View of “Pia Camil,” 2018. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

View of “Pia Camil,” 2018. Photo: Stuart Whipps.

Pia Camil

My short visit to Nottingham in July came at first as a relief from the unusual heat in London, but then I noticed that a palpable anxiety had taken hold since I was last there a couple of years earlier: I witnessed two people crying in the street, one of them on the phone openly discussing his mental health and political views between bursts of hysteria. Through its evocation of physical and psychological borders and, by implication, the global resurgence in nationalism and the ideological duplicity of Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall and Theresa May’s Brexit, Pia Camil’s exhibition “Split Wall” provides a glimpse into the emotional undercurrents of this small city’s relationship with wider issues—surprisingly enough, given that this is the Mexican artist’s first solo exhibition in Britain.

Camil’s Fade into Black, 2017, for instance, is a curtain measuring more than one hundred yards across, constructed from found T-shirts made in Mexico for the US market. Illegally imported back across the border to Mexico, sold informally at the Iztapalapa market in Mexico City, and shipped to the UK, these garments have been transformed into a soft wall effectively dividing the two galleries housing the show into four intimately linked rooms. This intervention—an “emotional architecture,” to borrow a phrase from German-born Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz—has transformed Nottingham Contemporary into a semidomestic maze containing ceramics, textiles, and films that effectively double one’s perception of space through Camil’s idiosyncratic folk-craft adaptations of mass production.

Unexpectedly, the work’s sense of elegant ease makes for a respite from concerns that now bombard us on a daily basis and that are its subject. The show seems to function as a sort of island where one can rest and think, in much the same way as a small rowboat near Saint Peter’s Island in the middle of Lake Bienne in Switzerland provided sanctuary for Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, as he recounted in Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), lay in it staring at the stars in a moment of crisis, away from the troubles of the outside world. Vicky’s Blue Jeans Hammock 2, 2018, a rickety soft sculpture, sits in perfect tandem with this vision of productive indolence, with other seating made from denim trouser legs within areas created by the luxuriously winding curve of Fade into Black.

Mirroring, nonidentical replication, and reversal are key themes in this exhibition; gender provides an arena for spectacular synthesis. The androgynous protagonist of the video Split Wall, 2018, for example—shown in five fragments scattered around the gallery—is simply named They. In the video, They performs a loose script that Camil produced with writer Gabriela Jauregui, requiring the performer, Alberto Perera, to undertakes tasks such as applying false black nails, exercising, dancing to techno, and displaying grand Japanese manners while wearing a kimono. They also undertakes chores such as dusting, mopping, and sweeping around the same ceramics seen in the gallery. Close-ups seem to lend Camil’s small sculptures, reminiscent of Picasso’s painted masks, monumental scale. These objects thereby become proposals for absurd public artworks in which domestic interiors are used to queer art-historical languages and poke fun at large political and cultural institutions’ sometimes awkward attempts to normalize gender neutrality.

I’d like to see Camil take her play with the applied arts even further. The show’s formal presentation is almost too clean and careful, and therefore not quite as effective as the casual yet critical aestheticism of a Kai Althoff or a Marc Camille Chaimowicz. Where Camil’s project succeeds, however, is in its suggestion that national borders and our array of fabricated political worldviews are formed much like personal identities: They are inevitably constructions in progress, defined by subjectivity, desire, and capricious uncertainty.