Melanie Smith

Cambridge, Mass

at MIT List Visual Arts Center


In the exhibition “Spiral City & Other Vicarious Pleasures,” Melanie Smith, a native of Britain living in Mexico City since 1989, grapples with her adopted city’s immense scale and vast energies, as well as her own feelings of displacement—mainly by abstracting and obscuring them. The videos, paintings, photography and installations dating from 1992 to 2006 in this traveling survey, organized by independent curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, gather oblique perceptions of one of the world’s largest urban sprawls.

The signature video work Spiral City (2002), made in collaboration with Rafael Ortega, was influenced by Robert Smithson’s 1970 film Spiral Jetty but more strongly evokes what novelist Paul Scott wrote about India: that its immensity and limitless scope are deadening to the mind, “and only from the air can one trace what looks like pattern, a design, an abortive human intention.” Spiral City is black-and-white video footage shot in a single, nearly 6-minute take from a helicopter circling the endless, dehumanized street grids of the city below, which looks like a vast vacant ruin. It is projected here onto a nearly cinema-sized gallery wall, to dizzying effect.

The series of acrylic enamel paintings that includes Vanishing Landscapes (2005-06, 59 by 71 inches) and Painting for Spiral City (2004, 55 by 63 inches) is based on photographs and on stills from the video, and depicts the same hazy gray aerial weave of dense blocks and threaded streets. Cabeza de Juárez (2007), a related work, is barely visible behind a crudely made wall of cement block—the city’s ubiquitous building material—that is roughly 7 feet high and 10 feet wide. Placed 2 feet in front of the painting, it blocks light and straightforward access, allowing only dim, constricted glimpses.

The wall is a minimalist, micro alternative to Spiral City’s aerial, macro view, representing the fundamental unit of human presence at street level. Earlier efforts at capturing Mexico City’s rampant street life include found-object sculptures made of garishly colored, cheap plastic items (for instance, Orange Lush 1, 1995) and photos and videos depicting packed shops and empty street stalls (Tianguis Aerial, 2003). The wall theme runs subtly through the show, reappearing in the large, confusing installation Farce and Artifice (2004). On a small platform, colorful abstract paintings lean casually against a wall; there are also fake palm trees and a monitor playing a salsa lesson video. Behind the wall, a projector shows slides of found photographs, some of them theatrical scenes of sexual violence. The ensemble is intended to allude to the city as stage set.

More conceptually elegant is the metaphoric wall in the video Parres I (2004), in which a man walks toward the camera from a semi-developed area across a vacant field. When within arm’s reach, he abruptly obliterates the frame with spray paint, masking himself and the landscape behind as if to ward off viewers. It’s a poetic gesture of futility.

Above: Parres I, 2004, 35mm film transferred to video, approx. 41⁄2 minutes; at MIT List Visual Arts Center.