MASLEN & MEHRA by Edward Lucie-Smith
Science Fiction is probably the most under-rated literary genre of our time. Thousands of people read it, and find in it the nourishment for their imaginations that they do not find in so-called ‘quality fiction’. Maslen and Mehra, artists basing themselves in London, have invented a way of seeing that is closely related to one of the favorite tropes of the science fiction writer. What they offer, essentially, in their large-scale staged photographs, is a series of glimpses into a parallel universe. By placing reflective cut out silhouettes in various landscape and architectural settings, and recording the result, they suggest conjunctions that might otherwise go unnoticed. The silhouettes are visitors from another world, and their reflective surfaces make them only partly visible.
A new series of these images, made in a particularly propitious environment, the city of Rome, is full of both historical and ecological echoes. One should perhaps begin with the image of the European wolf, seen against the background of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. This evokes the myth of the foundation of the city, when the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Sylvia, were carried to safety in a wicker basket by the swollen River Tiber and were then suckled by a she-wolf. The Castel Sant’Angelo, seen in the background, was originally built as the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian. After many vicissitudes, it was remodeled as a papal fortress, residence and prison. In 1527 Pope Clement VII took refuge there from the ferocious sack of Rome by an army of German landsknechts.
Another image shows a wolf confronted by a mouflon in the via della Renella. In the background are aggressive graffiti and defaced posters – Rome, which has never been a tidy city, now abounds in both. They are as characteristic of the Roman urban environment as the city’s great architectural monuments, such as the Castel Sant’Angelo. The significance here seems to be the contrast between the urban wilderness and the true wilderness that creatures like the wolf and the mouflon inhabit in reality. Mouflons are the wild ancestors of all domestic breeds of sheep, and as such represent the eternal contrast between the wild and the tamed. The mouflon image reappears, this time in isolation, in another work from Maslen and Mehra’s Native Rome series – this time perched on a parapet in the gardens of the Villa Borghese. On the retaining wall below the creature the word ‘Genesis’ appears in large Gothic letters – the kind of typeface that might head an Old Testament text in some massive Victorian bible. Reflected in the creature’s metallic body is the tower of one of Rome’s innumerable churches.
The images just described come from a much larger series, or series of series, photographed in different parts of the world. All the images show creatures that might once have existed, in another epoch, in the location shown. Very often, like the wolf that makes its presence felt in Rome, they have a specific symbolic value. They are intended to remind us of the continuing, if often ghostly, presence of what is wild within what is at least nominally civilized. In this sense they are an updated version of a favorite student slogan from the Paris ‘evenements’ of 1968: “Sous le pave, le plage.” [“Beneath the pavement, the beach.”]. The frequent inclusion of urban graffiti in these images also serves to stress the often feral quality of the modern urban environment – the sense of danger that it all too frequently encapsulates. Other images reflect – often very literally – the essential character of some of the other great cities of the world. A mountain lion paces the street near one of the entrances to the New York subway, neon signs flashing on its body as an emblem of urban danger. And a Kangal dog – a lion-like breed native to central Anatolia, where they are used to guard the flocks against wolves – is seen in Istanbul’s great church of Aya Sofia, with an image of a protective Virgin shining on its flank.
Another large series, Mirrored, reverses the equation. Here the mirror sculptures are silhouettes of typical city dwellers, ranging in type from businessmen to skateboarders, who have been miraculously transported to wild locations. The figures can be seen, on the one hand, as the inhabitants of a lost Eden that now exists only inside their own heads, or on the other hand as beings who are pathetically ill-equipped and ill-prepared for this sudden return to nature.
The Native and Mirrored series are directly photographic – that is to say, the mirror sculptures are placed in the chosen setting, and photographed in situ. Other, related series, make use of collage. Under Construction, for example, asks questions about the relentless spread of building into landscapes that were formerly considered to be sacrosanct. Endangered Americans contrasts ghostly images of gas-guzzling American automobiles with drawings of endangered American plant species rendered in autobody paint.
Finally, the mirror sculptures are sometimes used, when occasion offers, as items displayed in ‘real’ settings, without photographic intervention. It is clear, however, that all the series, including the installations, form part of what is an absolutely coherent, and at the same time, a surprisingly flexible graphic language.
It has often struck me, in recent, years, that an increasing weakness of contemporary art is that the manner of saying something – the style, or worse still, the gimmick – increasingly takes primacy over what is actually being said. This is one reason why art from formerly exotic locations, China for example, has played an increasingly prominent role in the artistic cosmos. Art from China tends to have a readily identifiable range of subject matter, which is connected to the country’s industrial success and consequent sudden rise in status. Similarly, recent years have seen a steep rise in prestige for feminist art, symbolized by the creation of a specialist feminist art department at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which now has an extension especially designed to house Chicago’s iconic installation, The Dinner Party. To put matters succinctly, both leading Chinese artists and leading feminist artists have marked out a territory for themselves and have created a visual language or group of languages that enable them to communicate directly with an non-specialist audience. This is not something one can rely on elsewhere. Too often there is a disconnection between the imagery the artist has chosen and what that imagery is supposed to mean. After the long Modernist excursion into an exploration of purely ‘formal’ values – an excursion that came to a logical conclusion with the Minimal Art of the late 1960s and early 1970s, art has tended to return to the allegorical and the narrative, which are territories that it fully inhabited before the rise of the Modern Movement. Too often, today, the supposed allegories lack inevitable meaning, and the narratives stutter into nothing.
That is clearly not the case here. One of the difficulties of writing about the work of Maslen and Mehra is, paradoxically, that it doesn’t need the elaborate explanations that now seem to be chief business of the critic. The intended message is not at all difficult to disentangle from what you see. On the other hand, it isn’t obvious in the sense of being banal. A fascinating thing about the duo’s use of mirrors is the way in which this usage resonates in different ways. They resonate purely physically, through the ways in which the various mirrored surfaces pick up their surroundings. Sometimes this involves a near-disappearance of the sculpture itself, which melts into the surrounding landscape or townscape. The image of Milton Keynes and the cities use of reflective glass in its master-plan, for example, presents this aspect particularly well. The sculptures also resonate metaphorically, creating a situation where we perceive them as being simultaneously present and absent. This absence, in turn, creates the sense of otherness that is the emotional core of the work.
The otherness makes its impact not only through our sense of the strange and the magical – at the beginning of this essay I suggested a comparison with the parallel worlds of Science Fiction – but also through its impact on the collective conscience. These are undoubtedly high-tech artworks, made using means that, only a short time, ago, would not have been available to artists, or, indeed, to anyone else. This aspect, as soon as we recognize it, inevitably draws our attention to the underlying moral. High-tech artworks can only be produced by societies that threaten a fragile ecological balance.
Yet this is not simple preaching. The Native series, in particular, continually draws the spectator’s attention to the historical context, and to the long process of evolution that has brought us, as human beings, to the place where we stand now. Though we worship, at any rate in theory, virginal nature, this worship springs from a sophisticated urban sensibility. This sensibility is not new. It was already finding expression in the 17th century, in the paintings of Claude Lorraine. Typically, Claude’s most faithful patrons came from the leading figures in the hard-working bureaucracy that surrounded Louis XIV. His paintings reminded them of all the pleasures they had given up in order to serve the monarch.
Lying behind both the Native images, and the images of the Mirrored series that are their antonym, lies a longing for an Edenic world that perhaps never truly existed in fact. I think it is part of the fascination of these works that they both preach a certain kind of morality, a morality of respect for nature, and at the same time question it. You can inhabit these scenes, but only as a ghost. The problems they pose are ultimately insoluble – there are no slick solutions to be found here.
EDWARD LUCIE-SMITH is an art historian, art critic, curator, poet and photographer who has written books on contemporary art published in many languages. Among his best-known titles are 'Movements in Art since 1945', 'The Visual Arts of the 20th Century' and 'Art Today'. He curated the survey exhibition 'New Classicism in Art', at Palazzo Forti in Verona. Among his many books is a monograph on the American feminist artist Judy Chicago [published in May 2000], and 'Art Tomorrow' [published in October 2002], a survey of the most recent developments in contemporary art, which includes work by Maslen & Mehra.