PRINT April 2018


View of “Caroline Mesquita: Bal” (Ball), 2015, SpazioA, Pistoia, Italy. Photo: Rebecca Fanuele.

CAROLINE MESQUITA’S humanoid metal sculptures are a wild bunch. They like to dance and make mischief; they hump each other and have orgies; sometimes they get violent. In galleries, art centers, and, most delightfully, on top of a bar during a Paris art party in 2015, Mesquita’s copper and brass figures have presented a retro-futuristic vision of robots gone wild. Arranged into tableaux inspired equally by nineteenth-century French history paintings and the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, dramatically posed life-size bodies beckon the viewer, embrace one another, and lie collapsed on the floor. Mesquita’s stop-motion animated films (which she began making in 2016) bring her sculptures to life in a way that confirms the sybaritic behavior alluded to in these installations. On- screen, her creations jerkily interact with each other and with human characters, portrayed almost exclusively by the artist herself. Undressing, caressing, painting, or cutting Mesquita, the animated sculptures reappropriate gestures used in their own creation. The intimate and reciprocal relationship the artist cultivates with her sculptures is both tender and troubling. Engaging with her own creations in ways that recall Greek myths, Mesquita is a modern Hephaestus (the god of metalworking, whose automatons could think and act freely) or Pygmalion (the sculptor who fell in love with his own ivory sculpture).

Caroline Mesquita, Drums, 2014, steel, felt, speakers, sound, dimensions variable.

Having initially resisted making physical artworks (for many École des Beaux-Arts students in the 2000s, Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” loomed large), Mesquita has in recent years developed an improvised, hands-on metalworking practice (artisans would balk at her technique, she admits) that borders on the fetishistic. In the studio, she works alone, using her whole body to roll, fold, squeeze, and hammer sheets of copper and brass. After soldering and bolting together the hollow body parts (the figures’ basic components are a ring-shaped or conical head, tubular arms and legs, and a columnar torso), she paints the figures’ metallic surfaces with ammonia, chloride, and various acids to instigate oxidation. Eventually—often after numerous applications between long drying periods—facial features, muscles, breasts, penises, body hair, and articles of clothing appear in rusty pink, minty green, and inky black. It is at this point, says the artist, that the distinct “personalities of the sculptures finally emerge.” While this process requires exacting precision and sophisticated technique, Mesquita also acknowledges that she is eager to cede some creative credit to forces beyond her control, like the slow work of her chosen chemicals on metal. In a sense, then, even during their production she is already romanticizing the autonomy of her figures.

Three stills from Caroline Mesquita’s The Visitors, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 22 minutes.

Bal (Ball), 2015, which was installed at SpazioA in Pistoia, Italy, that same year, is one of Mesquita’s most violent tableaux. The misleading title suggests a formal party, but the scene is surprisingly sinister. A regal figure, set apart by a full-skirted gown and crown-like crenellations around its head, is surrounded by figures who stoop, kneel, and lie prostrate on the ground. Many of the dozen or so sculptures appear dead or gravely injured (one has a scepter through its hollow skull). Limbs and decapitated heads lie on the floor next to brass cuttings that look like shiny shrapnel. Adding some brightness to a morbid scene that seems to describe the aftermath of a failed revolt, a sound-track of light clinking and clanging suggests the tinkering sounds of a metalsmith’s studio. Evoking Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, Mesquita’s primitive timpani were recorded while she was installing the tableau. The musical chimes bring temporality to the frozen scene and hint at the figures’ potential energy.

The intimate and reciprocal relationship the artist cultivates with her sculptures is both tender and troubling.

Mesquita’s interest in music goes back to her childhood, when she studied clarinet as well as drums and the bombard, a traditional reed instrument from her native Brittany. Some of her earliest artworks are in fact functional handmade musical instruments. Flûte (Flute), 2013, is a neatly punctured steel pipe posed on a delicate music stand made of soldered steel poles. A new version of an accompanying two-minute composition performed by Mesquita on her hand-fashioned flute is rerecorded in the exhibition space each time the work is shown in a new venue. Drums, 2014, a hollow steel sculpture that looks like a badly damaged office desk, is accompanied by a sound-track of reverberating booms. Mesquita made the recording while striking different areas of the sculpture with felt-tipped drumsticks, which she also made herself in order to achieve a softened metallic rumble. These early works evince the desire to liberate sculpture from a fixed-rigid state (indeed, they seem to speak for themselves) that eventually led the artist to digital filmmaking.

Caroline Mesquita, Some Blue in My Mouth (detail), 2016, brass, oxidized brass, paint, resin, digital video (color, sound, 16 minutes 51 seconds). Installation view, MOT International, Brussels.

Mesquita’s first film, Some Blue in My Mouth, 2016, shows the artist trying to engage with her sculptures on an interpersonal level. Underscoring the physical nature of her practice, Mesquita appears playing herself, wearing a bleu de travail jumpsuit similar to those worn by French factory workers since the nineteenth century. As she works on her sculptures—positioning them, dressing them, tightening their bolts, and carrying their lifeless bodies—her frustration with their insentience mounts. Switching from productive actions to tender gestures, she tries coaxing her sculptures to life—caressing their chests or positioning their arms around her neck for a dance. But only when the artist is out of frame do her creations come alive. In raucous stop-motion sequences they frolic, dance, and hump each other freely. Filmed in Mesquita’s studio in Brittany against backdrops of colorfully painted paper, this sixteen-minute film was presented at Brussels’s MOT International alongside a tableau featuring the same sculptures that appear on-screen. This type of through-the-looking-glass multimedia installation has since become Mesquita’s preferred mode of presentation. In subsequent exhibitions, she has included props and scenery from the films in the mise-en-scène to make the boundary between the sculptures’ dormant reality and animated adventures seem even more porous.

View of “Les bons sentiments” (Good Feelings), 2017, Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard, Paris. From left: Caroline Mesquita, Lace Motorbike, 2017; Caroline Mesquita, Motorbike Diamond, 2017. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

In her exhibition “Pink Everywhere,” held at the Kunstverein Langenhagen, Germany, in 2016, a film by the same title (and also made that year) was shown on a screen that Mesquita physically integrated into a tableau. A hand-soldered metal armature framing the screen branched out to the support platforms on which the artist posed her sculptures. In this film, Mesquita shows solidarity with her works by transforming her own body into an inanimate object. Playing a variety of different characters, each in a dreamy fugue state, Mesquita allows the metal figures to act on her—rubbing her body, stroking her hair, and undressing her. In one scene, the artist appears naked with a terrible sunburn (which is, in fact, body paint) reminiscent of the colors she introduces onto her sculptures’ surfaces by treating them with harsh chemicals. Coloring her skin and exposing her motionless nude body are, perhaps, Mesquita’s way of paying penance for having done the same to her artworks. In an empathetic gesture, she objectifies herself for the physical pleasure of her creations and the viewing pleasure of the audience.

Three stills from Caroline Mesquita’s Some Blue in My Mouth, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 51 seconds.

In her more recent films, Mesquita has grown even more sophisticated in terms of technique (costumes, makeup, sets, and props have become increasingly elaborate) and narrative structure. Early on in The Visitors, 2017, we see Mesquita’s sculptures tinkering with large metal vehicles. (These sci-fi inspired motorcycles—sculptures ostensibly created by sculptures—were displayed in conjunction with the film as part of a group exhibition at Paris’s Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard in 2017.) The artist, meanwhile, is mostly passive on-screen. Again playing multiple roles (a man mowing the lawn, a woman at a barbecue, a sunbather, a soccer player, etc.), Mesquita becomes the main focus of her sculptures’ seemingly autonomous creative impulses as they conspire to manipulate, mutilate, and ornament her body.

Three stills from Caroline Mesquita’s The Ballad, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 29 minutes 6 seconds.

In what comes across as a kind of retaliatory fantasy in which sculptures decorate and attempt to reincarnate insensate human bodies, Mesquita’s 2017 exhibition “The Ballad” recalled J. J. Abrams’s cult television series Lost (2004–10), with its mysterious depiction of a grim airplane crash. Presented at the Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard and at 221A in Vancouver, the film (The Ballad, 2017) was shown on a screen integrated into an installation of sculptures of aircraft wreckage that had served as film props. The artist portrays a dozen crash victims, among them the pilot, a boy with braces, and a glamorous woman in pearl earrings and a red strapless dress. Approaching each victim individually, the sculptures steadily transform the group of lifeless bodies in their own images by painting and gilding their skins, rendering them in shades of green, pink, and yellow, and replacing severed limbs with brass appendages. Toward the end, some of the colorful and metallicized men and women come alive, blinking their eyes and moving ever so slightly. Embodying the magical awakening the artist so badly wants for her own sculptures, this poignant and symbolic image of rebirth marks a pivotal moment in Mesquita’s oeuvre.

Mara Hoberman is a critic based in Paris.