Spilling beyond the edges – A morning of wading, crunching and groping through Cildo Meireles’ retrospective

Source: Tate.org.uk

Last Thursday, a friend (thank you, Simon!) ecstatically waved a catalogue of the Tate Modern’s Cildo Meireles retrospective in front of my nose. As soon as I saw the first few pages, I knew I had to go – and just about managed to do it the day before the exhibition closed! I am a big fan of exhibitions where the audience is subjected to multi-sensorial anything – especially after being tied to a desk to write a chapter on policy engagement… And Meireles’ installations provided exactly that: ‘good sensations’ (if I may say so!). They handily came with a lot of inspiration for my project on aspects such as space, scale, matter and boundaries, but, most of all, I had a lot of fun wading around in a dark room filled with layer of fluffy talcum powder about one foot deep! (I can already imagine the Tate technician after-party in that room – I wish I was invited! *hint*) I found a few telling post-visit pictures here. Unfortunately I was so busy exploring this exhibition that I forgot to take my own!

Many things attract me to Meireles’ work. First of all, I appreciate that he manages to create spaces in which I, as the visitor, feel comfortable playing around in: unlike in other exhibitions at the same institution, I had few hesitations picking stuff up or poking a few things (retrospectively, so to speak, I hope that that was the intention…). I also liked the diversity of sensations: the onslaught of colour in The Red Room, the buzzing of potentially destructive sonic power (imagine all radios were on at full volume!) in Babel, the warm, eerie glow of the copper coins below the organic bone ceiling in Missions, the glass crunching and the puzzling see-through, artificial-looking living fish with the strange feelers in Through, the physical and sonic experience of navigating the clocks and rulers in Fontes, the weight-lifting in Blindhotland or (literally) walking the boundary of pleasure and fear in Volatile.

Photo: Wilton Montenegro, Source: artfacts.net

The geographer in me likes Meireles’ playing with space and scale. He attends to the relevance of scale in ‘Ringbomb’, a lens-covered ring filled with gunpowder which would explode if you directed enough light at it, and in Southern Cross, in which two tiny blocks of wood carry the potential to invoke a ‘god’ and set the enormous gallery afire.

For his ‘geographical mutations’, he collected soil from two sides of a border, uniting, yet separating them in a leather case and a ring. Some other musings on how we define, create, need/don’t need, bump into, cross and otherwise interact with boundaries are apparent in Through, a maze-like installation built on a square of partially broken glass tiles.

Bringing out the circulatory nature of networks by printing politically controversial (to say the least) messages onto banknotes in a totalitarian regime is also an amazingly simple and clever project, if a little daring…

As Meireles likes to emphasise, ‘I like dealing with paradigmatic things, material things that are recognised by the public in their everyday lives, things that are at the same time matter and symbol.’ Money is one of those things. He also uses it in other artworks which play with the symbolic and real value of things: Money Tree, in which he sells a bundle of banknotes for twenty times the amount, or his tragic-comical counterfeiting project during which he produced ‘zero value’ currencies embellished with portraits of disempowered minorities such as Amerindians. Live chickens are another medium, albeit one that part of him would rather forget about…

This wish to engage with the everyday and to involve visitors also determines the artist’s medium. In an interview with Art Journal’s J.A.Farmer, he explains why he cannot be a painter: ‘The problem with painting is that the artist is always authoritarian, even if you don’t want to be. By giving people a space to interact with, you also give them freedom. When we give someone freedom, we get freedom ourselves.’

Source: Tate.org.uk

Our own visual, sonic and tactile engagement with matter is also taken up in Meireles’ work. He questions our reliance on the visual in the Mirror for the Blind, a mounted frame filled with a mouldable plasticine-like substance, and the playground-like installation Blindhotland in which visitors are led to misjudge the weight of things by their appearances (they are also gives sonic clues). In the little booklet accompanying the exhibition, Meireles traces the inspiration for this piece back to a story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which the narrator of the story tries to picks up a small alien object, but is unable to lift it. This perceived disproportion causes him to feel intense fear and revulsion. How come we expect and need a particular symmetry?

The relationship between matter and space is something the visitor can think about in Glovetrotter, where the material creates and imposes itself on a particular space, whose otherworldly landscape surprisingly comes out better in reproductions.

Reading reviews of the exhibition, critics make very different themes central to their articles. A short piece in The Independent mainly talks about the ‘paradoxical nature of objects’, and The Guardian writes about the play with fear and danger in Meireles’ work. What amused me about both articles was their descriptions of the ‘mess’ that some of the exhibition’s installations produced. The Guardian critic only felt comfortable entering Volatile armed with wellies and a dust mask, the Independent critic relates a vivid image of gallery attendants ‘wielding dustpans and brushes, clearing up all the stuff that’s spilling beyond the edges – bits of glass, clock hands and, oh yes, that filthy talcum powder, which, even now, is sticking to my typing fingers’. Well, at least, some more writers got their fingers dirty – hooray for messy artwork!

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