Melanie Smith, María Elena, 2018, HD video projection, color, sound, 24 minutes.

Melanie Smith, María Elena, 2018, HD video projection, color, sound, 24 minutes.

Melanie Smith

In 2014, Melanie Smith made a video work called Fordlandia, a study of the eponymous abandoned town in the Brazilian rain forest where Henry Ford had attempted to establish a vast rubber plantation in the 1920s. In spite of the enormous resources at Ford’s disposal and the best possible techniques of scientific management, the plantation proved a catastrophic failure and the rain forest slowly engulfed its ruins. Fordlandia was inevitably read as a parable about hubris, but it was as concerned with how to convey an atmosphere of heat, humidity, and lethargy as it was with colonial economics.

Smith’s exhibition “María Elena” was also titled after a company town. British engineers established María Elena in the high desert of northern Chile in the 1920s as a base for the mining of saltpeter for fertilizer and dynamite, and the Guggenheim family subsequently bought and owned it for some decades, after they had developed an improved leaching technique that became known as the Guggenheim process. Though less productive today, the town was once a major global supplier of nitrates. Several times a day, massive surface explosions are set off in the desert to pulverize the sunbaked earth; the resulting debris is then transported to giant leaching pools just south of the town. Smith’s twenty-four-minute video María Elena, 2018, the centerpiece of her new exhibition, could easily have been framed as a documentary depicting the town’s material and economic history, the landscape in which it is set, and its banal activities.

But, like Fordlandia, María Elena serves no such straightforward didactic purpose. Instead, it is a gorgeous study of disorientation. Its use of montage suggests the viewpoint of someone so lost that she can use only the most superficial associations (this is the same shape or the same color as that) to compensate for the inability to synthesize impressions into any kind of conventional meaning. The camera moves from piles of brilliant-white salts in the desert to the peeling white paint on a statue of a horse, then cuts to a scene of polo players attempting a match in the desert. Images, in this blinding light, are of less help in allowing viewers to spatially orient themselves than the sonic resonances of the landscape. The click of the polo mallets syncs with the clank of mining machinery. We are presented with the rhythmic clatter of trains as a kind of music, and music from car radios serves as diegetic sound. Meanwhile, the camera races along the desert’s surface, then suddenly settles on the dusty flanks of a llama that seem to show exactly the same topography as the mountain landscape in the background. The few human voices we hear do not converse, but call out coordinates or count down to explosions. And when the blast comes, the aerial video jitters in order to keep sound and image in sync—this is a world in which light moves at the speed of sound, passing through your skull like a low vibration.

In one characteristic scene, we see the silhouette of the mountains engulfed in a luxurious sunset. For a few moments, we watch the sky awash with color while in the foreground the desert itself has gone completely black. This idyll lasts just a few seconds before the camera pans, or rather twitches, to the right and left, like a nervous animal responding to noises we cannot hear. This is not simply an alien landscape, but rather a landscape in which we find we are the aliens, and the camera’s gaze is characterized not by mastery but by bewilderment and confusion.

Adam Jasper