This Wheel’s on Fire

"The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg," Erick Meyenberg's video exhibit at YBCA, examines the 2014 disappearance of 43 Mexican students.

To reach Erick Meyenberg’s video project, “The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg,” on the second floor at YBCA, you have to pass by Tom Sachs’ “Space Program: Europa” on the ground floor. Sachs’ exhibit, which imagines a NASA mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, is a flat-out funny distillation of mankind’s quest to colonize distant worlds. It’s also an analog dreamscape — a multi-room emporium that includes a makeshift “Rescue” arcade machine crediting Sachs himself with the first rescue; a Mission Control center with seats named after Richard Pryor, the Clash, and Stan Lee; and a giant Landing Excursion Module with a very visible toilet inside. Funny.

“The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” is not funny. Nor is it analog. Its centerpiece is a 16-minute looping video, played across three large screens, that documents a young military marching band’s practice routines in the heart of Mexico City. Meyenberg splices and dices the footage, layering it with the band’s sounds and his own titanic orchestrations, which veer from elegiac to uplifting to downright frightening. As in beats that sound like the rat-a-tat-tat of a gunshot. As in ominous sounds that might as well be in the Alien movies. As in quiet frames where the wind is all we hear. “The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” bears no apparent resemblance to “Space Program: Europa” — except that each work is partly a commentary on the way leaders inculcate new recruits into entrenched functions.

The Mexico-based Meyenberg, who took in Sachs’ exhibit in October before the opening of his own, says the two artists absolutely share a fidelity to a similar subject matter.

“There is a core that we are talking about — which is power and domination and politics of spaces and bodies flowing into the space, and what belongs to whom,” Meyenberg says in a phone interview from Mexico. “There are many similarities. And it’s interesting to have both exhibitions at the same time.”

Meyenberg made “The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” in the aftermath of the 2014 disappearance of 43 Mexican college kids in the Mexican city of Iquala. They were apparently abducted under the order of local officials and killed by corrupt police. In Meyenberg’s work, teenagers learning how to do military songs — and to fit into uniforms that curtail their still-growing bodies — create odd juxtapositions that he highlights in a visually intense and musically emotional way.

“I found something interesting between the military discipline that could represent power, order, the government, or a bigger order against what I call teenagers’ ‘bodies in crisis,’ ” says Meyenberg, who’s 36. “They’re starting to find out who they are, what they want to be. And biologically, they are going through so many changes that their bodies are in constant movement and change. It’s a paradox against the military order, which is a very strict structure. It’s always a struggle. The bodies, and their natural, biological, psychological, emotional flow is being cut into pieces by the order. It’s like an ominous feeling of power that’s being inoculated into the bodies.”

The title “The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” references the ideas of Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet and Picasso cohort who coined the term Surrealism. In the preface to his 1917 play, The Breasts of Tiresias, Apollinaire writes that, “When man wished to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which bears no resemblance to a leg. In this way, he has unconsciously created surrealism.”

The video’s screening at YBCA is its world premiere. YBCA’s Director of Visual Arts, Lucía Sanromán, who joined the museum last year, brought the exhibit to the museum after working with Meyenberg on previous projects, including one where he abstracted data from a major government study of Mexicans’ genetic coding.

“What I’ve always liked about his work,” Sanromán says, “is that he translates very complicated information into an aesthetic form that presents that and also makes it larger than the sum of its parts. His work is never pedagogical in a boring way.”

“The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” jumps between hundreds and hundreds of scenes, frequently focusing on the band members’ legs and arms but also their instruments — with some shots so tight that we see abstract reflections against the brass’ sheen. We also get a multitude of scenes in which band members traipse along public corridors on their way to one of Mexico City’s grandest buildings, the Monument to the Revolution. The band also walks in a mall amid shoppers, takes escalators with families, rides small elevators, and performs in the open. The video has interjected cutaways of wolves in the wild, snarling at each other, desperate for food and survival. Meyenberg’s at-times menacing music conveys a similar sense of animal savagery.

He worked on his video for two years, following the band, Banda de Guerra Lobos, to scores of rehearsals. He found them almost by accident, after working previously with traditional music bands that played during holidays and festivals.

“I had my studio nearby this school, and suddenly I heard this military music playing, and I thought it was on the street,” he says. “But then I realized it was this group of children playing in a very far distance — I’d say seven buildings from my studio. I was on the roof and they were on the roof of their school. I saw tiny little heads, like dots, on the roof, with their brass instruments.”

The video recreates these “dots” through the use of drones, which filmed the band as it moved about Mexico City. Meyenberg worked with a sound designer and another composer to create the sonic atmosphere that helps make the video so unique.

“The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg” isn’t entirely digital. Meyenberg’s planning materials are set on a small display, and military flags stand in one area. In the hallway in front of the screening room, YBCA has placed a military helmet atop a trumpet that the band used. Both are black, fusing almost like a funeral sculpture, and they’re next to a line, by the Romanian-French poet Paul Celan, whose English translation is, “We dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined.” Meyenberg is as serious on the phone as his work is in person. But he also has a sense of humor as he describes his initial approach to the project.

“I recorded every single rehearsal the kids did in a year, so I had a lot of footage,” he says. “I discovered during the process the themes that really moved me. And I found I had no interest to make a documentary film. It makes no sense to show the spectator what we did in a chronological order. I prefer to show something that’s very difficult to say in words.”

“My first attempt to do the editing was very realistic,” he adds. “I used only the actual music of the kids. And the video was canceled immediately – after a minute. It was unbearable.”

Now, that’s funny.

“Erick Meyenberg: The wheel bears no resemblance to a leg”
Through Feb. 19 at YBCA, 701 Mission St., $8-$10. 415-978-2787 or ybca.org

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