Mélanie Smith, Maria Elena, 2019, 24 mn
« Maria Elena » is a small mining town in the Atacama desert, in Chile, founded in the 1920’s and developed by the Guggenheim’s to produce saltpeter, used for both fertilizers and explosives. The film explores an ongoing interest in the application and obsolescence of industrial modernity. It also traces the impact of the British in the region, who were heavily involved in the extraction processes of nitrates incorporating it into a satellite of an economic global system. The narrative threads a tale of contradicting montage, whereby crystals become stars, a horse’s ear a mountain and enormous beds of nitrate appear as informel abstract paintings, exposing the geological terror of the past and future.
Melanie Smith moved from the United Kingdom to Mexico in 1989 and in the following years became a key protagonist within the Mexican art scene of the nineties. She relocated from the political and economic tensions of Thatcher’s Britain to Mexico City, where she witnessed the impact of capitalist modernisation, neoliberal globalisation and hyper-consumerism, the development of an informal economy alongside traditional forms of manufacture and what she refers to as the idiosyncratic manifestations of modernity in Mexico. The two contexts – Mexico, or more broadly Latin America, and Britain, or a wider Anglo-Saxon or Eurocentric culture – are therefore central to her work.
For the past three decades, then, Smith has been based in Mexico where she has developed her work across a range of media, including assemblage, video, painting, photography and installation, but with a particular investment in the relation between the filmed and the painted image. While Smith’s work is persistently informed by her reference to painting, she does not describe herself as a painter.