From our friends at Big Red & Shiny, today we bring you a review of Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Author Leah Triplett Harrington offers a thoughtful, revelatory perspective on Campos-Pons’s work, exploring its relationship to themes of memory, exile, and labor. Triplett Harrington states, “Sugar is produced from backbreaking labor, and its ubiquitous popularity cultivated a taste for brutal control and economic dominance among the merchants who traded the substance. […] Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits offers an especially compelling way in which to search the complex history of labor, trade, currency, politics, and power that connect through the global history of the sugar industry.” This article was originally published on March 3, 2016.
Comprising an intensely tactile installation, composed of sound, video, photographs, drawings, and glass-blown sculptures, Alchemy of the Soul: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, is an almost monographic look at Campos-Pons’s work. Produced via collaboration between Campos-Pons and her husband Neil Leonard, Alchemy of the Soul fuses Campos-Pons’s preoccupation with memory with Leonard’s work with sound and musical composition. Curated by PEM deputy director Joshua Basseches, the exhibition, which even explores smell as a trope, is an immersive experience of the particular history of Cuba and the United States.
Cuba’s international sugar and rum industry are central thematic concentrations of Alchemy of the Soul. The exhibition, which begins within the museum’s freight elevator, a choice that clearly introduces the idea of labor, is anchored by the installation Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir of the Spirit in the museum’s special exhibition gallery. Though the elevator and corridor outside the gallery are festooned with almost cheesy burlap sugar-sack props, the show is gracefully installed to a haunting and transcendent effect. The gallery is dimly lit, with a thick, humid atmosphere, and a soft trickling sound surrounds the five mammoth glass sculptures that comprise the work. A sweet, unfamiliar smell also pervades the space; this is the scent of sugar being distilled into rum substitute, the liquor that buttressed the Cuban economy until the revolution, and before that, supported the slave trade in the Caribbean and Americas.