‘Specters of Noon’ at The Menil is a spellbinding blend of sculpture, sound and light

The work of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is as impressive as it is imposing.

A review by Molly Glentzer for The Houston Chronicle.

A roble amarillo tree appears to have shed its bright yellow flowers on the floor of the Menil Collection’s east wing, but the tropical oak itself is invisible.

This is “Graft,” the first of seven ghostly new site-specific works by the Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla for their jaw-dropping show “Specters of Noon.”

Conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic and produced in spite of it, “Specter” captures the bewildering essence of this upended moment of the 21st century. The whole package of monumental sculpture, sound and light creates a spellbinding experience.

Every aspect of the show has a split personality inspired by the notion that noon is a dangerous time — a moment that divides days in half, erasing shadows and inviting delirium and listlessness. That split personality is evident in the stark contrasts between the show’s two galleries and the design of the artists’ individual works. It’s also audible in the poignantly agitated soundscape by David Lang, which brings it all to pulsating life.

I get kind of woo-woo about it. But during an early morning call, Allora and Calzadilla sounded perfectly down to earth. The idea of midday sorcery appealed to them on many levels. “We’re in the middle of our lives and careers. And living in the Caribbean, you really do feel the oppression of the noon-day sun,” Allora said. “And it gave us the opportunity to delve deeper into a notion we didn’t know much about.”‘Allora and Calzadillo: Specters of Noon’

When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, through June 20; Online talk 6 p.m. Oct. 27

Where: The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross


Big art, big ideas

A powerhouse duo for about 25 years, Allora and Calzadilla became rock stars of contemporary art by building a wide-ranging practice that dives deep into research and history. Their signature, if you can call it that, is beefy work that investigates environmental and geopolitical issues. It takes many forms, made with unconventional and symbolic materials that often include live performance, sound and video.

Representing the U.S. at the Venice Bienale in 2011, the duo upended a British military tank and topped it with a working treadmill for Olympic athletes. They’ve operated a roasting pit with a car’s rotating axle, turned an upended table into a motor boat, used a motorcycle exhaust pipe to blow a trumpet, built a stone fort as a bandstand for hidden musicians.

Just a few very imposing sculptures power up the Menil show. The museum’s sun-filtering roof panels are wide open to create bright daylight in the first gallery, which holds “Blackout” (made from a re-purposed electrical transformer whose burst coils are exposed and bronzed), “Manifest” (a two-ton ship engine split in two and coated in sterilized seabird poop and bat guano) and “Cadastre” (a 70-foot long painting produced with electricity).

The second gallery, in stark contrast, evokes a cave, with only a shaft of light allowed through the roof. “Entelechy,” a 48-foot long sculpture cast of coal from the skeleton of a fallen tree, consumes most of the floor. This is not the missing roble amarillo, but a Scots pine, a tree associated with the discovery of the caves of Lascaux, which hold the world’s oldest-known drawings.

Bookending the tree are two ephemeral projections that you almost have to know about to notice. “Penumbra” fools viewers into thinking its shadowy images of foliage are coming through the gallery’s windows and shifting with the daylight. In fact, it was filmed in a tropical forest in Martinique where Surrealist thinkers hiked. The laser projection “Specters of Noon” only lasts seven minutes, and you can only catch it once a day, at solar noon. (Currently, that’s about 1:07 p.m.)

“Nothing is stagnant in here. Any time of day you come, the sound and light will be different,” said curator Michelle White. Lang’s composition “sonically sculpts the day,” she added.

And you can’t ignore the sound. The transformer hums. Hybrid bird-human and insect sounds fill the room with the tree. “We’re creating an arc of different experiences through the sound itself,” Allora said.

Connected by hurricanes

White scored a coup when she invited Allora and Calzadilla to collaborate, building on the museum’s long tradition of asking artists to use its collections as a muse. “Specters of Noon” evolved during four years of research and some pretty significant coincidences.

The artists knew they wanted to trace links between Houston and San Juan, where they live. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 exposed the cities’ shared vulnerability to climate change and their economic disparities. The transformer and the cargo ship engine sculptures boldly reference hardships Puerto Ricans experienced.

“And this notion of trade routes, especially now as we watch weather cycle through from the coast of West Africa, across the Atantic and Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico,” Allora said. “There’s a connection that’s atmospheric.”

When the artists returned to Houston in 2018, the museum was closed to the public for renovations. Houstonians think of the Menil as an intimate place, but Allora and Calzadilla saw big, empty galleries illuminated only by daylight through architect Renzo Piano’s sun-filtering roof panels. “We began to think about mapping the light, and how light dresses things and gives them realness,” Calzadilla said.

Dan Flavin’s wall-filling fluorescent works in the campus’ Richmond Hall were one of the inspirations for the long painting. “We were mapping the electrical force field that might be there,” Allora said. They made “Cadastre” by sifting iron filings onto a canvas above an array of electrified cables. Now it’s more poetically magnetic, given its tension of velvety textures that have their own kind of pulse and dusty areas that suggest the murmurations of birds.

The artists hit upon the specter theme that ties it all together in Menil’s rare book room. In a first-edition copy of the Surrealist publication Minotaur, they found Roger Caillois’ essay “The Noon Complex,” which describes how early Christian monks believed the bright light of midday invited a noontime devil, or spirit of acedia, that made it hard to pray.

Allora and Calzadilla drew on other sources with similar ideas to create the text for the laser projection, a truly spectral vision with a computer-generated voiceover that sounds like something from “The Exorcist.”

“It’s about the time when the sun is at its highest, cutting the day in half, and shadows disappear. And when shadows disappear, demons emerge,” White explained. “The Surrealists, of course, loved this. It’s a flip-flop; instead of midnight being the spookiest time of day, it’s high noon.”

Catching the moment

The affliction seems to summarize the contemporary moment, Calzadilla said. “One of the things about acedia and its strange echo with the time we’re in is that time expands. Hours feel like days, weeks, months. It makes the present intolerable and the future impossible to imagine.”

For him and Allora, staging such an important show from afar is a surreal experience, too. They could not be in Houston as the tree sculpture arrived from Madrid in 56 pieces or the ship engine came from Oakland or the bronzed transformer arrived from Miami.

Somewhat miraculously, their long-time collaborator Lang, who lives in New York, was in Houston visiting family when the pandemic hit. He was only able to install the soundscape because he was stranded here for months.

“That was a huge blessing,” Allora said. “I don’t think we would have been able to realize it without that.

“These are strange days, for sure.”

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