife talk by cellphone two to three times a week with their distant daughter.
Chuy turns his attention to the surroundings and says: “Down there is El Maguey Valley… Milpillas [the rural town setting of the director’s previous film, “Caballerango”]. Further on is Navarro.”
“Your father used to cultivate agave on this ranch,” Chuy reminds González.
This is a road movie through Gonzalez’s familial land, and the filmmaker is part of the narrative.
Related: “Juan Pablo González’s “Caballerango,” documents the reconfiguration of rural life in Mexico”
González’s work is deeply rooted in memory, time, and place. And he lets us know that by placing at the entrance of this exhibition a painting by his mother Consuelo, a map painted from memory of the roads to tiny valley settlements like Milipillas and Navarro. The map painting is a delicate abstraction.
Eventually González and Chuy reach a closed gate, the entrance to Chuy’s ranch. The opening of this gate will begin the next chapter and the reason González is taking us on this road trip — to hear a hair-raising story of kidnapping, death threats, a gangster’s desire for Chuy’s daughter (her desires of no import to the narco, of course), a midnight race to the Guadalajara airport with cartel muscle in hot pursuit, a flight to safety in California, relentless harassment by the young gangster in love, and the thoughtless dismantling of a family, their small business and their livelihood.
That we see only Chuy’s eyes reflected in the rearview mirror we now understand is not just an aesthetic decision. It’s necessary to protect his identity. Likewise his first name is revealed only in the Spanish-language dialogue, not in the English subtitles.
At one point in this family’s life, there was some hope of a return to peace. The boss of the gang was captured and imprisoned, the thwarted gangster Romeo reportedly killed in a shootout with the federal police, and the cartel suddenly disappeared from the town.
But just as suddenly the cartel returned. Once more the gangsters took food and other items out of Chuy’s store, always with promises of “Don’t worry. We’ll pay later.” Such blatant theft is not the only economic loss, Chuy says. The majority of his customers, fearful of the cartel, have taken their business elsewhere.
Through her forced immigration to the U.S., Chuy’s daughter has been safely, if sadly, far away from the violence. But what can her family back in México do for some peace of mind? Chuy says that his wife has decided that they should sell their store. “She wants me to build a small cabin so we can live here in this little ranch. Now I am going to show you the house where I was born and raised.”
And with that Chuy gets out of the pickup to open the wire-and-branch gate, thereby ending the story and the video. His life is poised to return to where it began, perhaps not the happy dream he once had, but now a strategy that might return peace to his life.
In fact, look again at “Ejercicios de memoria” in the first gallery and you’ll see in one image a small country house amid views of the surrounding countryside. “Las Nubes” was filmed in 2017. By the time that the filmmaker shot “Ejercicios de memoria” in 2019, Chuy had built his country retreat.
“Las Nubes” reveals the devastating effects of a drug cartel on just one family. As a result of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the rise of violent drug cartels, certain regions of México have seen major economic upheaval. Almost no one is untouched. Recent border restrictions close the routes to safety for endangered people like Chuy’s daughter.
González brings his visual study of memory and place full circle with a back-lit panel of 20 translucent images of utensils, clothing, vehicles, firewood, bricks, furniture, plants, and a beehive reveal activities on Chuy’s ranch. The title of this work is appropriately “Rastros/Traces” — all evidence of human activity within nature.
Through the use of real-time, unedited, single point-of-view videos and still photographs, González has created a more profound way of considering the contemporary Mexican countryside. It is still beautiful, and the people are still warm and welcoming. But a danger lurks under the surface, not so much for the tourist but most devastatingly for its own population.
As he gathers images (both still and moving), I can’t help but believe that González is preserving his memories of the Mexico from his childhood while simultaneously gathering stories of present-day anxiety, anguish, and warnings. It is a sobering undertaking.
González is presently finishing a narrative feature, “Dos Estaciones,” about a woman whose tequila factory is losing business to a global corporation — another unfortunate result of corporation-favoring free trade agreements, no matter what their newest acronym is.
Cartels come in many guises.
“Juan Pablo González: Cómo hago para recordar /What I do to remember” continues through March 6 at UT Visual Art Center. utvac.org