Like the skies’ lightning, a flash of energy has come … to infuse its magic into history’s wavering course. …Then the gates of the possible swung wide. – Georges Bataille

Installation view of Allora & Calzadilla’s “Penumbra,” 2020. Digital projection with sound, dimensions variable. Courtesty of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; and “Entelechy,” 2020. Coal, vocalists, 171 ¼ x 374 3/16 x 581 ¼ in. (434.9 x 950.5 x 1476.5 cm). Courtesy of Galerie Chantal Coursel, Paris, and Lisson Gallery, New York and London. © Allora & Calzadilla. Photo: Paul Hester.

Two lightning strikes bracket Allora & Calzadilla’s exhibition at The Menil Collection in Houston. The first is a pine tree which the artists have presented as a monumental sculpture cast in coal. Entelechy[1] is more than 48 feet long. Its blackened branches and roots splay through the gallery like a lightning bolt trapped in material form. This Scots pine, which was in fact felled by lightning, was chosen for its resemblance to another tree felled by a storm in a forest in southwest France: In 1940 a group of teenagers from the nearby town of Montignac explored a hole revealed by the tree’s upended roots, leading to the discovery of Lascaux Cave and the trove of prehistoric paintings within.

The second lightning strike comes in the form of an electrical transformer from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority that exploded during Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic landfall in 2017. Half of the transformer’s exterior has been cut away, revealing an interior cast in bronze. A low electric hum emitting from Blackout can be heard—and felt—throughout the space. Its presence is like that of a religious icon[2], in sharp contrast to the actual destruction it signifies: Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, casting its 3.4 million inhabitants in a blackout that lasted 11 months, laying waste to the unincorporated United States territory.

While the lightning strike outside Montignac pointed the way to darkness in the form of a literal cave, it ultimately brought illumination: the paintings discovered in Lascaux indelibly reshaped our understanding of prehistoric human culture. The event of Hurricane Maria that Blackout stands in for ushered in another form of darkness: electric lights ceased to function while preventable diseases such as Leptospirosis became rampant. Media coverage frequently invoked the metaphor that it was as if Puerto Rico had been “sent back to the Dark Ages.”

Both lightning strikes retrieved a sense of deep time, of time outside of history. Rather than animals painted on walls and an accompanying sense of wonder, the artifacts found are in the form of legislation, like the Jones Act of 1920, which prevented non-U.S. flagged ships from ferrying cargo between contiguous U.S. ports and non-contiguous ports. This legislation was a means of artificially limiting the economic possibilities of Puerto Ricans, ensuring monopolistic dependence on the United States for basic needs; in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, it was suspended for ten days in order to allow the influx of international aid.

Installation view of Allora & Calzadilla’s “Blackout,” 2020. Power transformer, bronze, electricity, vocalists, 120 ½ x 85 ½ x 78 ¾ inches (306.1 x 217.2 x 200 cm); and “Manifest,” 2020. Bat and bird guano, side A: 180 x 84 x 42 ½ in. (449 x 213.4 x 97.8 cm), side B: 180 x 82 x 39 in. (449.6 x 208.3 x 99.1 cm). Commissioned by Leslie and Brad Bucher for exhibition at the Menil Collection; courtesy of Lisson Gallery, New York and London. © Allora & Calzadilla. Photo: Paul Hester.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have long used their conceptual art practice to investigate the political history of Puerto Rico, where the artists live and work in the capital of San Juan. In a 2017 exhibition, Foreign in a Domestic Sense at the Lisson Gallery in London, which opened only weeks after Hurricane Maria, the artists rounded out a material investigation into these legislative artifacts. A few of the works from that exhibition, including Blackout, have been reworked for the Menil. Manifest, which has also been reworked, addresses the Jones Act via an earlier legislative relic. Here, two halves of a ship’s engine are cast in bird and bat guano – a reference to the Guano Act of 1856, which legalized the annexation of any unclaimed island rich in bat guano, a then-valuable export used in the production of fertilizer and gunpowder. Like the coal that forms Entelechy, bat guano holds latent energy, and placed in proximity to Blackout, it absorbs the hum, casting outward a field of eerie quiet.

A short text by surrealist author Roger Calloise entitled “The Noon Complex” provides thematic unity to the exhibition. Calloise explores historical religious and mythological associations with noon: “This is the moment when the sun, at its zenith, divides the day into equal parts, each governed by the opposing signs of rise and decline. This, then, is the moment when the forces of life and light yield to the powers of death and darkness.”[3] According to Calloise’s thesis, before the modern invention of clocks and electric light, midday held something like the charge that is now more commonly associated with midnight. “Noon is also the time when shade is at a low point, and thus when the exposed soul is most vulnerable to dangers of all kinds. For similar reasons, noon is generally the hour when the dead make their appearance—they who cast no shadow.”[4]

Ancient Greeks associated the noontime demon with Acedia, a state of listlessness, torpor, or spiritual sloth. Christian monks living in the Egyptian desert considered Acedia a potentially grave threat. The fourth-century mystic John Cassian provides an evocative description of a monk enduring this demon’s grips: “He looks about anxiously, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness.”[5] This description could just as well have been written about the experience of enduring months of blackout in Puerto Rico or, for that matter, of enduring months of quarantine. Both are marked by a feeling of slipping outside of time; time out of joint.

Considering the duo’s career of politically charged works that seem equally interested in both the possibility and insurmountably of political transformation, it’s not surprising they found this notion of Acedia resonant. “This affliction in many ways seems to summarize the contemporary moment in which one finds oneself feeling supremely awake, animated, immersed in very strong sensations and feelings, but not alive,” they write in an accompanying exhibition text. “Acedia makes the present intolerable and the future impossible to imagine.” Their concern with electrification is, ultimately, tied with a desire to create the conditions of political possibility.

That interest in political possibility is mirrored in Georges Bataille’s 1955 text on Lascaux: “Like the skies’ lightning, a flash of energy has come time and again to infuse its magic into history’s wavering course. Upon various occasions, when hitherto listless, passive and as though asleep, man touched by that electrifying, seemingly heaven-sent passion, has stood suddenly up, clear-eyed and renewed, and has set forth to conquer; then, the gates of the possible swung wide, as though suddenly waked, he sees within reach what hitherto appeared in a dream”[6] (emphasis added).

Installation view of Allora & Calzadilla’s “Penumbra,” 2020. Digital projection with sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; and “Entelechy,” 2020. Coal, vocalists, 171 ¼ x 374 3/16 x 581 ¼ in. (434.9 x 950.5 x 1476.5 cm). Courtesy of Galerie Chantal Coursel, Paris, and Lisson Gallery, New York and London. © Allora & Calzadilla. Photo: Paul Hester.

Does this exhibition “swing wide the gates of the possible?” I’m not sure. It does transmit the possibility of thinking durationally – a task shared by legions of research-oriented artists grappling with implications of the Anthropocene. Consider: the poetic relationship between lightning, tree, and coal, which can be burned, releasing captured-energy (sunlight). The cities of Houston, Texas and San Juan, Puerto Rico are connected by a shared vulnerability to hurricanes, whose frequency and violence increase as sunlight-encoding hydrocarbons within coal and other materials are released into the atmosphere…

That brutal chain of fatalism is captured in the exhibition’s eponymous work. At solar noon each day, a laser projector mounted above the felled tree emits a delirious montage of explosions, crawling insects, and crashing waves. Specters of Noon is accompanied by a computer-generated voice issuing a dark text inspired by the artists’ fascination with the demon of Acedia. The paradox of this work is that it’s most effective in negation. Knowing that something is programmed to happen at solar noon achieves precisely what the artists seem to intend, which is an encounter with something larger than human scale.

Between the two lightning strikes is the shifting light in the museum itself, which is where we find the most clarity: It was a different video projection, Penumbra,  that sent shivers down my spine. Here, a ceiling-mounted projector, motorized to follow the real-time path of the sun over Houston, projects the illusion of light passing through foliage, casting shadows onto the floor and walls around the tree’s blackened fingers. The effect of heightened presence and absence is so subtle that, at first, I didn’t recognize it as artificial. A soundscape by composer David Lang activates the projections: recorded bird sounds mingle with human vocalists, who utter extremely close tones that, when overlapping, create the illusion of a third voice. The human/bird overlap recalls a famous image from deep in Lascaux depicting a human male figure with the head of a bird.

I haven’t mentioned David Lang’s contributions to the exhibition until now, but it is vital. There is a spot, roughly the midpoint between Blackout and Entelechy, in which the transformer’s hum is equal to the volume of Penumbra and the delirium comes into focus. Here, in the hour where the shadow is solid and the real is a ghost, an interplay between human and bird voices emits something like joy, like the light that pools around the tree’s blackened trunk.

— Steve Kemple

Allora & Calzadilla: Spectors of Noon is curated by Michelle White, Senior Curator at The Menil Collection, Houston, on view through June 20, 2021, i.e. summer solstice. A series of live vocal performances composed by David Lang will occur in the exhibition’s final weeks.

[1] Entelechy is a concept introduced by Aristotle to describe “the condition in which a potentiality has become an actuality.” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth Edition).

[2] An inspiration for Blackout was a relic in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul purporting to be the arm of John the Baptist. The arm is encased in bronze, with a notch cut out showing the bones within. A photograph of this icon was paired with a previous iteration of Blackout at the Lisson Gallery, London in 2017.

[3] Roger Calloise (trans. Claudine Frank and Camille Naish), “The Noon Complex” in The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. Claudine Frank. Duke University Press, 2003. pg. 125

[4] Ibid, pg. 126

[5] From The Twelve Books Of John Cassian on the Institutes Of The Coenobia, and the Remedies For The Eight Principal Faults. Book X, Chapter IX.

[6] Georges Bataille (trans. by Austryn Wainhouse). Lascaux, or, The Birth of Art. Skira, 1955. pg. 22.

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