Buenos Aires

Miguel Mitlag

In the chapter “The Landscape of His Dreams” in his 1992 book An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks tells of a painter who, after a serious illness, developed extraordinary and persistent waking visions of Pontito, his hometown in Italy; for many years afterward he painted obsessively detailed scenes of the place with photographic accuracy. Miguel Mitlag’s installations and three-dimensional models bring this story to mind through their tangible reality, the spine-chilling feeling that these places must exist somewhere. An ordinary-looking currency-exchange office stands in the middle of the room; as at the local swimming pool, a slim diving board cuts through the air, next to three aluminum steps that protrude from the wall; as in the library around the corner, a pair of bookcases face each other. But, after a closer look, these familiar “places” suddenly seem remote and strange: The Cabina de Cambio (Exchange Booth) (all works 2007) is completely empty; the Trampolin (Diving Board), painted a flaming red, hovers over a space devoid of water; and the shelving, Biblioteca con libros de autoayuda, esotericos y ocultistas (Library with self-help books, esoterica, and books on the occult), seems to be missing some of its parts and has an antiseptic quality that recalls a laboratory more than a library. Curious alterations appear here and there in scenes that have been stripped to a minimum of information; the artist calls it pseudo-realism.

Mitlag began his career some ten years ago with photographs that documented pre-existing spaces to which he had introduced slight modifications. From there he shifted to building the spaces that he photographed, transforming them into images with both a peculiar vividness and an ungraspable slipperiness—a kind of mental photography: for instance, a living room with curious blue drops of paint on the floor; or a corner of a room with a forgotten wooden guitar lying on the ground next to brown cushions, brown curtains, and a brown mattress. Later, his installations began to recall advertising images, immaculate and sealed off from reality.

The works recently on view at MALBA reflect Mitlag’s interest in design, evoking, for example, Stanley Kubrick’s interiors in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—the orange chairs in the lobby of the space hotel or the minimalist meeting room with glowing white walls at moon base Clavius. Like Kubrick’s, Mitlag’s scenes could be read as psychological spaces. The essentially fiction-making aspect of the artist’s work cannot be underestimated: Although traces of human presence, and of events, are everywhere, an absolute anonymity strikes the viewer most of all.

In order to describe the world more clearly, Mitlag has chosen to fabricate it. The starkness of his three-dimensional images takes the visible world to a point beyond ordinariness. They look like prototypes; familiar as they are, they have an air of aloofness about them, of unreality, as if they were the original after which all the rest have been copied. Perhaps this sense of distance is what gives Mitlag’s work its ominousness. But then again, it could be something else. The title of this show, “Codex platino,” makes reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Atlantic Codex, a 1,286-page collection of technical and scientific research. Mitlag’s exhibition, his own puzzling Codex compiled in Buenos Aires, the city on the Río de la Plata, seems to ponder the connections between spaces and materials, and our recollection of them, but it ultimately undermines any rigorous attempt to make sense of our surroundings.

María Gainza