Artist Spotlight: Hugo Hopping

Curator Susan Cross writes about one of the artists featured in our current show The Workers.

Hugo Hopping’s practice engages with the legacy of conceptual art while addressing social and political concerns. In his video for The Workers exhibition, A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss (2010), Hopping re-stages a 1924 chess match played between the influential artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously retired from his career in art to pursue his love of chess, and the Italian chess master Massimiliano Romi. Duchamp conceded the game in order to avoid an embarrassing checkmate, a move which became of particular interest to Hopping and prompted his subsequent ruminations on the multiple meanings of resignation and loss. In the video Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin of the Mexican Armed Forces offers his analysis of the chess match. Chess becomes a metaphor for society where the system of pieces on the board reflects class hierarchies, institutions, and positions of power. The pawns can be understood to represent the foot soldier but also the working class, who, like the pawns have the least power individually, are crucial – especially in their united movements – to the ultimate outcome of the game. Lt. Tapia sees a parallel in this metaphor to the position of the Mexican people in the hope of strengthening a collective national identity and a means to enact change.

Former curatorial assistant Rosalia Romero interviewed the artist about the video:

Rosalia Romero: You met Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin, whose letter is narrated in your piece, on an online chess forum.  Did you approach the Lieutenant specifically with this piece in mind? Or did the work grow out of your communication? 

Hugo Hopping: Between October 2009 and March 2010, I was organizing a solo show for Anne Barrault Gallery in Paris, France titled A Sugar Diet for Mystics. I had prepared some artworks that focused on the public life of Marcel Duchamp, specifically on his chess-related activities. I have come to understand that the game of chess is a public mental sport (often practiced in private) that results in public forms of exhibition, from the park to the tournament.

I was fascinated by the fact that Duchamp resigned from making art publicly to pursue the aesthetics of chess and its strategies. I, myself, had obsessively researched and played chess on a daily basis for over a year, so much that I was beginning to approach a fine line between chess and making art and had to decide which one had priority over the other. I could not believe how much I related to Duchamp’s “early retirement”.

Resignation took on a theoretical aspect that I had not really understood up until the making of these art pieces. In many ways the resolution of having made these artworks reveals that I listened to Duchamp’s imaginary advice to Bobby Fischer. (1)

“If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him—as if anyone could—but I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted.”

Mastering chess is an all-consuming project and having made the world believe Duchamp had given up art for chess for nearly 25 years has to be understood, not as a gimmick but rather as a dynamic for managing public and private artistic activity/production as part of an artistic life strategy, like his final artwork Etant Donnés seems to disclose.

Meanwhile, I was feeding my own chess mania when I happened to meet Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin. We were randomly matched by the chess engine’s online program and had a very good game that resulted in a lesson. I found his comments about chess revealing and informative.  I suppose what was more engrossing in receiving advice from him was his background as a career soldier of almost 30 years in the Mexican Armed Forces. I approached him exclusively with the intention of having him analyze Duchamp’s tournament game and offer an analysis similar to what he had been offering in our online exchanges. This intention resulted from having made a series of art works over the years, which involved diverse individuals contributing content for my artworks through a collaborative exchange. This is how A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss came together.

RR: You have stated that in this piece you seek to examine the ambiguity of loss both real and theoretical. Is there a specific loss or theoretical loss you are referencing aside from Duchamp’s?

HH: I have for some time been concerned by the breakdown of Mexican society through the rise of narcocrime.  I spent my childhood living in a suburb of Mexico City, a relatively safe environment, and had been hoping to make a project that evidenced the contemporary social deterioration and that, of course, obviated its loss through the narratives of modern and contemporary art.  Duchamp’s game, in this sense, is a mise en abîme for staging ‘the other’.

His resignation as a chess player possesses a historical narrative between public exhibition and private practice. Lieutenant Tapia is currently caught in a similar dynamic: his role as a soldier and voicing an inaccessible narrative and private perception of Mexican society, without referencing directly the narcowar.  I found that in asking Lieutenant Tapia to be part of this piece, I was both allowing Duchamp’s public chess practice to be examined through the game itself and as a comment on a contemporary conflict offered by an unexpected examiner in the Mexican army.

If the resignation means the sidestepping of making art publicly and favoring a production strategy for the making art privately, then the loss may be a word of warning (which Duchamp suggests clairvoyantly) of a coming transition from a private practice to market-driven practices, thereby transforming aesthetics in contemporary art production.

In terms of a self-reflexive search for an understanding of loss as a way of overcoming historical disappointment and societal changes, the Mexican soldier seems to be searching for a way to modernize the Mexican mind in spite of his station as a public servant directly involved in the current conflict. Material and political loss in this case is a way of life in Mexico.

In the end, the soldier wonders if there ever was a Mexican hegemony and how it can transcend both its historical and contemporary aberrations.

 RR: The dilution of Latin American culture in the face of American influences is central to Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s text. He presents a parallel between the great power that a unified set of pawns possesses in the game and the potential inherent in uniting a country’s people. Building a strong cultural identity is mentioned as a means of accomplishing this unity. Do you share Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s sentiment?

HH: Mexican national identity has been displaced by the economic practice in Mexico since the early 1980’s, and it has been fully entrenched into modern Mexican society since the economic circumstances of 1994. In other words, Mexican national identity has also been deregulated.  In the preface to the 3rd edition of Lesley B. Simpson’s book titled Many Mexicos published in 1941, he suggests that the “study of habit gives meaning to history”…for “we cannot know ourselves without knowing the past”.

Lieutenant Tapia is caught in a generational shift in Mexico, where the political scandals, continued disappointments, and failed promises have abandoned the institutionalization of the Mexican Revolution. He still remembers the difference between Mexican and American identities.

I think Lieutenant Tapia is suggesting an advancement of this identity; however, he does not provide nor suggest how to achieve this.  I don’t know where he stands with many of my comments above, although he seems to share similar concerns.

I differ in many ways with Lieutenant Tapia in that I am Mexican and also American, I have a heritage in both nations, and I see myself caught as a subject of an emerging North American subjectivity, one which is increasingly merging into the other, meaning the U.S. and Mexico. However, a cultural identity is indispensable, especially a strong one, ideally, where the virtues of this said culture can absorb difference and heterogeneity and not succumb to xenophobia and racism. I am impressed that Mr. Tapia and I are on different sides of the aisle; no soldier in Mexico is unaware of the brutal violence that is happening at the moment or has not dealt with it, and I can safely say that no Mexican artist is unaware of the same issues or has suffered losses from the violence.

RR: And you mention the increasing presence of military forces in open civil society in Mexico and the then current national crisis as a framework for viewing the piece.

It is important to understand that Lieutenant Hugo’s letter is written in light of a planned build-up in 2010 of more than 45,000 Mexican soldiers, who were being deployed into Mexican society to fight narcocartels. To some, this military intervention into Mexican civil society is regarded as the first major operation since the revolution.

It is important to note that the Mexican Armed Forces is one of the few armies in Latin America that has not staged a coup in the last 75 years and that a blossoming anti-militarization, anti-corruption movement in Mexico is on the rise, led by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who, after the horrific assassination of his son among six others by organized crime earlier this year, has begun to build national support with other fed-up citizens who can no longer bear the societal deterioration.  This social movement, called Red Por La Paz y La Justicia, believes that society should seek new forms of coexistence and order without the imposition of an army and as such it is demanding a social revolution to gain back Mexican civil society. Here are Sicilia’s own words from a document written in the aftermath of his son’s assassination.

“We have had it up to here with you, politicians –and when I say politicians I am not referring to any one in particular, but to a whole lot of you…because in the midst of this corruption that shows the failure of the State, every citizen of this country has been reduced to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls, with using the Greek word, zoe: an unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being who can be raped, kidnapped, molested and murdered with impunity, we have had it up to here because you have only imagination for violence, weapons, for insult, and therefore, a deep contempt for education, culture and opportunities for good honest work, which is what makes nations prosperous.”— An Open Letter to Politicians and Criminals, Javier Sicilia, April 3, 2011. (2)


Javier Sicilia has resigned from ever writing poetry again.



1. Brady, Frank: Bobby Fischer: profile of a prodigy, Courier Dover Publications, 1989; p. 207.

2. Carta abierta a políticos y criminals. Javier Sicilia


Posted March 1, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, The Workers
1 Comment »

Digg | | Technorati | Blinklist | Furl | reddit

One Comment on “Artist Spotlight: Hugo Hopping”


    It is always darkest just before the dawn. History shows us that injustice is always avenged, or set right. At one point it happens very quickly, in a matter of days, but the task of patient day to day work for justice and equality never leaves us. There is no freedpm without equality.

Leave a Comment

HTML Cheat Sheet
Bold: <strong>Text</strong>
Italic <em>Text</em>
Link: <a href="http://url" target="_blank">Link</a>