A review by Kelly Crow for The Wall Street Journal.
A sprawling tree made of compressed coal. A cargo-boat engine cast from bat guano, a natural fertilizer. A 70-foot-long canvas speckled with iron filings set by a jolt of electricity.
The artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who are based in Puerto Rico, have long used unusual materials to create massive misfit sculptures that address sociopolitical and environmental issues in inventive ways. On Sept. 26, Houston’s Menil Collection will open “Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon,” an exhibition of new works by the pair that tackle everything from time and energy to the legacies of colonialism and surrealism in the Caribbean.
“They take one spot, like Puerto Rico, and swivel out to show us how its concerns and issues are actually universal,” said Michelle White, senior curator at the Menil, which reopened Sept 12.
The couple is best known for hiring Olympic athletes to jog on a treadmill strapped atop an overturned military tank during the 2011 Venice Biennale. That work, “Track and Field,” served as a wry critique of the biennial, in which dozens of nations traditionally compete for bragging rights by mounting shows of their top artists. Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla represented the U.S.
“People stood in front of that tank and were astounded,” Ms. White said.
To prepare for the Menil show, the artists said they began regularly visiting Houston four years ago to try to discover overlooked connections between the city and their adopted island. (Ms. Allora was born in Philadelphia; Mr. Calzadilla is Cuban.) The pair said they were struck by the fact that the museum’s French co-founder, Dominique de Menil, fled war in Europe in 1941 by taking an ocean liner to the Caribbean before joining her husband, John, in Houston.
Her method of escape reminded them of laws today that regulate goods imported by U.S. ships to Puerto Rico, an arrangement the artists say can result in higher product prices. In response, they created “Manifest,” a pair of huge wall reliefs shaped like halves of a cargo engine and cast in seabird and bat excrement, a natural fertilizer. The form has been sprayed with a sealant to keep the space hygienic.
An earlier version of the same engine made using bat guano alone did suffer some crumbling off its frame, Ms. Allora said, but mixing in some seabird waste should help the Menil’s iteration survive. “We had to work some kinks out,” she said.
The artists also took a time of day—noon—as their muse after discovering an essay in the museum’s library by French surrealist Roger Caillois that explored the eerie aspects of that moment each day when the sun peaks and shadows shorten.
“There’s something poetic and complex about people and things essentially being dressed in their own shadows,” Mr. Calzadilla said. “Noon also breaks the day into two parts, creating a moment of suspension.”
The artists play with shadows in “Penumbra,” a wall-size digital projection whose leafy animations invoke a forest in Martinique where some surrealists like Wifredo Lam took refuge during World War II—but the passage of time in the video has been synced to Houston’s time zone so that initially it isn’t clear what is creating the shadows in the airy gallery: the projection or the actual sun. Another work, “Specter of Noon,” uses lasers to project a flash of images in another gallery precisely at solar noon.
Energy and the environment also come into play with works like “Cadastre,” which was made when the artists created an electromagnetic field beneath a linen sheet covered in iron filings that took shape after the current was turned on. Then there’s “Entelechy,” a roughly 40-foot sculpture of a Scots pine tree that the artists made from coal. Ms. Allora said they chose coal because the fossil fuel “is essentially compressed sunlight.”
They modeled the sculpture after a particular pine tree that was felled by lightning so they could pay homage to a similar pine that fell after a storm in Montignac, France, in 1940. The uprooting of the older tree ultimately led to the discovery of the underground cavern now known as Lascaux Cave, with its famous prehistoric drawings.
Ms. White, the curator, said such “incredibly layered” works will likely underscore the kinship Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla have with the surrealists who form the core of the Menil’s permanent collection. “The surrealists wanted you to have an encounter with art and feel changed by it, to feel that awe,” she said.
Admission to the museum remains free, but the museum recommends visitors reserve tickets to the show online because the Menil is open on a limited basis amid the pandemic.