As the title ‘maps, mud y mundo(s)’ implied, Melanie Smith’s exhibition moved between different levels of information and material, from the universal to the specific. It acted as an ellipsis connecting several of Smith’s recent projects and the concerns that link them: Mundo(s) – world(s) – the situations and environments that Smith explores through her works; mud, the material, both natural and practical, which comprises these worlds; and maps, a means of documenting and understanding them.
As is customary for Smith, the exhibition centred on a film, maps, mud y mundo(s) (2015), which features imagery from a range of sources – including material from her previous projects, found footage and animated elements. All is rendered in black and white, which generates a sense of both equivalence and estrangement. The film is alive with images of living things, some recognizable – ants running in and out of a hole, several people’s lips – and some too strange or indistinct to name. Everything is shot in close-up so that even human body parts become hard to recognize. The edits are swift and frequently synchronized with a soundtrack of rhythmic tribal-sounding music. Images appear, often from the left or right of the frame, for fractions of a second.
Throughout, Smith intercuts ageing footage from educational films about archaeology. The footage is degraded, grainy and often disturbed by waves of static. The artist selected particularly strange passages: carved human figures floating in front of a landscape: animated graphics of objects disappearing backwards toward the doorway of a thatched hut. These images, although created for the purposes of education, appear as mysterious as close-ups of twitching caterpillars.
Much of the film’s material originated in Smith’s other projects. The archaeology films, for instance, are from the archive of the Museo Amparo, where she made Irreversible/ Illegible /Unstable in 2012. Additional footage was gathered while shooting Fordlandia (2014), a film depicting a journey to a failed rubber enterprise built by Henry Ford deep in the Amazon in the 1920s. In that work, Smith studiously avoids the tropes of travelogue and nature documentary by concentrating on details. The new film took this process to extremes by further decontextualizing its constituent images; projecting them onto a screen leaning on the floor made them appear even more object-like.
Smith underscored this sense of materiality by reproducing the images in another form: framed collages made from small film stills, sometimes layered with acetate cut through with circular holes (Collages for maps, mud y mundo(s), 2015). The least recognizable images are rendered in colour, while a bird’s head, for instance, remains black and white. The compositions propose different relationships between the images though these remain mysterious.
Small painted wooden panels were positioned leaning, like the projection screen, on simple double-sided shelving units. These paintings acted as a library of forms: ‘mud’, featuring indistinct blurs of texture and colour; ‘maps’, which were geometric forms; ‘mundo(s)’, star fields and a floating planet; and ‘cuerpos’, body parts. They were clustered into groups of two, three and four, often according to common features such as diamonds or dots. But this categorizing only reinforced the images’ stubbornness. Smith’s painting technique involves the application of thin layers of acrylic enamel colour that are sanded or rubbed to create flat, blurred surfaces that trouble the paintings’ representational quality. In some, forms emerge even more distinctly than in the film, while in others they recede into murkiness.
Early in the film, the camera settles on a tight shot of hands digging in mud. The mud is thick like clay and the digging viscerally satisfying, primal. Later, the mud is liquid, pouring from a hose like vomit. Finally it is shown as solid and dry, with a surface like a street plan. Frequently, Smith’s subjects are the failed projects of modernism – be they urban environments or methods of knowledge-production. Mud, however, is a basic and malleable material; it is the ultimate shape-shifter, but also the simplest building material. Through her three-step action – of mobilizing images into a film, of fixing them into collages and of blurring them into paintings – Smith places her subjects onto a muddy continuum, where categories form and dissolve, and everything is revealed to be basic matter.