To the amazement of those who were convinced that the world was flat, Christopher Columbus found America. After 1492, everyone was convinced that the world was round but 500 years later, the skeptics have been vindicated. The world is indeed flat, flattened into a digital landscape spreading out endlessly, like a net that ensnares us all in its connective tissues. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Thomas Friedman (1) has commented, “Everywhere you turn, hierarchies are being challenged from below, or transforming themselves from top-down structures into more horizontal and collaborative ones”. Once artists were restricted to a style or a movement or a locale, but now art, like the web, goes everywhere, connecting artist to a globalization of creativity. Everywhere, artists are at home, citizens of a digital world, free of museums, galleries, and dealers. In this new Flat World, “artistic freedom “has acquired an entirely new meaning. The artist has become a wanderer.

On the eve of her American citizenship, Russian native, Mela M, now a successful artist in California, brings architectural drawings of a re-dreamed world to her homeland. Although it floats seamlessly through a cyber world, art stubbornly retains its human qualities: A basic physicality that demands to be looked at. The work of Mela M insists upon intimate, close observation, a careful reading of subtleties that become apparent only when scanned slowly. Close reading reveals that the small-scale painted drawings carry their own contradictions. The artist speaks in the international language of architectural CAD programs, but she works by hand. The flatness of the building diagrams is only apparent, not actual. The spectator who looks carefully will see geometrical segments precisely crafted by the artist. These sections become sculptural units that are conceptual memories of the actual structural materials.( “Purple Line”) She pours over architectural books in the library to find the landscape, but she stares at the sky, pondering the way in which the built environment pushes space into new shapes. Her map of the sky scheme of Chicago is a mirror line of the tall buildings that replace the plains of the prairie with false mountains, like the Sears Tower (“Constructed Horizon”). Surrounded by tall buildings, most humans instinctively look up at the sky, seeking nature in the middle of overwhelming culture. This artist inverts the viewpoint by looking down from nature, into culture, and imagines the buildings opening like the petals of a flower and re-sees the street as a piece of fallen sky (“Fallen Sky”). Perhaps God is female, who looks down and seeks to restore poetry to the earth.

Although as a post-feminist, the artist does not confront the patriarchy, her work records and recognizes the personal meaning of architecture to women and the public meaning of buildings erected by men. Mela M appropriates the buildings of male architects, noting with amazement that our environment was designed by and for men, and yet her work is not about gendered habitations. She simply takes these constructions and then proceeds to re-build them to her liking, meditating upon aspects of the structure that are now re-thought. I.M. Pei’s National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is crowned by red slabs, indicating the “hotness” of art in such a cool, geometrical white space (“Near the Red Hot Corner”). An obscure part of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum is found and an odd window is highlighted (“Pushed Space at the Whitney”). Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, also in New York City, (“ Spiral Passage of the Guggenheim”), is remade as interior space of female sexuality, as though the architect was regressing into the spiral passage to the safety of the womb.

Now that the artist has become a perpetual traveler across the unfolded map of computer connections, one might assume that the artist has no home and no sense of place. But Mela M’s work is a deeply personal response to the identity of place. The question: “where do you live?” has become more significant than ever, for we can live anyplace; we can choose. America is a land of immigrants who are a source of the nation’s diversity and strength. Free to come and go as they want, people live there because they want to live there. America is “home”, (“World Home”), a vast flag composed of diverse shapes and colors. The artist carefully inscribed the names of all of the nations—-all of the cultures—-that have been carried by nomads to their adopted country over the stars and stripes. As an immigrant, Mela knows dislocation and adjustment and the difficulties of “coming to America”. The closest thing to a self-portrait or a narrative of migration would be a small white house shape within gray clouds, but inside the heart is a round yellow sun, (“My Sunny Home of Peace”). This sun is internal and is transportable: The artist is on the move and is always home. For her, the mid-use of home can be seen in the refusal of people to take care of the earth, as signified by the surround of burnt and dried grass surrounding a house that she imagines as being filled with artificial trees and flowers (“ House with a Green Window surrounded by dried Grass”). Culture has replaced nature with painful results.

One can speak eloquently of despoiled environment or of human arrogance, but the artist is not stridently political, only compassionate. Mela M makes the statement that architecture defines us. Since Stonehenge, marking the open land with stele is a human need. Thus, it is traumatic to the heart when a structure is felled. Like most Americans, the artist is nearly mute with the pain of the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, but she memorializes the tragedy. Look carefully her active homage: She rebuilds the Towers, now “flattened” into hand-crafted planks with sharp beveled edges (“Twin Towers – Never Forget”). Painted over with floating lines of paint, these towers carry the marks of those hundreds of humans who flew, like angels, to the sky below. In another work, the artist draws the blankness of Ground Zero in the shape of two slabs, crossed one over the other (“The View”). Tom Friedman (2) made the point that when the Berlin Wall fell, the world opened and, in its openness, was flattened. In contrast, he continued, when the Towers fell, walls went up “To beat back the threat of openness, the Muslim extremists have, quite deliberately, chosen to attack the very thing that keeps open societies open, innovating, and flattening, and that is trust. As Friedman said, “there has never been a time in history when the character of human imagination wasn’t important, but… It has never been more important than now”. The writer calls upon us to exercise “peaceful imaginations” that will lead to openness.

When one looks at the flatness in the openness of Mela M’s “Views” of her world, one recognizes the interconnectedness and the vulnerability of us all. These are small works, sized to suggest the grids of a map, indicating pieces of a larger territory, extending in all directions. Despite all the sharpness, all the edginess, these drawings are exercises in empathy. Floating on white paper, lying under glass, her drawings are transparent and unprotected, underscoring the inherent irony of the virtual landscape they suggest that technology does not displace the human by flattening our space. In order to trust each other, we must be able to imagine each other. The artist of today must be an ambassador.

Essay by Dr. Jeanne S.M. Willette,
written for the MOCA Minsk Belarus Solo Exhibition of Mela M., 2006

  1. Thomas Friedman. The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) 2005. p.45.
  2. Ibid. p.443