This is the first solo show by Mark Boulos (born 1975, Boston, USA, lives and works in Amsterdam) to be held in an Italian institution. The project consists of three works: All That Is Solid Melts into Air (2008), The Origin of the World (2009) and The Word was God (2006). It aims to offer an exhaustive overview of the Swiss-American artist’s most significant output. The works of Boulos approach the complex relation between religious fundamentalism, ideology and terrorism, and are proof of his will to open a radical artistic practice based on the partaking of observation within extreme and relatively impervious social contexts. His films experiment with a socially critical use of the medium of video, in which the spectator is not directed towards a predefined truth, but rather accompanied through a procedural itinerary of analysis, reflection and evolution.
The first part of the double-screen video projection All That Is Solid Melts into Air was shot in Nigeria, in the delta of the river Niger, one of the main sites for crude oil drilling in the world. It is also the territory of a violent conflict between the local population and oil companies, operating under the authorization of the country’s government. This oil drilling has not in fact produced any economic benefit for the territory; on the contrary, it has contributed to the further impoverishment of the already fragile subsistence economy of the indigenous people through ecological devastation and pollution. Boulos spent several weeks living with members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, simple fishermen who became guerilla fighters in order to oppose the neo-colonialist exploitation of natural resources. The video follows the fierce crescendo of their rituals from an internal perspective by accompanying them; it follows the growing manifestations and sense of community shared by the members of the Movement For Emancipation as they try to restore dignity to themselves and to their country. The second projection in the work takes place in the rooms of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, i.e. the Stock Exchange of Chicago, the main marketplace for oil price negotiations. This part of the video installation was shot in the first days of the international credit crisis, when the American bank Bear Sterns collapsed. It forms a mise-en-scène of a different type of ritualism: the ritual of the speculative frenzy of Chicago stockbrokers as they are busy dealing with the economic value of crude oil through the financial instrument of futures. Thus, the double perspective of All That Is Solid Melts into Air gains its title from a quotation by Karl Marx taken from the Communist Manifesto, as it shows the material commodity of oil in two different phases on its travel through the global capitalist system – from the initial extraction from beneath the soil of the Nigerian swamps, to its financial dissolution within the electronic indices of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
The Word was God is a work that consists of two successive parts and approaches the problem of how to represent and thematize the metaphysical experience of the numinous by starting from concrete material reality. In the first part of this video, Boulos shows an old hermit who lives in a remote region of Syria – in one of the first settlements of the ancient Christian communities, where until today a few thousand people continue to speak Aramaic, the language of Revelation used by Jesus Christ. The second part of the work was shot by the artist in the Shiloh Pentecostal Church of London, a community of Pentecostal Christians of African origin, where communal prayer assumes disconcerting forms of mystical ecstasy within a crescendo of vocal expression following linguistic codes unknown to everyone, including those who are praying, and known only to God. The members of the Shiloh Pentecostal community are pushed to exceed themselves and transcend the limits of discursive rationality by praying “in tongues”, and thus become in the eyes of the artist a metaphor and metonymy for the relationship between man and God, that is to say, the representation of the passage between earthly and unearthly by means of the intuitive force of language.
The problem of the representation of oneself and the relationship between authenticity and fiction has been analyzed by Boulos in the third work on view, The Origin of the World. In this work, Boulos set up a video camera behind a double mirror, in order to generate a play of images and cross-references in which the artist’s face is reflected in his own pupils, which are displayed in the foreground. Inspired by the work of Gustave Courbet, the cinematography of Dziga Vertov and the thought of Jacques Lacan, The Origin of the World is a sophisticated experiment realized through the codes of psychoanalysis, theatrical fiction and of narrative deception.