MACBA presents Melanie Smith, the largest and most comprehensive institutional exhibition of the artist’s work in Europe to date, encompassing the full breadth of media the artist has embraced from her early sculptural works, assemblages, reliefs and paintings to her work in video, photography and installation. Smith (b.1965) was born in the UK, but established her career in the Mexican art scene of the 1990s. Having lived and worked in Mexico City since 1989, Smith represented Mexico at the Venice Biennale in 2011. She arrived in Mexico fresh from the contradictions of Thatcher’s Britain, marked on the one hand by the dismantling of the industrial past and on the other by the transformation to a service economy that had seen a boom ending in recession. In Mexico she witnessed the layering of capitalist modernisation, failed modernity, impoverishment with hyper-consumerism, more traditional forms of manufacture and an informal economy. Thus the contrast between where she comes from and where she lives now subtly informs her work.
Since the 1980s, Smith has addressed interrelated themes in her work that range from the effects and detritus of industrialisation, the economies and aesthetics of abstraction, and urbanisation, colonialism, and, more recently, nature and entropy. In Smith’s work, the markets for cheap plastic goods in Mexico City become at once a testament to the dominance of neoliberal economies, but also to the existence of alternative markets and means of circulation. Furthermore, they become the basis of an investigation of abstraction – the monochrome – in relation to the city, histories of the avant-garde, modernism, indigenism and forms of nationalism. Ultimately, through her work she performs an archaeology of modernism and modernity.
The exhibition presents a number of important bodies of Smith’s work that reveal the development of her work. It will not be chronological but will include key early works such us Spiral City, 2002, and Farce and Artifice 2004. Spiral City is a film, series of photographs and paintings of Mexico City but responds to Robert Smithson's earthwork and related film Spiral Jetty. Whereas Smithson’s film follows the movement of the artist along the in-turning spiral, Spiral City plays off the counterpoint of Mexico City’s grid, working against the upward movement of the camera flying in widening spirals. The film is a testament to a city that is subject to a crystalline-like erosion, whereby structures build upon each other and collapse, a haunting cartography of the future. Together they compose a document of an apparently limitless urban expansion, where the abstract contemplation of mass is inseparable from its social experience. In the exhibition these Works will be shown with later works including Fordlandia 2014 that explores a similar seemingly limitless immensity in nature in the Brazilian Amazon.
Xilitla, 2010, is named after a small town in Mexico, the location of a garden created by the eccentric British aristocrat Edward James (1907–1984). James, an important collector of Surrealist art, examines the legacies of modernism and the incomplete modernities encountered in Latin America, through the relics and ruins of Surrealism embodied by the fantastical concrete structures he built in his garden. Fordlandia, 2014, was filmed in the abandoned city in the Amazon founded by automobile mogul Henry Ford to produce rubber: planned urbanisation displaced to the Brazilian jungle. Ford’s utopia of capitalist industrial production soon failed and, being abandoned, fell into a state of disrepair and gradual decay. Smith’s film focuses on details of the settlement and its state of dereliction, the local communities currently living in the region, the river, and the flora and fauna of the locale. The film thus builds into a reflection on the processes of entropy as they are observed in relation to modernity and its failures, especially in the heightened context of the tropics where the natural environment constantly asserts itself.
The exhibition will also include more recent work such as the performative tableaux Obscuridades bucólicas 2017, which take their cue from the work of Hieronymous Bosch but combine it with a sense of the absurd that could be said to draw on Mexican and British surrealism, British literature and humour such as Lewis Caroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 1865 and Through the Looking Glass 1871), Edward Lear (A Book of Nonsense, 1846, and Monty Python.
MACBA’s exhibition will be an in-depth look at Smith’s career. It will also include new works currently in production. The exhibition is being produced in collaboration with MUAC, Mexico City and the Museo Amparo, Puebla, Mexico, which will share the exhibition across the two venues in 2019.
Curator: Tanya Barson