A version of this essay was peformed at Slanted House Collective’s launch, ‘these here split voices’, in Berlin, Germany, on 23 February 2018.
Tania Pérez Córdova’s exhibition Smoke, Nearby at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is the Mexico City-based artist’s first solo show in a major US museum. Smoke, Nearby employs the smoke signal as an allegory to perform the connectivity between actions and consequences, between the individual and humanity. Pérez Córdova’s poetic sculptures occur in two parts: one half quietly exists in the gallery while the completing half continues to go about its normal life in the world at large. Pérez Córdova embodies the artist as puppeteer, her exhibition invoking a vision of someone plucking the marionette strings of the web that connects all of us. As she explains in the interpretive video outside the gallery, her pieces steal something away from the world and place it in the museum space, thereby altering a course of events, be it the borrowed SIM card in Call Forwarding (2013) that keeps someone from making a phone call, or a missing piano key that changes the melody of somebody’s music making. One instantly thinks of the “butterfly effect,” a concept born in Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder” (1952). In the story, a few days after the presidential election, a man named Eckels goes back in time on a dinosaur-hunting safari. In his fear upon seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex in person, Eckels runs off the designated path, stepping on and killing a butterfly. Flash forward to the present, year 2055, where the seemingly insignificant death of a butterfly has reshaped the course of history and we learn that the other, “anti-everything” presidential candidate has been elected. The safari leader’s warning feels applicable to Pérez Córdova’s process: “The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time…Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids...Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all.” (1)
There is a sense of site-specificity imbued throughout Pérez Córdova’s MCA show. “From ‘Us’ to ‘Us’” (2017), for instance, incorporates a fragment of glass from an MCA gallery ceiling light. This piece, then, finds completion when the museum visitor’s gaze turns skyward. In “We focus on a woman facing sideways” (2013–16), the sculpture -- an earring hanging from a pierced bronze bar -- is just as much the single Swarovski Crystal Drop earring hanging in the gallery as it is the anonymous woman walking around someplace unknown, wearing the second Swarovski Crystal Drop earring.
The titles and lists of materials that Pérez Córdova writes for her pieces are poems within themselves, playfully disclosing intimate and specific moments. Chasing, Pausing, Waiting (2014), for example, lists the piece’s materials as “blush, bird droppings, cigarette ash (from a smoker wanting to quit), and black marble.” Aside from captioning her pieces, Pérez Córdova sees herself as more of a “collector” than a “writer.” (2) Her pieces act as a catalog of fleeting moments. In A Man Flexing His Biceps to Show Off His Strength (Dropped Things Are Bound to Sink) (2012/17), a piece of orthopedic foam, yellowing around the edges, lies as if arbitrarily discarded on the gallery floor. In the foam, the clear indent of a flexed bicep is indeed visible. This triumphant ephemeron immortalizes one instance of an unknown body’s muscle contraction, enabling the connection of strange bodies across time.
The humble intentionality of Pérez Córdova’s show is quiet; if you don’t look closely, you could miss it. But maybe missing “it” is okay, maybe missed moments are the point. In Pérez Córdova’s world, your walk to the bus stop becomes an journey saturated with potential, and typing in your PIN number at the grocery store becomes a meaningful gesture. We live these small moments every day and most of us rarely take note, but they still happen, and we, as humans, are all affected. Pérez Córdova reminds her audience that every anonymous encounter is an added link in the web that intertwines humanity. Like a soft breeze tickling the back of your neck, or perhaps the accidental inhalation of smoke from a passerby’s cigarette, Smoke, Nearby activates an appreciation of the mundane beauty and feeling of connectedness that an intimate encounter with a stranger can produce. The specter of a life being lived; you can see it, you can smell it, but you don’t know where it’s coming from. After leaving the gallery, one question haunted me for the rest of the day: what is burning?
Smoke, Nearby was on view until August 20, 2017, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Avenue.
(1) Bradbury, Ray, “The Sound of Thunder,” Crowell-Collier Publishing Co.: 1952.
(2) “Interview: Tania Pérez Córdova,” the artist in conversation with Laurel Schwulst, The Creative Independent, https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/interview-tania-perez-cordova/ (February 24, 2017).