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Caroline Mesquita

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Caroline Mesquita 

Mara Hoberman, Art Forum, April 2018

CAROLINE MESQUITA'S humanoid metal sculptures are a wild bunch. They like to dance and make mischief; they hump each other and have orgies; some­ times they get violent. In galleries, art centers, and, most delightfully, on top of a bar during a Paris art party in 2015, Mesquita's copper and brass figures have pre­sented a retro-futuristic vision of robots gone wild. Arranged into tableaux inspired equally by nineteenth­ century French history paintings and the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, dramatically posed life-size bodies beckon the viewer, embrace one another, and lie collapsed on the floor. Mesquita's stop-motion ani­ mated films (which she began making in 2016) bring her sculptures to life in a way that confirms tile syba­ ritic behavior  alluded  to in these installations. On­ screen, her creations jerkily interact  with each other and with human characters, portrayed  almost exclu­ sively by the artist herself. Undressing, caressing, painting, or cutting Mesquita, the animated sculptures reappropriate gestures used in their own creation. The intimate  and reciprocal relationship the artist culti­ vates with her sculptures is both tender and troubling. Engaging with her own creations in ways that recall Greek myths, Mesquita is a modern Hephaestus  (the god of metalworking, whose automatons could think and act freely) or Pygmalion (the sculptor who fell in love with his own ivory sculpture).

Having initially resisted making physical artworks (for many Ecole des Beaux-Arts students in the 2000s, Nicolas Bourriaud's "relational aesthetics" loomed large), Mesquita has in recent  years developed an improvised, hands-on metalworking practice (artisans would balk at her technique, she admits) that borders on the fetishistic. In the studio, she works alone, using her whole  body to roll, fold, squeeze, and hammer sheets of copper and brass. After soldering and bolt­ ing together the hollow body parts (the figures' basic components  are a ring-shaped or conical head, tubu­ lar arms and legs, and a columnar torso), she paints the figures' metallic surfaces with ammonia, chloride, and various acids to instigate oxidation. Eventually­ often after numerous applications between long drying periods-facial features, muscles, breasts, penises, body hair, and articles of clothing appear in rusty pink, minty green, and inky black. It is at this point, says the artist, that the distinct  "personalities of the sculptures finally emerge." While this process requires exacting precision and  sophisticated technique, Mesquita also acknowledges that she is eager to cede some creative credit to forces beyond her control, like the slow work of her chosen chemicals on metal. In a sense, then,  even during their  production she is already romanticizing  the autonomy of her figures.

Bal (Ball), 2015, which was installed at SpazioA in Pistoia, Italy, that same year, is one of Mesquita's most violent tableaux. The misleading title suggests a formal party, but the scene is surprisingly sinister. A regal figure, set apart by a full-skirted gown and crown-like crenellations around its head, is surrounded  by figures who stoop, kneel, and lie prostrate on the ground. Many of the dozen or so sculptures appear  dead or gravely injured (one has a scepter through its hollow skull). Limbs and decapitated heads lie on the floor next to brass cuttings  that look like shiny shrapnel. Adding some brightness to a morbid scene that seems to describe the aftermath of a failed revolt, a sound­ track of light clinking and clanging suggests the tin­ kering sounds of a metalsmith's studio. Evoking Robert Morris's Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, Mesquita's primitive  timpani were recorded while she was installing the tableau. The musical chimes bring temporality to the frozen scene and hint at the figures' potential energy.

Mesquita's interest in music goes back to her child­hood, when she studied clarinet as well as drums and the bombard, a traditional reed instrument from her native Brittany. Some of her earliest artworks are in fact functional handmade musical instruments. Flute (Flute), 2013, is a neatly punctured steel pipe posed on a delicate music  stand made  of soldered steel poles. A new version of an accompanying two-minute composition performed by Mesquita on her hand­ fashioned  flute is rerecorded in the exhibition space each time the work is shown in a new venue. Drums, 2014, a hollow steel sculpture that looks like a badly damaged office desk, is accompanied by a sound­ track  of reverberating booms. Mesquita made the recording while striking different areas of the sculp­ ture with felt-tipped drumsticks, which she also made herself in order to achieve a softened metallic rumble. These early works evince the desire to liberate sculp­ ture from  a fixed-rigid state (indeed, they .seem to speak for themselves) that eventually led the artist to digital filmmaking.

Mesquita's first film, Some Blue in My Mouth,2016, shows the artist trying to engage with her sculptures on an interpersonal level. Underscoring the physical  nature of her practice, Mesquita appears playing herself, wearing a bleu de travail jumpsuit similar to those worn by French factory workers since the nineteenth century. As she works  on her sculp­ tures-positioning them, dressing them, tightening their  bolts, and carrying their lifeless bodies-her frustration with their insentience mounts. Switching from productive  actions to tender gestures, she tries coaxing her sculptures to life-caressing their chests or positioning their arms around her neck for a dance. But only when the artist is out of frame do her creations come alive. In raucous stop-motion seq\lences they frolic, dance, and hump each other freely. Filmed in Mesquita's studio in Brittany  against  backdrops of colorfully painted paper, this sixteen-minute film was presented at Brussels's MOT International alongside a tableau featuring the same sculptures that appear on-screen. This type of through-the-looking-glass multimedia installation has since become Mesquita's preferred mode of presentation. In subsequent exhibi­ tions, she has included props and scenery from the films in the mise-en-scene to make the boundary between the sculptures' dormant reality and animated  adventures seem even more porous.

In her exhibition "Pink Everywhere," held at the Kunstverein Langenhagen,  Germany, in 2016, a film by the same title (and also made that year) was shown on a screen that Mesquita physically integrated into a tableau. A hand-soldered metal armature framing the screen  branched out  to the support platforms on which  the artist  posed  her sculptures. In this film, Mesquita  shows solidarity with her works  by transforming her own  body  into  an inanimate object. Playing a variety  of different characters, each in a dreamy fugue state, Mesquita allows the metal figures to act on her-rubbing her body, stroking her hair, and undressing her. In one scene, the artist  appears naked with a terrible sunburn (which is, in fact, body paint) reminiscent  of the colors she introduces onto her sculptures' surfaces by treating them with harsh chemicals. Coloring her skin and exposing her motion­ less nude body are, perhaps, Mesquita's way of paying penaJ;lce for having·done the same to her artworks. In an empathetic gesture, she objectifies herself for the physical  pleasure of her creations and the viewing pleasure of the audience.

In her more recent films, Mesquita has grown even more sophisticated in terms of technique (costumes, makeup, sets, and props  have become increasingly elaborate) and narrative structure. Early on in The Visitors, 2017, we see Mesquita's sculptures tinkering with large metal vehicles. (These sci-fi inspired motor­ cycles-sculptures ostensibly created by sculptures­ were displayed in conjunction with the film as part of a group exhibition at Paris's Fondation d'Entreprise Ricard in 2017.) The artist, meanwhile, is mostly  passive on-screen. Again playing multiple roles (a man mowing the lawn, a woman at a barbecue, a sunbather, a soccer player, etc.), Mesquita becomes the main focus of her sculptures' seemingly autonomous creative impulses as they conspire to manipulate, mutilate, and ornament her body.

In what comes across as a kind of retaliatory fantasy in which sculptures decorate and attempt to reincarnate insensate human bodies, Mesquita's 2017 exhibition "The  Ballad" recalled J. J. Abrams's  cult television series Lost (2004-10), with its mysterious depiction of a grim airplane crash. Presented at the Fondation d'Entreprise Ricard and at 221A in Vancouver, the film (The Ballad, 2017) was shown on a screen integrated into an installation of sculptures of aircraft wreckage that had served as film props. The artist  portrays a dozen crash victims, among them the pilot, a boy with braces, and a glamorous woman in pearl earrings and a red strapless dress. Approaching each victim indi­ vidually, the sculptures steadily transform the group of lifeless bodies in their own images by painting and gild­ ing their skins, rendering them in shades of green, pink, and yellow, and replacing  severed limbs with  brass appendages. Toward the end, some of the colorful and metallicized men and women come alive, blinking their eyes and moving ever so slightly. Embodying the magi­ cal awakening the artist so badly wants for her own sculptures, this poignant and symbolic image of rebirth marks a pivotal moment in Mesquita's oeuvre.

MARA HOBERMAN IS A CRITIC BASED IN PARIS.