Coming to uncertain terms with Mexico City

Melanie Smith's ''Commercial Mexicana Mixcoac'' is part of her exhibit at MIT about Mexico City, where she has lived since the late 1980s. Melanie Smith's ''Commercial Mexicana Mixcoac'' is part of her exhibit at MIT about Mexico City, where she has lived since the late 1980s.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - On the face of it, Melanie Smith's solo show "Spiral City & Other Vicarious Pleasures," at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, looks like a bold attempt at making a portrait of a city. And not just any city. Smith, who was born in Britain, has chosen as her subject one of the world's largest: Mexico City, where she has lived since the late 1980s.

Just think of it: To take on a whole city - and with a full quiver of means at your disposal! (Smith uses paint, photography, video footage, audio, and various installation techniques.)

How, you wonder, will she convey Mexico City's energy, its atmosphere, all the systems it depends on to function? How might she convey the ways in which individual lives simultaneously depend on those systems and are - as in any huge city - alienated by them?

But hold on. Because Smith's show is also, quite intentionally, a retreat before the arduousness of her task.

A retreat to where? To self-consciousness. To self-doubt. And, unfortunately, to the lulling safe haven of art about art.

You can see the retreat in progress in the work that gives the show its title: "Spiral City." Inspired by Robert Smithson's famous earthwork, "Spiral Jetty," the piece consists of aerial footage of the city taken from a circling helicopter.

To get the reference, you need to know that Smithson also filmed his spiral-shaped jetty from a helicopter. He provided a voiceover for that footage in which he mechanically recited, over and over, the work's materials: "Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water." A similar recitation - "roofs, roads, cars, trucks" - could (but doesn't) accompany Smith's footage, such is the nature of Mexico City's crushingly colorless urban grid.

Smithson's jetty was about the process of entropy, a scientific term relating to the dispersal of energy and production of disorder. Smith, who experienced the Britain of Margaret Thatcher - the prime minister who famously said, "There is no such thing as society" - is animated by the idea of social entropy as brought on by economic globalization.

Watching her helicopter footage, you are indeed struck by the endlessness of the city. The apprehension brings on a kind of despondency. But as the helicopter climbs higher and higher, you also notice the rapid diminishment of signs of life. We - and by inference Smith - seem to be vacating the realm, leaving the city to itself, letting the reality of it blur before our eyes.

All this is deliberate and, in its way, poignant. But it seems a pity. A city is full of life. Smith's eerily detached footage seems a diffident, even a haughty way to portray it.

In a series of linked paintings with apt titles like "Vanishing Landscapes" and "Painting for Spiral City," Smith gives us aerial views of the city in shades of gray, their atmospheres blurred as if seen through fogged-up windows. The paintings have their own art-history precedent: Gerhard Richter's blurry black-and-white paintings based on aerial photographs of townscapes. The link drives home the idea of arbitrariness that is Richter's special contribution to the recent history of painting: the terrifying notion that no one image is more adhesive, or has a stronger claim on the imagination, than the next.

Here, as in the video footage, the paintings' austere beauty carries a whiff of the sublime - the incomprehensively massive that blurs before our eyes. But it may also read as a failure of nerve. Where is the commitment, the conviction, the willingness to try to get to grips with a subject so complex and overwhelming?

Sadly, Smith's various attempts at engaging more directly with Mexico City do not amount to much. A series of photographs depicts cavernous stores selling cheap goods, many of them orange-colored items. Orange, we are told, became ubiquitous in Mexico City in the 1990s, when the peso was devalued and cheap, Chinese goods flooded the shops.

Nearby sculptural works also play on the use of orange to symbolize the commercialization Smith found in the city's budding global economy. "Orange Lush I," for instance, is an arrangement of random orange objects, from floaties and life vests to colored light bulbs and balloons, on a white backdrop. I love orange, and I found the work attractive - even, in its randomness, amusing.

But it takes us for fools. Life vests are not orange because that color has some kind of link with the seductions of consumerism. It is orange because bright orange stands out against the sea. Besides, even if orange did come to symbolize commercialization in Mexico City for a time, so what? Haven't commerce and international trade been integral to the very nature of cities since forever? What is the insight here?

A bank of video screens showing an aerobics class seen through a street-front window seemed, once again, like a peculiarly detached way to convey news about Mexico City. And the same held for several other videos and photographs in the show.

The show's sub-heading - ". . . & Other Vicarious Pleasures" - suggests that Smith's powerful sense of operating at a numbing remove from her surrounds is a big part of what her work is about. But we are left wanting more.

I began to think of Smith's art as symptomatic of the expatriate phenomenon in a globalized society. Expats tend to take refuge in communities of fellow expats, insulating themselves from the realities of their adopted home. Smith, it seems to me, has taken refuge from the onslaught of Mexico City by clinging to the conventions of a very academic and institutionally approved brand of art.

A major installation here, "Farce and Artifice," is a case in point. On a raised platform with gaudy stage lights stand a couple of fake palm trees and a series of paintings stacked, one behind the other, as if in storage. The setup, a room brochure tells us, "reminds us that cities are theatrical places," although there is nothing about the installation itself to suggest that it is even incidentally about cities. Rather, it is very clearly about art, and about the artist herself.

The work includes two video monitors. One, on the stage, shows footage of a salsa dance class. The other, hidden behind the stage, presents a slide show of photographs found by Smith in a flea market. These photographs have no clear context, but they show scenes from some kind of S&M-style cabaret that is at once disturbing in its violence and rather absurd.

A set of headphones links the two monitors with accompanying audio. We hear Smith's delicate and earnest voice analyzing her own fascination with the photographs ("Of course I think they're immoral, irreligious, diabolical - that's why I like them") alternating with a dance instructor saying, in a neutral voice, things like, "Some women prefer it when a man forces them close."

The piece has its subsidiary fascinations. But as a whole, it is instructive about the limits of a particular kind of conceptual art that begins with grand ambitions and devolves into various arbitrary expressions of hyper-self-consciousness.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

MELANIE SMITH: Spiral City & Other Vicarious Pleasures At: MIT List Visual Arts Center, through April 5. 617-253-4680,

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