Melanie Smith

Aoife Rosenmeyer

May 2, 2012
Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich
April 26–May 25, 2012

Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld and fruitless return finds its best contemporary analogy in the fate that befell the Chilean miners trapped underground for two months before their rescue in October 2010, when they were hauled to the surface one by one to a waiting barrage of media. In both stories the depths denote death and darkness; the obstacles are psychological as well as physical, and the return to the surface is fraught with danger. It is thus timely that Melanie Smith’s latest major film (following her major outdoor productions Aztec Stadium and Xilitla of 2010) tracks a dramatic and claustrophobic vertical axis. Elevador (2012), an eight-minute film shot in the building where Smith lives in Mexico City, is at the core of Smith’s presentation at Galerie Peter Kilchmann, surrounded by a selection of recent paintings and enigmatic sculptural arrangements.

The events in Elevador emerge from darkness, as a great clanking and whirring lift mechanism bears its box upwards. The predictable movement of this anything-but-reliable, rickety elevator and the quiet mundane details rapidly develop into a magic realist drama mingling domestic with fantastical elements. Each time the door opens a tableau of escalating oddity appears: a man hurriedly stuffs his shirt in his trousers, a rock inexplicably occupies the passageway, and then a snuffling piglet investigates the gap. By the close of the film, that same rock has pinned another man to the ground, and the cast of many are reduced to inert, sleeping bodies immune to the stuttering progress of the elevator moving past. Daylight becomes darkness, several mouths are viewed in sensual proximity, and guitar music in the background crescendos from a delicate acoustic picking to a dominating full-on amplification.

Unlike other recent films made by Smith and Rafael Ortega, her regular collaborator in this media, Elevador clearly implicates someone or something behind the camera, a presence that provokes a reversal of Orpheus’s eager but fatal glance back at Eurydice, as figures recoil in horror or try to prevent a presence from entering the hallway. The artist has described her elevator as a metaphor for modernity, writ lowercase and capital, in Mexico, as a form of hope or a state of mind that never fully takes effect nor makes sense in the megalopolis. Modernity lurks in the shaft, passing by unnoticed, observing or being rejected.

Outside the black box of the projection, impressions are more occluded. Smith’s paintings, built up of layers of oil and acrylic, reveal themselves only gradually. Enchantment (2012), for example, has a lush, leafy subject that unfolds slowly, so slowly that it nearly hampers our apprehension of it. Her sculptural objects assert their presence but could as easily be other-worldly as everyday: three podiums host the collections of 3 objects, 11 objects, and 8 objects (all 2012). These include a pink silicon cube that emanates a fleshy being, despite its sharp edges, or another boulder of painted polystyrene, mute but for an indent like a stigmata on one side.

Most recent reports on the Chilean miners tell of an unfortunate group struggling to cope with the fame for which they were ill prepared. It is said that having been medicated with anti-depressants during their underground imprisonment, many of them remain over-dependent on pharmaceuticals today. While Melanie Smith’s work is, as ever, thoroughly informed by art historical precedents and her position as a European in a country whose nature is indivisible from its past colonization, this exhibition is most of all about the present and about invisible legacies. The miners lived in fear of darkness, starvation, and entombment, but they could not have known that the idea of the experience would torture them years later. Smith’s work, too, is populated by carriers of immanent and imminent potential: how this potential could be realized is the bewitching mystery.

Film, Painting, Sculpture
Mexico, Modernity

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a Zürich-based critic.

RSVP for Melanie Smith
Galerie Peter Kilchmann
May 2, 2012

Thank you for your RSVP.

Galerie Peter Kilchmann will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.