Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon

Sep 26, 2020 – Jun 20, 2021
Main Building

Early Christian texts describe acedia as a demon that besieges the soul at noon, when the day listlessly drags and delirious visions momentarily reign in the blinding light. Seven sculptural works by the artists Allora & Calzadilla in the exhibition Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon revolve around this concept, serving as a manifestation of noon’s hold over humankind and as a metaphor for the uncertainties defining our time.

Created specifically for the Menil Collection’s main building, the works use sounds, cast shadows, and novel sculptural materials to evoke an awe-inducing atmosphere of bewilderment and beauty. According to the artists: “In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus, in laying out the seven deadly sins, described the ‘most oppressive’ of all temptations as acedia, a spiritual dryness and lack of care towards the world that plagues during the hot midday hours and is characterized by a feeling of psychic exhaustion and listlessness. Writing under the harsh conditions of the desert, he personified this terrible mood as the workings of the ‘noonday demon’ or “Meridian Demon,” who ‘makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile as if the day had fifty hours.’ 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. Acedia makes the present intolerable and the future impossible to imagine.”

The Puerto Rico-based artists visited the Menil Collection repeatedly over the course of four years to develop this exhibition, and studied the museum’s renowned archives and holdings of Surrealist works of art. They explored the historic role that Surrealism played in the Caribbean in the years surrounding World War II, including its pivotal role in anti-colonialism, and the movement’s fascination with the importance of noon. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla extended their research by connecting this history to the current moment by seeking out shared connections between Houston and their home of San Juan, both port cities that have been deeply impacted by energy commerce and the effects of a changing climate.

Among the works on view is Entelechy, 2020, a monumental coal sculpture cast from a tree struck by lightning. The artists sourced a tree species found in the forest of Montignac, France, where, in 1940 during World War II, a group of teenagers came across a massive tree uprooted during a storm. A shaft of light piercing the hole in the ground revealed the now-famous Lascaux Cave, an underground cavern with hundreds of prehistoric wall drawings. Allora & Calzadilla were inspired by theorist and Surrealist author Georges Bataille’s account of the discovery. He described the cave as a place of profound wonder and identified it with the birth of art and by extension, a new conception of prehistory and human history.

Another work in the installation is Blackout, 2020, created from a Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority transformer that exploded during Hurricane Maria in 2017. The artists bisected the transformer’s steel exterior to expose its interior workings, which they cast in bronze. The shiny metallic conductive wire, radiator pipes, and insulators are juxtaposed with the matte exterior casing, creating a sculptural division that references the exhibition’s theme of solar noon, when the sun, at its zenith, cuts the day in half.

Award-winning composer David Lang worked closely with the artists, while in residence at the Menil, to develop an eight-hour cycle of constantly evolving sounds that runs daily in the exhibition. A combination of instrumental, vocal, and electrical recordings, the sounds respond to and activate the works of art on view. At the conclusion of the exhibition vocalists will perform on Entelechy. The score, composed by David Lang, references the only image of a human figure found in the cave, that of a hybrid of a bird and a man. The deep hum of reverberating electricity buried in the relic of Blackout will also serve as a tuning device for a live vocal performance, composed by Lang, which is inspired by the sounds of electricity and a volatile power grid.

Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon is curated by Michelle White, Senior Curator.

Major funding for this exhibition is provided by The Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation; Brad and Leslie Bucher; Cecily E. Horton; the Susan Vaughan Foundation; Hilda and Greg Curran; Linda and George Kelly; and Lea Weingarten. Additional support comes from Cindy and David Fitch; Jereann and Holland Chaney; Leslie and Shannon Sasser; Mary and Bernard Arocha; Clare Casademont and Michael Metz; Barbara and Michael Gamson; Janet and Paul Hobby; Caroline Huber; Marcy Ellen Taub; Nina and Michael Zilkha; and the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

Introductory video for Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon at the Menil Collection
In Dialogue: On “Specters of Noon”
In Dialogue: On Aimé Césaire and “Specters of Noon”