“Front of House”

Parasol unit

“Front of House” is a collaborative exhibition conceived as a four-way conversation between artists Ângela Ferreira and Narelle Jubelin, architect Marcos Corrales, and curator Andrew Renton. And a very polite conversation it seems to be at first, taking place in a sort of Miesian parlor furnished with beautifully crafted shelves arranged and designed by Corrales, an Andre-like Equivalent sculpture made up of Renton’s long-lost catalogues to his 1993 exhibition “Walter Benjamin’s Briefcase” (itself famously lost in transit), and some elegantly built wooden sculptures. Artworks such as Ferreira and Jubelin’s Crossing the Floor, 2008, and Jubelin’s A Landscape Is Not Something You Look At but Something You Look Through, 2003–2006, include miniature photo-based tapestries that Jubelin has stitched in petit point, neatly framed, and arranged on smooth lacquered shelving like photographs on a mantelpiece, reinforcing the impression of a high-modern bourgeois living room—another decorous, formal space open to the guests, like the “Front of House” mentioned in the title. These works (the former reproducing a snapshot of the Ferreira family crossing the equator, the latter depicting landscapes and artworks associated with late modernist heroes Donald Judd and Robert Smithson) evoke strange overlaps of time: from twenty-first-century digital pixilation, to 1960s–70s photography from the era of Ferreira and Jubelin’s childhoods, to the mindless parlor activities of respectable ladies from centuries gone by.

The most emblematic work is Ferreira’s gigantic For Mozambique (model no 2 for a screen-orator-kiosk celebrating the post-independence utopia), 2008, a reconstruction of Soviet artist Gustav Klutsis’s all-in-one film screen, speaker tribune, and newspaper kiosk from 1922, in which two films are screened. One is a sequence from Jean Rouch’s 1977 documentary Makwayela, wherein Mozambican factory workers sing in a quasi-militaristic formation about their (brief) independence from colonial rule; the other consists of archival footage of Bob Dylan coolly performing his song “Mozambique” onstage in 1976. Tuneless strains of Marxist chanting alternate with Dylan’s hypnotically catchy tune; it is—like the exhibition overall—a dialogue between northern and southern hemispheres, with its mistranslations and cross-representations intact, literally projected upon the lost ideologies of early-twentieth-century architecture. Dylan is incongruously attired like a gypsy, in a costume signaling rock ’n’ roll Otherness that presumably resembles the local dress of Mozambique—or its caricature. His lyrics are an outrageous combination of Western indifference and exploitative macho tourism, wherein the freewheelin’ male visitor enjoys the “pretty girls of Mozambique” before carelessly abandoning this idyllic island of “lovely people living free.” “It’s very nice to stay a week or two”—more than that and you might actually have to help rebuild this struggling country (which would lapse into civil war by 1977) or even face an incipient family with one of the faceless native girls who had provided that fleeting “good romance” under Mozambique’s sunny skies; that would be a bummer.

Also within the exhibition is Manthia Diawara’s film Maison Tropicale, 2007, which documents (again through dialogue) Ferreira’s project for the Portuguese pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale, examining Jean Prouvé’s modular 1949 Tropical House, which was mysteriously dismantled in Brazzaville and turned up at auction last year in New York with a $5 million price tag. “Front of House” is like a genteel, pre-theater conversation purposefully thrown off course toward stronger language and uncomfortable postcolonial topics—such as the displacement of families south of the equator, or the promises of the International Style in non-Western locations, with its misguided failures as well as its potent mutations.

Gilda Williams