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MELE VS. MELE

Emi Winter – Steffen Böddeker, Maco Oaxaca

To inaugurate his exhibition Mele vs. Mele at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca (MACO), Martín Mele presented an outdoor performance before an audience gathered in the museum’s rear courtyard. As the artist stepped onto an otherwise empty black platform, his shadow appeared in the center of two oversize projections lighting the space. One was a video on the wall behind the platform showing Mele at work on a sculpture in his studio, and the other a still blue screen projected across the platform at a low angle. Impeccably dressed, Mele draped his suit jacket over a chair before forcefully scattering the contents of several garbage bags onto the stage. The noise joined the jarring sounds emitted by the projection, while some of the empty plastic bottles and cans rolled off towards the audience. Amid the pile of junk on the platform, Mele placed a slight folding chair that would serve as his sculpture’s initial support. Using an arsenal of colored tapes, he began strapping items to the chair: first smaller stuffed plastic bags, then objects including old mops, buckets, furniture, fabrics, broken frames, boxes, and cans. Initially his actions were deliberate, and he paused occasionally to observe himself working on screen. As the shape began to grow, his movements became faster, frantic, and even violent.

Mele picked up a chair and began to saw it. After struggling with it for a while, he smashed the chair on the ground and added the broken pieces to the work. At times running, he circled the sculpture with rounds of tape, kicking smaller objects out of the way. He finally dragged it off the platform, flipped it upside down onto a small wooden box, tightened and stabilized it with more objects and tape. The legs of the stool that were the work’s initial foundation could now be seen jutting out of one side. After about 15 minutes of focused and physical work, the strange form became coherent. Mele gave it a final round of tape, jammed a walking stick into its soft center, and draped a stretcher bar over the top like a frame. He briefly considered the finished work, gathered his suit coat, and joined the public.

In his performances, Martín Mele reveals what most artists conceal behind the doors of their studio. By making public the struggle to which he alludes in the exhibition title, he exposes his moments of inspiration and uncertainty alongside the role of chance and the possibility of failure. Mele thrives on the risk this implies, and his adrenaline rush is palpable not only during the performance, but in the days leading up to the exhibition. Its preparation engaged many collaborators, from museum staff, a family of ceramicists, local technicians and students, to his longtime partner Celina Jure. During this time, the MACO’s galleries took on the appearance of an artist’s studio, active late into the night and changing every day.

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Martín Mele lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany, and spends the winter months in his home country of Argentina. This exhibition at the MACO is his first occasion to visit and to show his work in Mexico. Mele arrived in Oaxaca two weeks prior to the exhibition opening with only some raw materials and a single small canvas painting. Although he had little time to create the works for the exhibition, he decided to take the first days of his visit to get to know the city, tasting the regional food without reserve and discovering the markets and plazas while collecting objects for his work. The process observed during the preparation of the exhibition is one of metamorphosis: previously unrelated objects and materials scattered about coalesce to become coherent artwork.

The best example of this transformation is a large sculpture filling the central gallery. It has the appearance of an haphazardly assembled bundle, a knot of materials held in delicate balance by various strings, tape, and fabric. Mele was able to transcend the ugliness of its raw materials, creating an elegant form in spite of its rough assembly and massive bulk. Mele’s specific use of color is important throughout his work, but here his sophisticated control thereof is inescapable as one moves towards and around the object. Elements of painting, sculpture, installation, and performance are indistinguishably combined in Mele’s body of work, often within a single piece.

Most illustrative of this process are the wall works involving stretched Lycra. Equal parts sculpture and painting, they are best described as textile reliefs whose impermanent form is shaped by the objects stuffed behind them. Changing them regularly prior to the opening, Mele himself describes the process as compulsive rather than reflective. The end state is neither a resolution of this process, nor an arbitrary moment. It is a representation of the dialogue between the artist and his work. The sense of tension seen so explicitly in the Lycra pieces is a central element throughout his body of work – paintings or sculptures that give the impression of being on the brink of bursting.

His compositions are built on the physical and visual force created by suspending objects around or inside of others or deforming surfaces beyond their natural state. The work’s strength is its fragility. If the tension were to break, the metamorphosis would be instantly reversed. Mele created a new type of work at the MACO, collaborating with a family of ceramists in their Oaxaca workshop. Although his father was a ceramicist, it marks the first time Mele himself works with clay. It was a difficult process for Mele, as he was initially unable to realize the results he imagined. Aborting the project was never a consideration despite the uncertain outcome. The result of this experiment is a group of small works, whose distorted shapes and precarious compositions seem to have been extracted from the sea. With an insistence and determination to make things succeed, Martín Mele adapts quickly to new parameters and trusts that he will be able to develop and advance his work. He doesn’t see such a thing as failure: in Mele vs. Mele, Mele is sure to win.