Mark Boulos’ two-projector video installation at MoMA, “All that Is Solid Melts into Air” (2008), is a chilling investigation into two separate but entwined worlds. The two-screen installation depicts traders in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange frantically buying and selling stocks on what came to be considered the first day of the 2008 credit crisis. On the other end of the room we see footage from Boulos’s travels in Nigeria documenting the struggles of the impoverished Nigerian people as well as members of Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a militant group fighting for control of the oil beneath their feet — this is the oil that Western businesses have grown rich from.
The coupling of the stock traders and Nigerians is, on the surface, very linear; the two, although an ocean apart, have a direct relationship on the other. But as you watch, more nuanced similarities of movement and philosophies come to the fore. The forces these two groups have committed themselves to are unseen and powerful. Imagery of African dance and ceremony have long intrigued the West, but are the arcane movements and gestures of the traders really so different?
I stumbled across Boulos’s installation a month ago after browsing the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA. As the significance of Boulos’s juxtaposition sank in, I felt a pang of the triviality of the other work I had seen that day. While walking through Midtown, or enjoying modern art, there are many stories affecting and shaping our daily lives that, for the most part, remain hidden. Now, having returned to MoMA just for this installation, I can safely say Boulos’ work is the most moving and engaging piece I have seen all summer, and must not be missed before the July 16th closing.
So often in the news we see tragic events happening with much too little historical context or information about how the viewer might inherently be involved in the situation. An article about a militant attack on an oil refinery in Nigeria might lack proper weight, if we as a viewer feel completely disconnected from both Nigeria and oil. The same could be said for Afghanistan suicide bombings or Syrian killings, but Boulos’s work made me feel more interwoven with Nigerian struggles than I have ever felt in my life.
In this way Boulos is a documentarian and an artist. He brought two realities, completely separated in my mind, and wove them together beautifully. The story of many became the story of one, and we as viewers were standing right in the middle of it, literally and metaphorically. “All that Is Solid Melts into Air” created a new narrative for me; a more important and meaningful story than the usual global news platforms will ever provide.
Projects 97: Mark Boulos runs through July 16 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, midtown, Manhattan).