The Artist Erick Meyenberg Explores the Immigrant Experience

There is an engaging little rhyme tucked into the title of the artist Erick Meyenberg’s piece for this year’s Venice Biennale — “Nos marchábamos, regresábamos siempre” — but the cadence does not convert neatly into English.

“It is beautiful in Spanish, and it works in a very poetic way,” said Meyenberg, who will represent his country with a solo exhibition in the Mexican Pavilion. “But it has a very complex grammatical structure that has been a problem to translate into other languages.”

The artist offers his own interpretation of the title, one meant to get at the essence of the multimedia installation he will debut in Venice, even though it does double its length to eight, clumsy words: “We marched away, we were always coming back.”

The work, built around a video of a family dinner, is about, he said, the difficulty of leaving the past behind, particularly in the case of immigrants who move from one country to another and can be torn between the identity of old and new cultures. Meyenberg’s piece looks at how that feeling can extend to their children and grandchildren, who continue to lose connections to their ancestral homeland, but long for meaningful links to their past.

Developed with the curator Tania Ragasol, the piece is a response to the Biennale’s official theme of “Foreigners Everywhere,” though it is intended to move beyond the urgency that the title might suggest and into more existential terrain.

“How long does a family or a person that arrives to another country keep being a foreigner?” Ragasol asked, explaining the questions that she and Meyenberg discussed as they prepared the work. “How long does this thing of being a stranger keep going on? How many generations?”

For Meyenberg, the answers are elusive, and personal. He is somewhere between second- and third-generation Mexican, as he explained during an interview in his studio in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City. His mother’s parents moved to Mexico from Lebanon. His great-grandparents, on his father’s side, came from Germany. His story, he said, is similar to many people who live in this hemisphere and whose families migrated in the first half of the 20th century when Mexico, similar to the United States, was seen as a welcoming place for immigrants.

Like many of those new arrivals across North America, the artist’s family embraced its new nationality, gaining citizenship and adopting new customs. They didn’t speak much about their former homes, and they rarely spoke the language or taught it to their offspring, he said.

When the artist tried to pull family stories out of relatives, they resisted. “It was like talking to ghosts,” he said.

Meyenberg identifies as Mexican, but, he said, he always longed to connect with his origins. Growing up in Mexico City, he was different from other people around him there — his last name alone sets him apart in a country where Spanish names are most common. He wondered how family life might have been different if his parents and grandparents had embraced their past.

“I felt like I lost something that never actually belonged to me,” he said.

Then, one day, he found that “something” — only it was not his. He was visiting friends in Italy, a family that had migrated there years ago from Albania. They were Italians now, but they celebrated holidays from both countries, sang folk songs and recited poetry in Albanian. They were a model for the clan he always dreamed of having.

He convinced them to stage a dinner, with all of the food and music, using the treasured cups, plates and textiles they had brought with them from their homeland. They put a long table in a field and, as was their tradition, included empty place settings for relatives past and future. He filmed the event, and it became the core of his multimedia piece.

The video unfolds in a dreamy, four-channel montage of scenes. We see the family embracing, sharing delicacies, laughing and eventually all dancing off alone into the distance by themselves.

At the Mexican Pavilion, the video will be projected on the walls. In the middle of the room will be an actual dining table, nearly 20-feet long, and upon it will be set 82 ceramic pieces that the artist made in the same shape as the family heirlooms and traditional foods that can be seen simultaneously in his video. Only, his three-dimensional objects are ethereal. They are all white and appear in various states of decay, looking almost like the relics of an old shipwreck, and symbolizing the fraying of both objects and memories over time.

Meyenberg left them white because he sees them, in a way, as blank video screens. He wants exhibition visitors to mentally project their own snippets of family memories onto them.

In that way, as Ragasol explained, the Albanian family can be a stand-in for any second- or third-generation immigrant who had similar unanswerable questions, easing “the disillusion or disappointment when you try to go back to that place that no longer exists.”

For Meyenberg, the Biennale project is a departure. He is well known in Mexico, gaining recognition more than a decade ago for numerous projects in which he choreographed ordinary people — in one case teenagers from a military school in Mexico City, in another gardeners who worked at the Casa Wabi Foundation art center in Oaxaca — into tight routines that he filmed using drones.

The pieces were deeply researched and meant to empower both participants and viewers.

Another work is “Aspirantes.” Meyenberg assembled in formation 200 young Mexican men, aged 18-25, at the site of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacán, where archaeologists had discovered mass graves of Mesoamerican warriors. Like the warriors who were sacrificed in religious rituals, the video participants were shirtless, though in the artist’s revisionist take, powerful and defiant in the way they stood at attention and in their solemn expressions.

In the Biennale work, the actors move on their own, letting their intuition dictate how they comport themselves. There is some dancing, but it is quirky and improvised with no direction from the filmmaker.

Meyenberg said the natural movement in “We marched away, we were always coming back” reflected a growing self-awareness of his own physical being. He is currently in remission after a yearslong battle with cancer that was treated with chemotherapy, and the process of being severely ill and then recovering taught him to trust the body and how it moves on its own terms.

“Gradually this has been shifting, and I’ve been controlling less and less of what happens, listening more to my emotions and my feelings,” he said.

In a sense, he said, his body marched off on its way, and when it came back he gained a new language for telling stories, one that is more natural, relies on art to expose its universal themes and transcends any difficulties of translating words from one idiom to another.

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