In February, a calamitous winter storm left Houston, like much of Texas, without power for days. Though the timing was unusual, the city is no stranger to storms: Houston is often ravaged by hurricanes in the summer and fall, much like San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the artist duo Allora & Calzadilla is based. The two cities’ vulnerability to extreme weather is one of several themes in the artists’ exhibition “Specters of Noon” at the Menil Collection (on view through June 20). Walking through the exhibition while the city was still picking up the pieces from the most recent storm made many of its works seem especially resonant.
The show opens with the hum of a transformer damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017. Partially cast in bronze, Blackout (2020) is a hulking sculpture of a machine gone awry. Hanging behind it is a seventy-foot painting made from iron filings on linen, titled Cadastre (Meter Number 18257262, Consumption Charge 36.9kWh x $0.02564, Rider FCA-Fuel Charge Adjusted 36.9 kWh x $0.053323, RiderPPCA-Purchase Power Charge Adjusted 36.9kWh x $0.016752, Rider CILTA-Municipalities Adjusted 36.9kWh x $0.002376, Rider SUBA subsidies $1.084), 2019. To create the work, the artists placed the canvases on top of an electromagnetic field produced by electrified copper cables in their studio, allowing the current to determine the composition. The title, derived from their electric bill from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, links the work’s formal structure to the island’s energy infrastructure, shaped by both American colonial control and internal corruption.
Manifest (2020), a two-part sculpture of a Crowley ship’s engine cast in bird and bat guano, speaks to the long history of the island’s subjugation and the mining of its resources. In the nineteenth century, guano was discovered to be nitrogen rich, making it an effective agricultural fertilizer. As a result of this find, the US passed the 1856 Guano Islands Act which allowed for the annexation of over 100 unoccupied islands containing guano deposits in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Local workers mined the guano from caves and loaded it onto ships bound for the US mainland. As the mechanism that powers the movement between mainland and island, the engine also signifies the relationship between occupier and occupied.
Throughout the exhibition, Allora & Calzadilla explore the surreal qualities of colonialism. For instance, Entelechy (2020), is a massive sculpture of a blackened felled tree, cast in coal from the remains of a pine that had been hit by lightning. Inspired by a story recounted by the French Surrealist author Georges Bataille, it alludes to a tree in southern France uprooted by a storm in 1940, leading to the discovery of the Lascaux cave system underneath. Entelechy conjures the magical, even alchemical, properties of coal, a substance made from plant matter that has been transformed by pressure and heat over millions of years—and, like guano, is at the center of exploitative extraction economies.
As curator Michelle White mentions in the catalogue, the artists were informed by Martinican Surrealist author René Ménil’s description of the marvelous as a theoretical space of enchantment defined by the uncanny possibilities of opposites coexisting. The exhibition’s final work, Graft (2019), consists of thousands of yellow artificial flowers scattered across the floor, which are painted to appear as if they are in varying states of decay. Representing blossoms that fall from the roble tree, which is native to the Caribbean, the work evokes a scene from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in which thousands of yellow flowers fall from the sky, smothering the animals. Such a beautiful sight can also be powerful and violent. Like a storm that smashes through walls or a colonial force that crosses borders, the effects last longer than the initial rupture.
The exhibition’s title alludes to acedia, a medieval concept that the artists encountered in Roger Callois’s 1936 essay “The Noon Complex,” published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure. Callois writes that noontime, when the sun is highest in the sky and shadows contract, is when the demon of acedia emerges, characterized by apathy and sloth. Perhaps as the center of the day, noon is much like the eye of a storm, a time when we are caught between dramatic surges, and all we can do is take stock of the wreckage.