In February, a terrible winter storm left Houston, like much of Texas, without power for days. While the timing is unusual, the city is no stranger to storms: Houston is often ravaged by hurricanes in the summer and fall, much like San Juan, Puerto Rico, where artist duo Allora & Calzadilla are based. . The vulnerability of the two cities to extreme weather conditions is one of the many themes of the artists’ exhibition “Specters de midi” at the Menil Collection (on view until June 20). Walking through the exhibition while the city was still picking up pieces from the most recent storm, many of his works seem particularly resonant.
The show opens with the hum of a transformer damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017. Partially cast in bronze, Blackout (2020) is an imposing sculpture of a machine going awry. Behind her hangs a seventy-foot painting made of iron filings on linen, titled Cadastre (meter number 18257262, consumption charge 36.9 kWh x $ 0.02564, FCA rider-adjusted fuel load 36.9 kWh x $ 0.053323, rider PPCA-adjusted purchasing power load 36.9 kWh x $ 0.016752, CILTA-municipalities rider adjusted 36.9 kWh x grants $ 0.002376. SUBA4 rider $ 4), 2019. To create the work, the artists placed the canvases above an electromagnetic field produced by electrified copper cables in their studio, allowing the current to determine the composition. The title, derived from their Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority utility bill, links the formal structure of the artwork to the island’s energy infrastructure, shaped by both US colonial control and internal corruption.
Manifesto (2020), a two-part sculpture of a Crowley ship engine sunk in bird and bat guano, testifies to the long history of the subjugation of the island and the exploitation of its resources . In the 19th century, it was discovered that guano was rich in nitrogen, making it an effective agricultural fertilizer. Following this discovery, the United States passed the Guano Islands Act of 1856 which allowed the annexation of more than 100 unoccupied islands containing guano deposits in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Local workers extracted the guano from the caves and loaded it onto ships bound for the Americas. As a mechanism that powers movement between the mainland and the island, the motor also signifies the relationship between the occupant and the occupied.
Throughout the exhibition, Allora & Calzadilla explore the surreal qualities of colonialism. For example, Entelechy (2020), is a massive sculpture of a blackened felled tree, cast in charcoal from the remains of a pine that had been struck by lightning. Inspired by a story told by French surrealist author Georges Bataille, it alludes to a tree in the south of France uprooted by a storm in 1940, leading to the discovery of the Lascaux cave system below. Entelechy evokes the magical, even alchemical, properties of coal, a substance made from plant material that has been transformed by pressure and heat over millions of years and, like guano, is at the center of mining economies operators.
As curator Michelle White mentions in the catalog, artists were informed by Martinican surrealist author René Ménil’s description of the marvelous as a theoretical space of enchantment defined by the eerie possibilities of opposites coexisting. The final work of the exhibition, Graft (2019), consists of thousands of yellow artificial flowers scattered across the ground, which are painted to appear as if they are in various states of decay. Representing flowers falling from the roble, native to the Caribbean, the work evokes a scene from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Márquez A hundred years of loneliness in which thousands of yellow flowers fall from the sky, suffocating animals. Such a beautiful spectacle can also be powerful and violent. Like a storm that smashes through walls or a colonial force that crosses borders, the effects last longer than the initial rupture.
The title of the exhibition alludes to acedia, a medieval concept that artists encountered in Roger Callois’ 1936 essay “Le complex de midi”, published in the surrealist review Minotaur. Callois writes that the midday hour, when the sun is highest in the sky and the shadows contract, is when the demon of acedia emerges, characterized by apathy and laziness. Maybe as the center of the day, noon is a lot like the eye of a storm, a time when we’re caught in the midst of dramatic waves, and all we can do is take stock of it. ‘wreck.