It begins with oranges. Shortly after the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain, in the aftermath of its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, a merchant named Samuel Downes attempted to import oranges from the island into New York harbor. After being forced to pay import duties on the fruit, Downes sued the customs inspector, claiming the tax should never have been imposed, since the oranges came from a territory that was now part of the United States. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled against Downes, stating that, while the personal liberties of Puerto Rican citizens were sovereign under the Constitution, laws pertaining to finance and revenue were not. Writing the court’s majority opinion in 1901, Chief Justice Edward E. White referred to Puerto Rico as “foreign in a domestic sense.”
That absurd phrase titles collaborative duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s current exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London, which takes as its premise the strange limbo of existence to which Puerto Rico, an “unincorporated territory,” is subject by the United States. Allora & Calzadilla, who both live in Puerto Rico, open the show with “Loss” (2017), a bag of oranges cast in black wax and slumped on the floor just inside the gallery’s entrance. Viewers must pass the compact sculpture upon both entry and exit, the deceptively simple work a forceful reminder of the unbalanced historical and economic arrangement whereby the United States has mined the island for its resources for over a century, an arrangement that leaves the island flailing economically, without either the agency to right itself autonomously or the support to do so cooperatively with the U.S.
A 15-minute film, “The Night We Became People Again” (2017) anchors the show. Shot in a variety of locations around the island — a disused Commonwealth Oil Refining Company, Inc. (CORCO) petrochemical plant, a Central Rufina sugar refinery (where archaeologists have found remnants of the ancient Taíno and Saladoid cultures), and the cave in Guayanilla-Peñuelas where Allora & Calzadilla’s long-term installation “Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos)” (2015) is installed. To the mournful tones of an ambient vocalist approximating the sound of an electrical current, the camera patiently captures natural light as it pans across these empty sites. Formally, the film is exquisite. Allora & Calzadilla have a knack for catching the sun as it crosses hovering insects, rusting elements of machinery, and speckles of airborne dust, lending an almost sculptural quality to the two-dimensional imagery. All of the sites, devoid of any signs of human activity, suggest an abandoned world and serve as a poignant metaphor for the recent exodus of the island’s population, as Puerto Ricans look for better work opportunities and a more manageable cost of living on the United States mainland.
After one emerges from the darkened screening room, the sculptures in the central gallery take on added significance. “Blackout” (2017) is a hunk of metal and ceramic rests on the floor, made from parts left behind from a major transformer explosion in Puerto Rico in 2016 that caused an island-wide loss of power. The sprung coils and busted, burned metal bluntly embody Puerto Rico’s ongoing electrical shortcomings, which the island does not have the resources to upgrade.
Hanging adjacent to this work is “Manifest” (2017), an enormous wall relief made in two components, each nearly 15 feet in height. The pair is cast in bat guano (the air pungent with its tang), which is supremely nutrient-rich and makes excellent fertilizer, and was once heavily mined by the United States in Puerto Rico. Conversely to its useful purpose, the presence of guano can also indicate decay and emptiness. It recalls both the cave and the abandoned sites of the film. The sculptures are cast from the massive engine of a Crowley Maritime cargo ship, one of the main shipping companies that deliver food and commercial goods to Puerto Rico. Thanks to the Jones Act of 1920 — yet another generally obscure piece of legislation that directly affects Puerto Rico — the island cannot import any goods that do not arrive on an American-owned and staffed ship. Without recourse to global competition, nearly everything is subject to an extreme markup in prices, which in turn drives up the overall cost of living.
The stripping of natural resources, onerous taxes and levies, and an aging power grid have long defined the legacy of the United States in Puerto Rico. Though Foreign in a Domestic Sense was conceived of well before Hurricane Maria decimated the island in September, its subject matter has now taken on an even more alarming urgency and timeliness. The inequities Puerto Rico suffers have suddenly snapped into sharp focus for many Americans — and indeed, the world — as Puerto Ricans struggle to survive and recover from the devastation while being berated by a hostile federal government whose efforts to provide aid have been ambivalent at best. Allora & Calzadilla are attuned to the obstacles Puerto Rico faces, and in a poetic instance, aspire to transcend them. With “Blackout,” the work composed of blown-out transformer parts, Allora & Calzadilla incorporated a performance by MUSARC, a London-based choir. Throughout the run of the show, the group periodically enters the gallery to perform a commissioned composition, “mains hum” (2017) by composer David Lang, which takes as its inspiration a quote by Benjamin Franklin on the wonders and potential of electricity. As they move in and around the space articulating a resonant fabric of sound, the activation of the space by their human presence elicits a sense of deep compassion. The dominance of capital has wreaked devastation in Puerto Rico that has now been brought to a head by Hurricane Maria. Now it’s humanity — life joined with life to create a unified force — that must prevail.
To contribute to Puerto Rico’s ongoing relief efforts: United for Puerto Rico
Correction: An earlier version if this post incorrectly identified Allora & Calzadilla as Puerto Rican. They are based in Puerto Rico, but are not Puerto Rican.