Originally posted on WEST DEAN COLLEGE - VISUAL ARTS:
Immediately following an appearance at Tate Modern – in conversation with Dawn Ades, Professor of Art History and Theory at Essex University, noted for her publications on Dada, Surrealism and photography – the Mexico-based artist Melanie Smith made a first visit to West Dean in late June. During an evening presentation and discussion, Melanie screened Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010), an alternate version of the film recently purchased and displayed by Tate. Made in collaboration with regular partner Rafael Ortega, both films centre on the surreal architectural constructions built by West Dean founder Edward James deep within the Mexican jungle.
Melanie had known about James’ interventions at Las Posas for some years before finally visiting the location to research, develop and shoot the film. It is not difficult to understand the attraction of the site, especially considering James’ own British heritage, yet the sense of Xilitla that emerges in the film is more complex, especially in the context of Melanie’s practice. Las Posas was ‘settled’ by James in the mid-1940s and worked on sporadically until his death in 1984. Located in an area dotted with waterfalls and rocky outcrops, a dazzling array of disjunctive gothic structures were constucuted, some designed to be inhabitable (four-storey!) architecture, others as purely ornamental or symbolic sculptural forms. The site is traversed by a network of walkways and paths, complimented by wild and introduced exotic plants and animals. Although it remains in a state of disrepair, it is still possible to get a sense of the ‘Garden of Eden’ James had sought. Pigmented concrete structures emerge from the jungle not only as stylised extensions of the natural foliage, but also as direct manifestations of the self-described Poet’s privately funded utopianism (together with an uncomfortable hint of colonialism thrown in), destined to persist as a poignant and compelling monument to both surrealism and the modernist legacy in South America.