Title: Mexico, Cuadrado rojo, rosa imposible (Red Square Impossible Pink)
Artist: Melanie Smith, Rafael Ortega
Curator: José Luis Barrios Lara
Venue: Palazzo Rota-Ivancich, Castello 4421
An ambitiously-worded press release may have greeted you on discovering Red Square Impossible Pink at the Mexican Pavilion. For example, this exhibition declares one of its intentions to tackle ‘the issue of the transformation of utopias as artistic projections into heterotopias as productions of social and political experience in Latin America’. However, this mixed-media exposition in the Palazzo Rota Ivancich does prove rather more accessible than its rather impenetrable description may suggest.
The series of Bulto videos, for example, focus on absurdly large, fuchsia-pink packages transplanted into some commonplace scenarios. And as one watches the figures struggle to move these objects, strapped to vehicles or dragged through post-office queues, one is simultaneously aware both of the juxtaposition of the nonsensical and the quotidian – but also the burdens one places on others, and how they attempt to navigate around these obstacles. As metaphors for the structures of modern interactions, these packages illuminate the everyday procedures of society by displaying the converse – farcical scenarios created within the artistic sphere causing trouble for their participants. In an extension of the project, the ‘Package’ mass was also transported to Venice for five days, extending the scope of this problematic blockade to a city where navigation is already hindered by multiple waterways, here specifically illuminating the complications of modernity in an outdated etting.
Furthermore, Smith’s wholly immersive environment manages to envelop the viewer in a space where art and reality overlap, allowing both the fulfilment of the conceptual framework articulated in the press release, as well as a successful, engaging experience for the viewer. Whether it is the collaborative (but cacophonous) creation of seminal images in the video Estadio Azteca, Proeza Maleable, or the physical paintings merging with the interior decoration of the Palazzo, Smith’s work manages to be artistically and socially relevant – regardless of whether one understands every pronouncement of its accompanying statement or not.
Interview with Melanie Smith
Questions by Denise Kwan and Jennifer Owen
How has your relocation to Mexico influenced your practice, and in what way has it influenced your perception of culture?
My moving to Mexico implied a 180 degree shift in my approach to making and thinking about art. As an art student formalism and minimalism were important influences, whereas in Mexico I was immediately taken with the baroque elaboration of the city itself and structures of power, and the way in which abstraction fitted in in Mexico was very different to my mind. There is a sort of corruption and bending of minimalist forms here that cannot be avoided. It is not a culture of reductionism, totally the opposite, and so these were two counterpositions that I have always worked with : the impossibility of the insertion of the history of art from a European perspective into the living experience in Latin America. Being from England, one of the biggest colonial countries of the world, has also marked my experience in Mexico. I’m interested in the post-colonial debate, but as an idea that fragments culture, and something that can speak of histories in a more complex way than just periphery versus centre.
How does the role of collaboration function in your practice?
Rafael and I collaborate on the the film productions, and I have a separate practice in the studio, but the two are interconnected and most of the images of the paintings come from filmic ideas or sometimes even as precursors to film projects. Rafael comes from film and his framing and timing are some of the most vital elements of the films, without losing the pictorial sense which is where I come from. But Rafa also works with other artistas and I think this sets us aside from a normal pair of artists. I think our independence is important to the input of the projects; the fact that there is always some external input is key. I’m even interested in the idea of collaborating with curators or writers and right now I’m working on a project with a friend who works in restauration. We are interested in that breaking down of barriers which may not necessarily happen as a full-time dual team.
Ideas of anonymity and identification within places appear in your work, could you explain your ideas?
There is always a reference to the body in my work, but as you say in a very anonymous way. This is clear in the video work of Spiral city for example, - the city becomes the anonymous, post human body – the same applies to Tianguis II – there is always an off-frame, almost spectral, quality. Aztec Stadium also clearly brings together the collective ordered body that dissolves into chaos – or the mass as a revolutionary force that has the potential to tear apart the frame. I think the anonymity has more to do with the action happening off the frame or somewhere else – an almost fugitive quality which eludes explanation. But I think it’s something I’m looking for in the work. This fugitiveness leads to the idea of heterotopic place assuming its own quality. Xilitla for example is a very off-the-map place that assumes its own irrationality, and non-functionality. I think this identification of places that you mention is about the impossibility of representation – the places I choose are perhaps part of a larger concern about abstraction.
Some may argue that abstracted art and politics are distinctly separate; how do you view their roles with one another?
For me they can respond to each other, and more importantly agency runs between them. Perhaps it’s easier to see it inversely: I do not see the function of art to be some sort of moral consciousness of politics and neither do I think of abstraction being purely about abstraction. In the best of cases the intersection of the two should open up a third space, but not a space that necesarily gives answers. A common thread in my work for example is the boundary between the physical frame (as in painting) and its extension into the political frame and a re-reading of formal structures or abstraction in social/public space. This is evident in the last scene of the Aztec Stadium where Malevich’s Red Square, already divided in a thousand small rectangles by the students stunt cards, is dispersed all over the football pitch into a sort of irresolute provocation, doubting the purity of the square.
Do you feel the relocation of the ‘Package’ to Venice radically altered or extended the concept beyond its initial staging in Mexico? How, if at all, did you feel this changed the meaning of this project?
Jose Luis and I talked a lot about how this project could insert into the context of Venice. Infact the Bulto (package) was first presented, and shot, in Lima, as a 43 minute film, but this, we decided would have been too long for Venice, particularly as there were already two other film works. So we decided to fracture and edit certain scenes, placed on monitors throughout the palazzo that the spectator would walk through with. Also there was a simultaneous action on the opening days of the Biennale – whereby we took the Bulto through the small streets of Venice, around the Palazzo. It was used as a kind of blockage device amongst all the tourists and locals and day to day movements within the city. People did get angry when they found that they couldn’t pass in certain streets, and in a way it was about that. On certain occasions I went out with the two people who were carrying the Bulto, and I could see people looking and asking themselves what was that thing, and what was inside. I think the Bulto has its own agency and this was one of the points we wanted to explore in Venice. In Lima people automatically associated the Bulto as a bomb, going back to the threat of terrorism. In Venice I think it we used it more as a subliminal signage for the Pavilion and also to make reference to the way in which the Bulto was just going round and round on itself in the laberinths of Venice – a kind of parallel narrative between the Italian and Latin American experience of circulation and chaos.
How important is the context of the Palazzo Rota Ivancich to these works? Were they specifically created for the space or merely situated there after their creation?
I think the Palazzo becomes like a big installation for the exhibition. No, the works weren’t made for the space but – particularly in the case of Xilitla and the paintings there was a fortunate mimesis between the space and the conceptual origins within the work. The paintings looked like they had been made for the space (they are actually part of a series that links to the video projects) as there was a constant dialogue between the wallpaper and the way the paintings sunk in to their backgound. Sound was an important factor. We had to isolate the electric guitar of the Aztec Stadium from the rest of the space, hence the double door entrance and exit to the piece, but this helped the sensation of delirium and isolation from the rest of the installation upstairs which really worked as a mimetic representation within the decadence of Venice. We really worked on the walk-through of the exhibition, together with Rafael – the sensorial experience of the whole space was really important, hence the different colours and temperatures, together with the sound led the viewer into the melancholic space of Xilitla at the end of the show.
Was the curation of the space a collaborative effort for the Biennale?
Jose Luis and I have worked together over the last couple of years on the production of the Aztec Stadium. This was an enormous piece that took over a year to produce and finally make happen. So over that time frame we talked a lot about common threads in my work and concepts that had been interesting him in his work. I had also been working on Xilitla with another curator Paola Santascoy, in a similar way for a long time. So they are projects and ideas that had been brewing for a while, but their insertion in the Palazzo was crucial in taking the projects out of a local condition. Finally I think they way in which they function is all set off by the projects’ juxtaposition with the Palazzo as a decadent European ruin. In a way I think it was a culmination of a series of ideas from both of us that came together at one moment.
Your work at times shares concerns – primarily those related to modernity – with the work of Francis Alÿs; do you feel there is a dialogue between your artistic investigations and Alÿs’ work?
Yes, we have known each other for over twenty years and there is a strong connection of where the works come from and at the same time the critique, not to mention that we both work with Rafael. We have worked in the same city and there are connections I think in the way in which we go about the investigation of a project or subject, and the perhaps our pictorial interest, although my interest in painting stems back to the avant–garde as a trigger more than anything else. Fundamentally I think Francis’ work goes from him, as a subject, to the exterior, and mine goes from the exterior to the subject or interior, and I’m thinking about abstraction in quite a different way. Francis’ work has more concerns with the failure of modernism, whereas, particularly in the Biennale presentation, my work is more concerned with fragmentation as a kind of constellation of modernism; slippage, grey areas and circulation are all important to me. It’s less about periphery and more about alterity.