Melanie Smith: Between Industrialisation and Nature

Posted on 25 October 2018

Melanie Smith, Maria Elena (film still), 2018. Photo: Calvin Echavrria

Melanie Smith, Maria Elena (film still), 2018. Photo: Calvin Echavrria

Trained as a painter, artist Melanie Smith explores the medium within the history of art and its relation to the moving image. Her work critically reflects on today’s industrial society, pointing towards the precariousness and violence occurring on city outskirts, and her Liverpool Biennial 2018 film continues this theme. Maria Elena documents a town situated in the Atacama Desert in South America and combines fragmented narratives of the colonial past with the dusty present of the salt mine. When we first met Smith, she told us more about her practice and interest in South American industrialisation.

The majority of my work has been carried out in Mexico. I began thinking about how modernism developed in Mexico and the tension there between industrialisation and nature. My work takes place at very specific sites, for example in a place called Xilitla, which is an architectural site in the north of Mexico. I also completed a large project in the Amazon, in a place called Fordlândia, which is a small enclave that Henry Ford started in the 1920s. I’m interested in how sites such as these, created during the 19th and 20th century, have now become ruins, and how nature is taking over these abandoned places.

Melanie Smith, Fordlandia, 2016. Image courtesy the artist.

My project for Liverpool Biennial 2018 is about a place called Maria Elena. It’s a tiny hexagon-shaped enclave in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is connected to a salt mine that used to belong to the Guggenheim family. I’m interested in these twisted stories of modernity and how they have affected the workforce and communities around the salt mine. I think the film fits very well with the title of the Biennial, Beautiful world, where are you? Maria Elena is based in the Atacama, which is totally otherworldly. It’s like being on Mars, with crazy sunsets and a strange sense of sound.

Aztec Stadium is a work from 2010 which consisted of mosaics made by 3,000 students from Mexican public schools, presented in a stadium to create one large image. The mosaics were of various images from the history of art, as well as of Mexican nationalist imagery and ones from popular culture, such as the mythical wrestler Santo, wearer of the silver mask. The main image in the centre of the stadium was Red Square by Kazimir Malevich. The square was made up of all these kids in the centre of the pitch and at end of the film the square just disintegrates. The work explored this idea of going back in history and thinking about what that image meant at that time. By putting Russian Suprematism into Mexico City’s stadium, I was mixing up these ideas of modernities through the use of painterly images. The work became about the oscillation of images, and how images appear and disappear, which is fundamental in my work. 

What is in the production of making an image and what is underneath that image? 

Marie Elena is presented at Bluecoat for Liverpool Biennial 2018 until 28 October.