São Paulo

Melanie Smith, Untitled, 2014, collage, 17 × 11".

Melanie Smith, Untitled, 2014, collage, 17 × 11".

Melanie Smith

Galeria Nara Roesler | São Paulo

Melanie Smith, Untitled, 2014, collage, 17 × 11".

In Melanie Smith’s recent exhibition “Fordlandia,” five paintings, eight collages, and a video (all works 2014) address an industrial complex constructed by Henry Ford in the middle of Brazil’s Amazon jungle in the late 1920s. The compound was intended not only as a site for the processing of natural rubber but also as home to a model community of producers, fostered through education and prescribed diets. In the collages on display (all Untitled), Smith pasted blueprints from the Ford Foundation’s archive of technical drawings of car parts on top of images of Amazonian flora and fauna cut out from various sources. The semitransparency of the blueprints gives the underlying representations of nature a diaphanous quality that results in the co-penetration of the two elements, as when the graphic lines and text identifying automobile components seem to be inscribed on the body of a tropical bird. In the acrylic-enamel-on-Plexiglas paintings, the forest emerges as a dense mass via the artist’s use of various shades of green. The work’s surfaces sometimes seem to offer enlarged perspectives of microscopic plant life. But the oppositional tension at the heart of the collages is displaced in favor of a slick paint application that yields hyperreal, quasi-photographic images of nature.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was the video Fordlandia, just under half an hour in length. It opens with shots of a nocturnal, marsh-like environment, which is illuminated at intervals by a flashlight: The camera seems to be on a boat that slowly glides through the water and among the aquatic environment’s branches. We hear various animal sounds and see an extreme close-up of a motionless crocodile that, after a few seconds, suddenly stirs. Using fixed frames and extended tracking shots, the video offers fragmented views of both the jungle and Ford’s industrial site—the latter often shown through machine parts, screws, gears, and switches. The juxtaposition of close-ups and long shots results in a formal tension between abstraction and representation that also characterizes Smith’s earlier work, such as the dual projection Tianguis II, 2003, which was on view in the concurrent group exhibition “Memórias da Obsolescência” at the Paço das Artes in São Paulo. In that work, a single tracking shot used to create a portrait of an empty, uninhabited street market in Mexico. At times, the exterior surfaces of the vendors’ portable structures appear flush with that of the projection surface; at other moments, the huts’ ad hoc construction is revealed. Caught between the images’ flatness and depth, this filmic exploration of a precarious architecture also reads as a meditation on the legacy of modernity in Latin America.

Fordlandia’s shifts between near abstract composition and the revelation of place, as well as its exploration of the opposition between nature and culture, recall works of experimental ethnography such as Lothar Baumgarten’s 16-mm film The Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos, 1973–77. In this work, the German artist presents an “exotic” tropical journey that he ultimately revealed had been filmed along the Rhine, thereby providing a sophisticated critique of naturalized modes of cinematic viewing. But where Baumgarten’s film engaged the West’s fantasies of the South American rain forest in order to reveal them as projections, Smith’s Fordlandia tracks the ruins of an industrial site that has been recolonized by nature itself. The latter work also encompasses shots of the location’s contemporary inhabitants in various states of relaxation (sleeping in a hammock, swimming), which seem strangely at odds with the logic of productivity that drove Ford’s original enterprise. In the end, his corporate venture ended in disaster, largely due to the invention of synthetic latex, a substitute for natural rubber, and the complex was sold to the Brazilian government in 1945. In Smith’s video, such historical facts are never explicitly disclosed; they are evoked through a skillful editing of the details of the entwinement of nature and history.

Kaira M. Cabañas