2:07 pm Apr. 3, 2012
Walk into the small exhibition space for Mark Boulos' All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008), his first solo exhibition in New York, on view at MoMA through July 16, and you will find yourself immersed in two vastly different worlds—one familiar and close at hand; the other distant, unfamiliar, and harrowing. It’s a depiction of a war you may not have heard much about: the oil war in the Niger Delta.
The work presents two visual markers. On one screen is footage Boulos shot in a poor fishing village on the banks of the Niger River of the guerrilla group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which is fighting to wrest back the Delta soil from the exploitation of large multinational oil corporations. On the other screen are the shouting crowds of traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on September 16, 2008, the first day of the financial crisis that began that year.
Boulos, an American artist based in London and Amsterdam, lived with MEND members in Nigeria for 2 months in order to shoot the film. Tensions between the group and foreign oil corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups have caused political conflict to simmer in the oil-rich area since the 1990s, as competition for oil wealth lures in nearly everyone in the region.
The MEND members are shown expressing anger at foreign invaders and invoking their traditional Ijaw religious beliefs, in particular the war god Egbisu, through whom they believe they are protected from harm through ritual and charms. But Boulos suggests the analogue active in the work is that there is the same sort religious energy and fervor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as that expressed by the Nigerians, but in the former case the religion is capitalism. Boulos decided to have the two screens facing one another in order to highlight the notion of competing "gods.” As the frantic shouting at the Mercantile Exchange escalates, so does the anger of the weapon-wielding Nigerians, who vow to kill the next white man who returns to take their oil.
"We [as Western, secular capitalists] pride ourselves on being atheists… But our abstract economy is even more metaphysical than the religious beliefs of the Niger," Boulos said at a talk after the opening of the exhibition.
The stock exchange shouting ultimately becomes more background noise than anything, while the moving, raw monologues by a Nigerian villager and soldier catches the viewer’s attention the most. Powerful, terrifying bursts of burning gas from the oil wells in the jungle on one wall are juxtaposed against silent aerial views of Chicago on the other.
"It became about rhythm and sound, the films in dialogue with one another," Boulos said. "It's as much a sound piece as it is a video piece."
This is not the first time Boulos has been drawn to political militancy or the idea of transcendental religious fervor. The idea of power held in the hands of the few is a theme carried through his other films, including The Gates of Damascus (2005) and Self Defense (2001). Boulos’ most recent film, No Permanent Address (2010), follows revolutionary fighters involved in the underground Philippine New People's Army. The film is shown on three different screens next to one another, in what Boulos describes as "the aesthetics of three films acting as one." Each screen is a different angle onto a landscape, a person’s face or body. The film becomes a sort of animated Cubist painting—indeed, the nuanced visuals in his films serve to mirror the political, social, and cultural complexities that run through these narratives.
Boulos does not attempt to hide his strong political leanings in All That Is Solid, titled after a quote from The Communist Manifesto. As in his other films, the power of the radical opposes—and supercedes—the abstractions of capitalism.
"I’m interested in representing the radical otherness, so opposite that it acts as a mirror to yourself,” he said.
And though his films are widely considered “documentary” Boulos calls his work "anti-documentary documentary” because he aims to present one side ( the radical side) in a given conflict scenario. He’s not trying to present the comprehensive story through facts, but rather to stake a political claim through a more thematic discussion.
"I wanted to make a war film, not an empirical documentary," Boulos said. "Fact and truth aren't necessarily the same thing … so there has to be some willing suspension of disbelief [for my films], that is normally reserved for fiction."
Projects 97: Mark Boulos, ’All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ will be on view at MoMA through July 16, 2012.
More by this author:
- The avant-documentary films of Adam Curtis feel right at home in the gallery setting of e-flux
- The legacy of '80s art collective Gran Fury is now part of history, but the work remains as furious as ever