by Tania Islas Weinstein and Agnes Mondragón
On July 1st, 2022, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as AMLO) inaugurated the Dos Bocas oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco. The inauguration was a huge publicity coup for the president, who had promised to build the refinery when he first took office.
One of the highlights of the ceremony was the moment when the president unveiled—and fawned over—“La Aurora de México” (1947). La Aurora de Mexico [“The Dawn of Mexico”] is a painting depicting a woman embracing several oil towers as if these were her babies. La Aurora was painted by the late Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. It celebrates the expropriation of foreign oil companies and the nationalisation of the Mexican oil industry in 1938 by then-President Lazaro Cárdenas. Cárdenas appears at the top left of the painting together with Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a labour organiser who helped oil workers unionise.
La Aurora harkens back to a product of an era in which the Mexican state actively supported artworks and monuments in public plazas, crossroads, and buildings around the country. That the authoritarian Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) was able to maintain a one-party rule for over seventy years (1929–2000) can, in part, be explained by its ability to tie its political achievements to those of the nation and ideologically interpellate the public into its political project through widespread political communication. The latter included supporting the production of artworks and monuments, many of which were was based on the idea of “art for the people” and, like La Aurora, are characterised by their “narrative style, realist aesthetic, populist iconography, and socialist politics”.
AMLO’s public celebration of La Aurora is noteworthy because the Mexican state’s support for the arts and its collaboration with artists has been waning for decades. This decline has accelerated in the wake of the country’s transition to a formal electoral democracy in 2000. Market-oriented reforms have enabled an unprecedented incursion of private corporations and collectors into the art world, who have increasingly supplanted the state as the arts’ main patron.
Despite AMLO’s declared opposition to the neoliberal turn in Mexican politics and his nationalist rhetoric that recalls the PRI era, this process has accelerated during his time in power. One of the most surprising characteristics of AMLO’s tenure has been his vocal disdain for artists and intellectuals. Rather than bringing artists back under the aegis of the state, the president has excluded them from his populist project by consistently accusing them of being members of a nebulous, neoliberal elite, and by cutting resources earmarked for artistic institutions as part of his fiscal policy of austeridad republicana or republican austerity.
In this context, the display of La Aurora de México during the Dos Bocas refinery’s inauguration is telling. Instead of commissioning a new artwork or monument for the new infrastructure, the government used an old painting that harkens back to the country’s post-Revolutionary authoritarian era and one that celebrates a key political accomplishment that has been framed by official history as a major act of anti-imperialist sovereignty.
By displaying this painting at the inauguration, AMLO sought to signify a new era of assertive Mexican sovereignty and nostalgia for a time when Mexico’s economy grew rapidly through a politics of economic nationalisation. As he has argued repeatedly, the refinery will generate a “massive turn” (“un gran viraje”) back from the “neoliberal turn” of the 2000s and 2010s that had made Mexico dependent on imported petroleum. In so doing, it will pave the way for the country to become more economically self-sufficient, which in turn suggests the return of an accompanying economic prosperity.
The Aurora itself, meanwhile, is not actually publicly owned. Instead, it belongs to a private owner who loaned the piece to AMLO for the occasion. The Aurora will not remain at the refinery; the painting was returned to the owner as soon as the inauguration was over.
AMLO’s one-day exhibition of Siqueiros painting during the Dos Bocas inauguration is paradoxical. On the one hand, AMLO is using the Aurora to signify continuity with a past that is associated with the assertion of Mexican sovereignty and a state-driven economic policy, as a way to signal a break with neoliberal policy. On the other, the brevity of the display, and the fact that the artwork is privately owned also signifies the decline of the Mexican state’s support of public art and thus a continuity with the neoliberal turn rather than a break with it. But what if this interpretation is missing the point? What if rather than focusing on the Siqueiros’ painting as the refinery’s aesthetic and ideological locus we focused on the refinery itself? What if AMLO’s works of infrastructure—of which the Dos Bocas refinery is one among many—are the current administration’s monuments and works of art?
Traditionally, monuments have been defined as interventions into the landscape that are built with the purpose of celebrating, commemorating, and glorifying a particular person or event and doing so by conveying a sense of permanence. Extending J.L. Austin’s famous definition, Kaitlin Murphi argues that “monuments effectively function as speech acts: they are public proclamations of certain narratives that are intended to simultaneously reify that narrative and lay claim to the space in which the monument has been placed.” In other words, Murphi maintains, in addition to conveying information, monuments also do things: they usher in or create a new state of affairs simply by laying claim to a space through their presence.
While the Siqueiros painting cannot be said to have achieved this, given its impermanent presence, the refinery itself certainly did. Briefly framed by La Aurora, the refinery draws selectively from that celebrated past of oil nationalisation, thus operating like a monument. Indeed, works of infrastructure, much like monuments, possess a sign value that enables them to engage in similar meaning-making and political operations. The Dos Bocas refinery instantiates the ways in which infrastructures may be attributed the symbolic power to effectively function as monuments.
Monuments are “focal points of a complex dialogue between past and present,” connecting historical events that are worthy of monumentalisation and spectators who engage with the past via these objects. The relationship that Dos Bocas establishes with that past and its glory is, crucially, mediated through the current political significance that this refinery is expected to have: it is not merely meant to be a repetition of the past, but rather another such moment of revolutionary change. This change, in the president’s words, is marked by a revival of the nationalised oil industry, which had been weakened by neoliberalisation, and thus a recovery of the nation’s lost dignity as a notable producer of oil. The refinery may then be mobilising the past of the Aurora towards its self-fashioning as part of an autonomous aesthetic-political project, making this infrastructure both a monument to the past and to itself. It is also, in many ways, a monument to an economic ideology that once proved to be quite fruitful and an attempt to revive the historical moment in which it did.
However, when AMLO inaugurated the refinery, it was not yet ready to be used. Dos Bocas was rushed into being so as to mark a milestone of the current administration, but it was still at least a year away from beginning production. According to several news outlets, only the administrative part of the plant was ready, which represented 30% of the infrastructure. This was not lost on commentators, including prominent critical journalists who described the inauguration as a simulation, forcing AMLO to admit that the refinery was in fact just starting a trial period and would begin operations in earnest in 2023.
In a sense, the incomplete—and, in a technical sense, useless—refinery merely constituted the staging of AMLO’s celebration of himself. By inaugurating it before it was finished, the president set the refinery in what Marrero-Guillamón calls a state of suspension, which is not “a temporary phase between the start of a project and its (successful) conclusion, but as a mode of existence in its own right.” Without performing any technical function, the refinery’s power and meaning remain purely aesthetic and discursive, rendering it a monument.
By being inaugurated in pieces, infrastructures may work as promises and, therefore, as monuments to those who build them. For AMLO, this was not the first time he used Dos Bocas to stage a political event. On December 9, 2018, barely a week after his inauguration, AMLO laid the first stone at a massive event at the same site. This was marked by the attendance of several high-ranking politicians and a lengthy presidential speech that framed the refinery as part of an urgent solution to a profound crisis in Mexico’s oil industry, caused by waning investment in the state company, Pemex, and the failed effort to open the oil sector to private companies. This event circulated widely: its video was uploaded that same day to AMLO’s personal YouTube account, where it has been streamed over half a million times. The president has also frequently spoken about the refinery during his daily press conferences, showcasing other milestones in its construction, each time setting off discussions in the press and on social media.
Following Isaac Marrero-Guillamón, we may see the materiality of Dos Bocas as “redistributed… into multiple instantiations other than its construction, such as exhibitions, technical documents, and public presentations.” We can further extend this redistribution by considering how the extensive media coverage of these public events stretched the refinery’s visibility throughout the public sphere in its capacity as a monumental setting of presidential power. Indeed, a large part of the refinery’s public presence depends not on the concrete and steel of the infrastructure itself, but rather on the circulation of its representations. Given its remote location in a small coastal town in southwest Mexico, the refinery is only connected to most Mexican citizens in these highly indirect ways, much as the gasoline it will (eventually) produce will make its way through the pipelines and into the gas tanks of the vehicles transporting them.
Like a monument, the meaning and experiences around Dos Bocas are produced in its abundant “verbal and textual sources.” In official discourse, the refinery is meant to materialise the president’s project of soberanía energética, or energy sovereignty, which, in turn, points to a broader notion of sovereignty—that of an autonomous nation, no longer the object of its commercial partners’ imperial power. More than that, Dos Bocas is meant to be exemplary of the president’s political-economic project, dubbed the Fourth Transformation (4T). Though a precise definition of the 4T is lacking, the president usually invokes it “to describe a revindication of national pride, a political project of aligning the presidency with the popular will, and the creation of a social movement that could do away with the old party system, social inequality, and the economic status quo.” It is meant to match the magnitude of three previous watershed moments in Mexican history: the Independence War (1810–1821), the Guerra de Reforma (Reform War, 1858–1861), and the Revolution (1910–1917). One could perhaps wonder whether the construction of a refinery can in fact be seen as revolutionary in an era of climate change, or whether it in fact constitutes an anticolonial, sovereign act.
The refinery’s value rests less (if at all) in its technical function than in its performative capacity. Going back to Murphi’s definition of monuments, Dos Bocas, even in its unfinished stage, does things: it reifies the profound political transformation that AMLO claims to be spearheading and gives AMLO’s discourse concrete reality, thereby conjuring it into being. In so doing, the refinery ushers in a state of affairs that connects multiple temporalities. It draws on a glorified sovereign past and heroic struggle to shape a present that is rendered permanent through the infrastructure’s claim to space. In this scenario, artworks and monuments that celebrate AMLO’s political project are no longer needed, it is the infrastructure itself that does the work.
The effectiveness of this infrastructure’s performative power vis-à-vis the old regime’s use of public art remains, however, an open question. To evaluate it, one may need to delve more deeply into the features of the ideological projects that each one is a part of and the conditions that have sustained them. These may include the actors involved in their orchestration and their aims; the distinct ways in which each project’s message has circulated—the former, for instance, privileging visual form in artistic representations of infrastructure, while the latter has resorted to discourse and spectacle; and the ways in which each has been taken up by those they are meant to address; as well as the possibilities for each message to be debated and challenged. But rather than thinking of these two projects separately, as competing endeavours, we must look at their mutual intertwinement as the source of their power. As we saw, La Aurora’s brief display at Dos Bocas’ inauguration meant to transfer its dense meaning to this infrastructure. The refinery’s symbolic force then hinged upon La Aurora’s own (historical) force, which AMLO sought to take in new directions. And, as he did so, he reaffirmed, perhaps reinvigorated, the force of an old, superseded medium, making it part of a new form of political communication.
 Mary Coffey, How a revolutionary art became official culture (Durham: Duke University, 2012): 22.
 Daniel Montero, El Cubo de Rubik. Arte Mexicano en los Años 90. (México, RM, 2014).
 Jon Martín Cullel. “López Obrador defiende la “autosuficiencia” en gasolinas en la inauguración de la refinería de Dos Bocas,” El País (July 1, 2022): https://elpais.com/mexico/2022-07-01/lopez-obrador-defiende-la-autosuficiencia-en-gasolinas-en-la-inauguracion-de-la-refineria-de-dos-bocas.html
 Leticia Sánchez Medel. “Obra de Siqueiros es exhibida en la inauguración de la Refinería Dos Bocas,” Milenio (July 1, 2022): https://www.milenio.com/cultura/refineria-bocas-exponen-obra-siqueiros-inauguracion
 James Young, The Texture of Memory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).
 Kaitlin Murphy, “Fear and loathing in monuments: Rethinking the politics and practices of monumentality and monumentalisation,” Memory Studies 14 (6): 1143-1158.
 Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta, The Promise of Infrastructure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)
 Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in France and Germany since 1989 (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005, 7).
 Isaac Marrero-Guillamón, “Monumental Suspension: Art, Infrastructure, and Eduardo Chillida’s Unbuilt Monument to Tolerance,” Social Analysis 64 (16): 28.
 Appel, Anand, and Gupta 2018; and Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343, 2013.
 Marrero-Guillamón 2020, 28.
 Carrier 2006, 22.
 Humberto Beck, Carlos Bravo Regidor, and Patrick Iber, “Year One of AMLO’s Mexico,” Dissent (Winter 2020): https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/year-one-of-amlos-mexico