Xilitla 2010 examines the legacies of modernism and the incomplete modernities encountered in Latin America, through the relics and ruins of surrealism.
Made in collaboration with filmmaker Rafael Ortega, Xilitla is named after a small town in Mexico, the location of a garden created by the eccentric British aristocrat Edward James (1907–1984). James was an important collector of surrealist art, and several works that he owned by artists such as Salvador Dalí and Rene Magritte are now in the Tate collection. He spent much of his fortune constructing the garden between 1960 and 1984. It is dominated by fantastical concrete sculptures and unfinished architectural structures which he built among the tropical plants.
In Smith’s film, workmen carry a large mirror along the jungle paths and through the pools, reflecting and displacing the image of the garden. The mirrors relate to the work of American artist Robert Smithson, particularly his Mirror Displacements 1969, which he made in Mexico and described in an essay titled Incidents of Mirror-Travel in Yucatan. Smithson’s title echoes a further important reference for Smith, the travelogue of the American writer John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 1843, illustrated by the architect Frederick Catherwood. Smith establishes a parallel between Catherwood’s illustrations of Olmec and Mayan ruins in the tropical forests of the Yucatan, and the ruins of modernity found in James’ surrealist garden.
Xilitla explores the theme of displacement experienced by both James and Smith as British expatriates living in Mexico. Britain is present in the soundtrack of the work: the sounds of the forest and the garden are overlaid with extracts from radio broadcasts such as the shipping forecast.
Melanie Smith was born in 1965 in Poole. She lives and works in Mexico City.
Curated by Tanya Barson.