Immediately following an appearance at Tate Modern – in conversation with Dawn Ades, Professor of Art History and Theory at Essex University, noted for her publications on Dada, Surrealism and photography – the Mexico-based artist Melanie Smith made a first visit to West Dean in late June. During an evening presentation and discussion, Melanie screened Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010), an alternate version of the film recently purchased and displayed by Tate. Made in collaboration with regular partner Rafael Ortega, both films centre on the surreal architectural constructions built by West Dean founder Edward James deep within the Mexican jungle.
Melanie had known about James’ interventions at Las Posas for some years before finally visiting the location to research, develop and shoot the film. It is not difficult to understand the attraction of the site, especially considering James’ own British heritage, yet the sense of Xilitla that emerges in the film is more complex, especially in the context of Melanie’s practice. Las Posas was ‘settled’ by James in the mid-1940s and worked on sporadically until his death in 1984. Located in an area dotted with waterfalls and rocky outcrops, a dazzling array of disjunctive gothic structures were constucuted, some designed to be inhabitable (four-storey!) architecture, others as purely ornamental or symbolic sculptural forms. The site is traversed by a network of walkways and paths, complimented by wild and introduced exotic plants and animals. Although it remains in a state of disrepair, it is still possible to get a sense of the ‘Garden of Eden’ James had sought. Pigmented concrete structures emerge from the jungle not only as stylised extensions of the natural foliage, but also as direct manifestations of the self-described Poet’s privately funded utopianism (together with an uncomfortable hint of colonialism thrown in), destined to persist as a poignant and compelling monument to both surrealism and the modernist legacy in South America.
Filmed in 35mm, during an arduous shoot amid dense subtropical rainforest, Xilitla: Dismantled 1 presents its own subtly stylised view of James’ Edenic garden. Constructed from short, staccato takes, the images combine with a soundtrack that is more suggestive of whispers made during production, or even the eavesdropped patter of an internal monologue – quite far from any deliberative voiceover or documentary-style commentary. An general bluish tint accentuates an atmosphere of oppressive humidity, pressurising the images somehow, giving weight to the common proximity of the banal and the fantastical, as they are invited to occupy the same space.
Given that the main film is designed to be installed vertically projected – deliberately disrupting the conventional aspect ratio of cinema – one of Melanie’s central interests is based in the architectural. As a built landscape isolated in the remote jungle, the appeal of Xilitla has a relation to the city that is important in relation the context of previous themes in her work. Born in Dorset in 1965, Melanie has lived and worked in Mexico for over twenty years, for the most part based in the expansive capital of Mexico City. Such a conurbation, spread across an immense plateau in the centre of the country, must have had an immense impact of the life and work of any artist previously based in the United Kingdom. Quickly establishing herself as part of a loosely connected artistic community that included Gabriel Orozco and Francis Alÿs, Melanie’s work engaged with Mexico City in its various guises: as a site of stark social divisions, a place of violence and vibrant excess, a context of overpopulation and political inefficiency, even an image of the complex layers and interwoven states that make up contemporary Mexican life.
Early on, the city’s multiplicities were reflected in works that brought together assemblages of different media (paintings, objects, performance settings), displayed in a manner that suggested equivalency and free exchange. Each unit could be dispersed and re-circulated, the pieces operating as both fragment and cumulative event. Some works made explicit reference to Mexico’s modernity (and what could be considered as ‘post-‘ in this context) through archetypal manifestations within cultural production and reception. This would often involve the embodiment of individual iconic forms, more often than not in order to enact a resistance against such established aesthetic codes. For example, Melanie’s appearance in the Mexican Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, entitled ‘Red Square Impossible Pink’, made obvious reference to the kinds of formalised utopian project proposed by Malevich and the Constructivists. Ades describes these kinds of project “attempts to refashion life in terms of an ideal abstract language”, which already puts us back in mind of Edward James’ intentions at Las Posas. Through invoking these icons of modernism, Melanie’s work simultaneously highlights their incommensurablilty with the chaotic and unformed realities of human life – the frequent appeals to these visual, conceptual and historical figures (not only in formal terms but as an overall aesthetic reference point) suggest that her concern is for tracing and provoking the different visibilities of Modernism’s legacy through its appearance in both everyday life and in singular moments that stand outside normal experience. As Ades also suggests, Melanie’s use of these tropes is consciously “corrupted”, [cf. Ades ‘Messing Up Abstraction’], whereby the artist is not only intrigued by the qualities of such works in themselves, or even in recognising and enacting various “disruptions to aesthetic purities”, but also the kinds of disruptive effects these attempted ‘purities’ can have on contemporary contexts – i.e. the multiplicities of present time, combined with its retroactive and potential reach, tracing the influence of out-of-context avant-garde movements (as well as that which is left in their wake) in a way that is similar to charting the spread of a contagion.
Painting plays a prominent role here. Smith trained as a painter and it remains both a constant activity and a reference point throughout her practice. Various painterly techniques and styles (including the use of airbrushes) find their way into works based in other media, included those based on Xilitla. In a series of films based in the small town of Parres on the outskirts of the Mexico City, an urban landscape image is repeatedly overtaken by a monochrome ‘field’ – either by the screen literally being whitewashed over, or the recorded figure of the artist herself being blotted out by sheets of rainfall. This play between what is transparent and what is opaque – what Melanie describes as “everything that happens at the edge of the illusionistic space of the canvas” – as well as the use of flat surfaces to create illusions as well as obscuring whatever is beneath or behind, links painting and film in a direct way – a potent connection that is explicitly addressed throughout all of Melanie’s work.
Of course it is not only figures of modernist painting that are referenced throughout Melanie’s work. When, in Xilitla, fluorescent tubes appear amongst James’s concrete forms, implanted like stakes within a copse of fluid buttresses, they recall the minimal installations of Dan Flavin. The appearance of various types of mirroring in the film, both literal and symbolically, is another careful reference. Images of symmetrical doubling, as well as its disruption (whether it be a pane of silvered glass being carried through the jungle or a close-up of a local man with severe strabismus) are conscious references to the work of Robert Smithson, particularly his series of Mirror Displacements in the Yucatan and elsewhere. Appeals to notions of the disruption of perception and the instability of the gaze are of course multilayered and are again fed back into painted imagery – various canvases appearing as if related to the eroded patina of silver bromide or a painted invocation of entropy. Melanie has made previous references to Smithson’s work, most notably in her 2003 work Spiral City, another film made in collaboration with Ortega. By transposing the movement of Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty – a constructed land mass curling into a salt lake in remote Utah – into the prescribed flight path of a helicopter flying above Mexico City, Smith created a striking portrait of the city that tilts and lurches like a slow tornado rising above the streets. The formal grid layout of the city is challenged by this disorienting spiral movement, expanding outward and dispersing (as opposed to Smithson concentrating movement inward), yet still capturing the chaotic, sprawling nature of the city from high altitude.
Such nods to Minimalism and Conceptualism, as well as formal abstraction and environmental interventions are common throughout Smith’s work: for example, an emphasis on colour abstractions, where fluorescent plastic objects serve as an organising principle in early works such as Orange Lush (1994-1996), or in Bulto (Package) (2011), where a mysterious wrapped object is comically (and sinisterly) carted around different locations in Peru, symbolic not only of modernist abstraction, the difficulties involved in the development of much of South America’s post-colonial identity, or indeed as an image of political bureaucracy or traditions of revolution, but also the idea of an accepted ‘symbolic order’ in itself.
Melanie concluded her talk with a compelling outline of project she is currently developing, again based on a strangely isolated endeavour in remote South America, this time in the midst of the Amazon rainforest. This constructed ‘utopia’ was quite different, however, instead being a venture aligned with pure capitalist expansion, exploitation of resources and the pursuit of manufacturing profit. Fordlândia, established on a tributary of the Amazon river in 1928, was a project of the American business magnate Henry Ford. A full functioning township – complete with paved streets, houses and businesses, a power plant, a hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel and so on – was built up around an enormous bespoke rubber plantation. The project – akin to dropping a piece of America in the middle of nowhere – was doomed to fail. Unlike James, Ford apparently never visited his ‘dream’ factory plantation and the site is now abandoned. Again, the appeal to the artists’ interests and its relation to the consistent themes of her work, are clear to see. It will be exciting to see what comes of the research.