Melanie Smith review by Eleanor Nairne
‘Does anyone remember how internationally insignificant Mexican art was before it changed’ Miraculously’’ asked Gabriel Orozco in a letter written recently to his gallerist, Jose Kuri. The strength of Mexico’s latest contributions to the Venice Biennale would mean that many might not. Take Rafael Lorenzo Hemmer’s 2005 installation in the crumbling Soranzo Van Axel Palace with its throbbing ceiling of light bulbs, each recording the heartbeat of an individual visitor. Or Teresa Margolles’s sanguine intervention in 2007, for which the floors of the Palazzo Rota Ivancich were bathed in blood. Orozco pinpointed 1989 as the watershed year, when he curated Mexico’s first exhibition of site-specific work - titled A propósito (14 obras en torno a Joseph Beuys) - which gathered together an international community of artists, many of whom have since settled in the chaotic capital. Together they have redefined Mexican contemporary art, using conceptual methods to explore the violence and banality of Latin American life. British artist Melanie Smith was one of the founding members of this scene (born in Poole, she moved to the city in 1989) yet unlike Orozco and Francis Alys - her neighbours and sometime collaborators who have both had solo exhibitions at Tate Modern - she has yet to receive the critical attention she deserves.
Undoubtedly this will change as she presents Cuadrado Rojo, Imposible Rosa (Red Square, Impossible Pink) at the Mexican Pavilion as part of the 54th International Venice Biennale. The exhibition begins in darkness, with a screen positioned uncomfortably close to the audience. Playing on a loop is Aztec Stadium. Malleable Deed (2010), an extraordinary film that shows 3,000 students in the raked stands of Mexico’s largest sports stadium, holding up placards to create mosaics of iconic art historical and popular images, including Malevich’s Red Square and the wrestler Santo. The viewer strains to imagine how thousands of students were configured into these complex configurations for a shoot that lasted just five hours. Everywhere order threatens to descend into chaos as the image disperses into placards and the group into individuals. This dialectic is accentuated by the soundtrack of a traditional Mexican march played out on electric guitar; ordered rhythms are reimagined with a Jimi Hendrix twang that speaks to the pervading influence of American culture.
The labour intensity of Aztec Stadium is a common feature of Smith’s practice, which riffs on the clumsy inefficiency of Mexican political systems. The films Package and Actions in Venice both feature a lumpen plastic ‘thing’ that is used to block different pathways in the city. By turns funny and infuriating, the short films are rich with the frustration of trying to live everyday life in a collapsing post-colonial conurbation like Mexico City. Upstairs a film of a rather different format plays from a whirring 35mm projector, which sits amid an odd assortment of chairs. Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2011) captures ‘Los Pazos’, the luscious tropical gardens of the surrealist collector Edward James. Although conceived as an unfinished design, the project was prematurely halted by the eccentric patron’s death in the early 80s. Here, as elsewhere, Smith returns us to a history riddled with abortive intentions, using the microcosm of James’s garden to consider the ecology of expatriates in Mexico today.