I arrive in Monterrey, north Mexico, after dark. To get there I have flown into and out of Mexico City by night. Thirty million people below me and I haven’t seen one of them—just an infinite pattern of sodium light. I try to translate that into some kind of human presence: for every streetlight, say, a household. It’s like looking at the night sky and trying to imagine each distant star as populous and complex as planet Earth.

There is no seat belt in my taxi, and I try to work up the courage to complain. I don’t or can’t. I’m weak-willed through lack of sleep. Feeling weirdly untethered I look outside at the view from the highway. A shabby industrial zone gives way to neon signs, billboards, a run of burger bars, car showrooms, low density housing, a car wash chain that is styled as an African village, complete with a canopy that imitates grass huts.

The taxi driver pulls down a screen above the front passenger’s seat: Jennifer Lopez in concert. She is wearing a bright red dress, but I don’t recognise the song. He drives me to my hotel, paying more attention to the TV screen than the view through the windscreen. I’m thankful it is late on a Sunday night and the roads seem deserted. I arrive at my hotel, a neat tower at the heart of a downtown grid. They have never heard of me.

The texture of the city, its visual cues, the distinctive way we move through it, the familiarity and the strangeness of the urban fabric, these were the themes of Sodium and Asphalt, Contemporary British Art in Mexico . Curated by Ann Gallagher of the British Council and Tobias Ostrander, of the Tamayo Museum, Mexico City, it opened in July 2004 before transferring to MARCO, Monterrey until February 2005.

Sodium and Asphalt could not be described as a survey, nor as a generational show, but it does mark a number of significant developments in British art of the last decade or so. Some of these are age and stage-related, some geographic. Four of the 12 selected artists were Glasgow-based or trained. The youngest artists, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, are based in New York City. Melanie Smith lives and works in Mexico City.

'Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Sea, the Rain and the Hours', 2002 and 'Brushing against Strange Weeds', 2004, Martin Boyce 
'Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Sea, the Rain and the Hours', 2002 and 'Brushing against Strange Weeds', 2004, Martin Boyce

The exhibition, which grew out of a seminar series on colour and the city at the Tamayo Museum attended by artists David Batchelor and Melanie Smith, also marks a more collaborative structure for exhibition-making at the British Council and coincides with an increased synergy between artists in two countries without any emphatic historical or colonial ties. The last year or two has seen a number of significant shows of Mexican artists in London. In April Mexican collecting gets an airing when a number of works from the Jumex collection will be shown at Glasgow’s Tramway as part of Glasgow Inernational, 2005.

What distinguishes Sodium and Asphalt from any number of recent themed shows on cities and urbanism is its particular, although not exclusive, emphasis on formal qualities alongside social realities: on the distinctive visual vocabulary of the urban environment, and its relationship to the history of art, architecture, music and literature.

In the formal spaces of MARCO, a pristine modern concrete building designed by Ricardo Legoretta, the exhibition unfolds as a Baudelarian stroll through a series of different urban environments.

Melanie Smith’s installation acts as a kind of transitional zone: a shop front for urban sensations. A series of vibrating striped paintings in acrylic colours of lime green, bright pink—rosa mexicana—and concrete, lean against the gallery wall as though just unpacked. A series of video pieces are shown on televisions sitting on their cardboard boxes. Her paintings form a kind of background hum, a Broadway boogie-woogie, to the more intimate structures of the films. In one of these the camera peers through a fluorescent-lettered window into a downtown aerobics class, the rhythm of pumping bodies, a kind of fleshy parody of the machine age. Above these elements, suspended from the ceiling, is a knot of fluorescent nylon string. An image of the city itself, perhaps, not as a coherent grid but as a tangle.

Nigel Cooke’s landscape paintings, with their urban sublime of contemporary ruin and decay, form a kind of exterior wall, albeit one that is characteristically cracked and graffiti-strewn. Jim Lambie’s ‘Zobop’ provides a disco interior, and the film ‘Gentlemen’ by Payne and Relph, a kind of psychological inner space for the city-dweller.

From David Batchelor’s stack of lightboxes to Richard Wright’s work ‘Untitled (31.3.04)’—a painting of a simulated wooden surface, over which is floated a series of disconnected geometric shapes like ribbons—the language of signage, of simulation and stimulation is a persistent presence.

Kathrin Bohm’s installation is part of her ongoing artwork, ‘and millions and millions’, in which graphic prints are flyposted onto the gallery walls and stacked up on shelves, freely available for visitors to take away.

Mark Titchner and Melanie Smith also contribute billboard projects, posted on commercial plots on the fringes of the city’s highway. A set of Richard Wright’s delicately modulated posters is slapped up on city walls in an insouciant manner that might make collectors weep (in Mexico City they were flyposted by a crack team specialising in Mexican wrestling posters) and allowed to deteriorate in wind, sun and competition.

'Zobop', Jim Lambi, 2004
'Zobop', Jim Lambi, 2004

Although in many ways some of the artworks selected apparently conform to formal abstraction or minimalism, many emphasise a deliberate disruption of conceptions of purity once associated with it. Mark Titchner’s rhythmic billboard-sized piece, ‘Y and Y’, shown in the gallery, conceals complex coded content derived from industrial punch cards within its geometric patterning.

That ‘impurity’ is an intrinsic part of Batchelor’s method of sourcing on the street —the found light-box structures and dollies he uses, his reclaiming falling short of cleaning up their imperfect scratched and rusted surfaces. ‘The Magic Hour’ is installed in an aperture to expose the mess of wires and sockets at the rear. Jim Lambie taps into an artwork’s visual instability, its lack of containment—the now iconic striped floorpiece ‘Zobop’ fills a room rather than merely covers the floor. The back of Batchelor’s work is an important counterbalance to the front. The edges of Lambie’s stripes have all but disappeared.

Sodium and Asphalt feels simultaneously coherent, concise and appropriately wandering. Turning a corner one enters a number of different worlds, like the geographically uncertain zone of Rosalind Nashashibi’s film ‘The State of Things’, in which elderly people rummage through second-hand clothes at a jumble sale.

Martin Boyce’s urban park, ‘Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Sea, the Rain and the Hours’, lit by neon trees and enclosed by chain-link fencing, has its own particular set of visual references, from ageing modernism and modernist revival, including Ben Kelly’s designs for the Hacienda nightclub and the street furniture of Jean Prouvé. But it extends far beyond these specifics to become a melancholy place of teenage reverie, an emotional twilight zone.

Nashashibi’s recent film ‘Juniper Set’, focusing on the fabric seats of a Glasgow train, follows a significant thread in her interests—the visual patterning of public space. Unusually for her films, people are absent, but the implied presence of the body is emphatic. In drawings and video, Paul Noble’s ongoing construction of the mythical city Nobson Newtown is intricately structured, complex and eerily deserted, leaving imaginative space for the viewer’s own journey. The insistent beat of Morse code in Payne and Relph’s ‘Gentlemen’ forms the background for an extended prose poem and visual hymn to the seedy thrill of the city at night. All these locations feel like jumping-off points rather than final destinations.

Monterrey itself is a wealthy, north-facing city, home to an elite university and, in the suburb of San Pedro, a branch of Louis Vuitton which, local legend has it, had the highest opening-night take of any of its worldwide branches. Yet in a country where the flight from the countryside seems unstoppable, it contains its own shantytowns, creeping along the hillsides and, as the paranoid mirror image of those shantytowns, gated communities.

Ultimately though, no city can be gated or enclosed. And the bleed of light, sound and idea characteristic of the artworks in Sodium and Asphalt was evident in the city itself. Beneath the museum in the city’s Macroplaza is the minimalist monument to cultural and financial modernity, ‘The Beacon of Commerce’. Look out on another side of the building and you’ll catch a triumph of urban kitsch. El Rey de Cabrito is a local landmark restaurant, serving the north Mexican speciality cabrito, slow-roasted kid goat, in a building that is literally capped with a crown of glass and neon.

For every bright light in every city: a rich and complex world.

Moira Jeffrey is a writer and The Herald art critic