This project is a visual exploration of the possibilities of meaning, in the present, of one of the most enigmatic and remote sites in Mexico. Known for its large, fantastical concrete structures, located in the northern mountains of the country and built between 1962 and 1984, Xilitla is the delirious creation of the British writer Edward James (1907-1984). James was an eccentric aristocrat, capable of dedicating nearly thirty years to this project and of investing large sums of money in a symbolic architecture devoid of functionality. A product of his affiliation with Surrealism, Xilitla is the antithesis of urban planning and a rational view of the world. It is also an anachronistic universe that appears untouched by the exterior, a monumental state- ment, conceived in the margins of the Western world, a sui generis installation that situates itself both within a long history of landscape interventions, and within Surrealist dreams and nightmares.
This seductive and decadent setting of exuberant nature serves as inspiration for Xilitla: Incidentes fuera de eje (Xilitla: Incidents of Misalignment), a collaboration between Melanie Smith and Rafael Ortega, centered around a 35mm film that contests the traditionally imposed boundaries between “the modern” and “the contemporary.” Their encounter with this site led them to a specific use of the cinematic medium. By turning the camera on its side the viewer is confronted with an oblique perspective —what we could call a misaligned view— that gives way to a space of aesthetic operations and appropriations that go beyond this specific context.
Smith, born in England and based in Mexico since 1989, shares a parallel history of displacements with Edward James, which situates her in the terrain of symbolic links with Xilitla. Although each was attracted to this country for particular reasons and arrived at different times, James and Smith share strategies regarding how to live outside of their native context, how to make sense of the unknown. As a way to present a range of perspectives related to a single theme, the work of Smith engages various mediums: painting, photography, video, and installation.
Following this logic, the new film by Smith and Ortega revolves around a cinematic montage of scenes depicted in tenuous, blue light. Situations that appear alien to Xilitla are introduced, but are deeply linked to an ongoing investigation by Smith regarding pictorial space and the legacy of modernist painting, as well as with experiments carried out by North American artists in the sixties and seventies. Gothic features in the existing architecture and other forms that might be described as Surrealist —such as stairways that lead to nowhere, gigantic flowers made of concrete, or labyrinth paths— are juxtaposed with elements that quote artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson.
Throughout the twenty-four minute, non-linear, narrative of the film, the most recurrent protagonist is a mirror that moves through different situations and landscapes. This object is a direct reference to Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacements (1969), a series of photographs that document actions by the artist, where he positioned mirrors in the landscape along several travel routes, as a way to explore the site/non site dialectic represented by the physical mirror and its reflection; the mirror as a concept and as an abstraction. In the film by Smith and Ortega, the mirror is constantly being moved by the gardeners of Xilitla, reflecting the light and details of the unfinished structures—such as the metal rods, textures and brilliant colors of this site —and through these reflections, insistently challenging the idea of a single view. Mirror and camera are transformed into a multifaceted eye, one that allows the spectator to view diverse and fragmented perspectives.
At the Museo Experimental El Eco this idea was emphasized by the display of several paintings by Smith, including one that depicts Big Ben. The contraposition of different mediums and the inclusion of a particular point of reference –the English Parliament–against which the depicted site or the film is misaligned, opened further the purview of the work. Power structures and differing conceptions of the world entered the dialogue. Similar to the manner in which a recorded voice informing ships about weather conditions is heard in the film, the entire work offers itself as a cartography that could clear the way for navigating between distant territories.
The installation at El Eco established a dialogue between Xilitla and the architecture of Mathias Goeritz, in particular his notion of “Emotional Architecture,” where the use of elements “beyond human scale,” was meant to elicit an emotional response from visitors, something akin to that experienced with gothic architecture and at Xilitla. In its totality, Xilitla: Incidentes fuera de eje created a fluid space of visual, stylistic and conceptual resonances, in which no reference or interpretation can be the definitive one.
Paola Santoscoy, Guest Curator