by Vatsala SethiSep 08, 2022
Marked by languid pace and inconsequential languishment, the languorous days of summer are anything but lively. The slack period of summer was formally mentioned in the early Christian texts as the time when demon acedia overpowered the soul at the noon of summer. As the day drags and the moment of activity comes in dribs and drabs, the acedia is believed to slip humans into a state of apathy or laxity. In the Medieval Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, acedia has been dubbed as the sin of sloth. Working on this concept, the exhibition, Specters of Noon by Puerto Rico-based artists Allora & Calzadilla at the Menil Collection in Texas comprised seven sculptural works. The summer days of human life serve as a metaphor for the artists to talk about the uncertainties that have enveloped the world, especially in the wake of a pandemic crisis. The exhibition that started at the beginning of the fall ended on the summer solstice, inviting the viewers to experience the exhibition during the complete circle of season.
Known for creating research-oriented work that reflects the complexity of cultures, histories and geopolitics, Allora & Calzadilla, a partnership of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, underline the importance attached to "conceptual and material" and "metaphoric and literal" attribute of their practice. To let the audience experience this multifaceted-ness that they strive to explore with their works, the artistic medium is inclusive of performance, sculpture, sound, video and photography. The artists’ statement elaborates on the overarching theme of acedia that intersperses with the works at the display, “In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus, in laying out the seven deadly sins, described the ‘most oppressive’ of all temptations as acedia, spiritual dryness and lack of care towards the world that plagues during the hot midday hours and is characterised by a feeling of psychic exhaustion and listlessness. Writing under the harsh conditions of the desert, he personified this terrible mood as the workings of the ‘noonday demon’ or Meridian Demon, who ‘makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile as if the day had fifty hours’. This affliction in many ways seems to summarise the contemporary moment in which one finds oneself feeling supremely awake, animated, immersed in very strong sensations and feelings, but not alive. Acedia makes the present intolerable and the future impossible to imagine.”
To evoke the atmosphere of bewilderment and beauty with the exhibition, the artist duo incessantly researched archives and surrealist artworks available at the Menil Collection. Talking about the rich repository of archives available at the Menil Collection, its director Rebecca Rabinow says, “Since its founding, the Menil has supported substantial collaborations with contemporary artists who use our permanent collection as a jumping-off point for new work. We are proud that our relationship with Allora & Calzadilla has given rise to such an astonishingly inventive, profoundly thoughtful, and poignantly beautiful new exhibition.”
The interdisciplinary status of their art interventions seeks to explore the crucial impact surrealism had on the Caribbean land especially during the Second World War. The work of surrealists carries a special appeal to the summers’ noon, moreover, its reach to find and raise anti-colonial voices have a strong resonance in the works of Allora and Calzadilla. Michelle White, the senior curator at the Menil Collection, elaborates on the artists’ fascination with the art of surrealism, “The struggle to generate the artistic forms and vocabulary to probe and understand the delirium of the present is the basis of Allora & Calzadilla’s most recent work. Drawing from the history of surrealism and the unsettling visual strategies of strange juxtaposition that defined the movement, they address these themes by transforming the galleries into a land of displacements, hybridity, and unexpected convergences. As we developed and installed this show, the social injustices that the artists have devoted their career to examining have been evermore revealed and amplified by new traumas being posed by weather catastrophes, civil unrest, and the current pandemic. As such, Allora & Calzadilla’s project provides an urgent lens and proposes that there is great potential found in moments of disorientation and mystification.”
Their work is sensitive to the subsequent changes that energy-commerce had on the climate of the port cities: San Juan (their home) and Houston (home to the Menil Collection). To reinforce the ecological decline of San Juan, the artists created the large-scale installation Blackout from a Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority transformer that exploded during Hurricane Maria in 2017. The installation reveals the interiors of the transformer - conductive wire, radiator pipes, and insulators - cast in bronze. The metallic interiors when juxtaposed with the matte exterior give an appearance of the sculptural division – a reference to the theme of solar noon. The reverberating sound of the power grid serves as a tuning device for a live performance composed by Grammy Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Oscar-nominated avant-garde composer, David Lang.
The centrepiece of the exhibition, Entelechy, is a coal sculpture cast from a tree struck by lightning. From the forest of Montignac in France, the artists sourced a tree species. The theorist and surrealist author, Georges Bataille, revealed how during World War II, the teenagers discovered a massive tree uprooted during a storm. A shaft of light made a crater that led to the excavation of Lascaux Cave. Holding it as a significant convergence of art, prehistory and human history, Allora & Calzadilla gave a sculptural reality to the moments caught between creation, loss and found.
The floor installation Graft is made out of a plethora of yellow blossoms that were cast from the flowers of the Caribbean native oak tree. The science with which petals are repurposed underscores overlapping of contemporary issues, history, and the natural world. Highlighting the colonial violence on the ecological balance, the installation is created with a fabrication process that involves the hand-painted petals reproduced through the seven degrees of decomposition - freshly fallen petals wilt and then turn brown.
With the exhibition Specters of Noon, Allora & Calzadilla pave the way for conversations on the detrimental effects colonialism and current-day geopolitics have on the harmony of ecology - the exchanges that are of perennial importance, delimited to a single season or a particular climate condition.