Neither here nor thereMonday, February 18th, 2013 Categories: Features, Updates
Blowing sand, thin as smoke,
Bored, shifts its dunes.
The surf tires of its castles like a child.
Derek Walcott, ‘The Castaway’
They are the sea made land
To come at the fisher town,
And bury in solid sand
The men she could not drown.
Robert Frost, ‘Sand Dunes’
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Percy Bysshe Shelley. ‘Ozymandias’
ALL OVER Trinidad and Tobago, strange sculptures are appearing. Small, angular and at odds with the shapes and geometry of things around them, they look like alien sand-castles beamed down from a space-ship. On the Brian Lara Promenade in the capital, Port of Spain; around the scenic Queen’s Park Savannah; along the busy liming spot of Ariapita Avenue; on an island in the middle of a busy main road or camouflaged on a non-descript pavement that could be anywhere on the island, they provoke stares and wonder. What are they? Where did they come from? Who put them there?
These objects seem to materialize overnight. Though they look like little sand-castles, the sculptures are made out of grey board, wire, fiber rods, and duct tape. Some are covered with bond paper and then sand is stuck on their surface using wood glue. Beneath their apparently casual incongruence, then, is a careful deliberation. This is the work of the collaboration known as Pinky y Emigrante: artists Alicia Milne and Luis Vasquez La Roche with whom I collaborated on a poetry chapbook published recently.
The sand sculptures – which are emblematic of this pair’s public art work – embody several binaries. They play with the idea of monument. They question what is or is not monument in a way that underlines a deeper anxiety that runs throughout their work: what is truly permanent? What is temporary as opposed to fixed? What is home versus a place a tourist is visiting? And who among us will stay and who will go?
The idea of the sand-castle suggests impermanence, yet the stunning sight of something so seemingly fragile remaining in place, day after day, as we go about our daily lives makes us invert the normal relationships and associations we have. Are we the ones who are in flux? Will these small mounds of sand have a better chance of being left behind than we will? This is the sand left behind around Ozymandias’ wrinkled face, rising up and taking over. This is the idea of Frost’s sand dune enacting its own kind of revenge and subversion. Of Blake’s grain of sand truly containing the world. Of Walcott’s agents of the surf and the wind; a reflection of something internal; of someone.
Yet, these creations are a mirage. They are not truly just sand. They occupy a space between the imagination and the reality of their wood glue and grey board frames. They are props that prompt reaction and all of the introspection above and then, turn out to be just as temporary as Ozymandias’ giant face after all. This is even more so when photographed for this project, with beach buckets and curious misplaced tourists placed within the frame amid the random urban back drops. In this way they dramatically embody the binary of permanence versus impermanence they seek to highlight: the roles shift and interchange. Do these roles or states really exist at all in a world where ideas can last longer than the physical? A sense of self; of spirit; of intangible soul may turn out to be what we have in the long haul. And what are the implications of all this to ideas about God, to whom many monuments have been built. Are we ourselves monuments to each other, or perhaps some other thing?
All of these concerns are not surprising themes given the artists involved. Milne is a ceramicist who deals with the frailty of that medium. She knows how, despite its hard surface, clay is really fragile, breakable. La Roche has ties to Venezuela but has made a home in Trinidad – a status which forces an almost daily reckoning with the idea of migration, transit and place. I think both are, on a deep level, also influenced by that most Trinidadian of phenomena: Carnival, itself the ultimate expression of the tension between the fixed and the ephemeral; the stationary and the mobile; weightlessness and being anchored.
This is an obsession that snakes its way through everything both do under the umbrella of Pinky y Emigrante. From mysterious hand-made pamphlets posted in the mail (itself a medium of transit to permanent and impermanent addresses); to broadsheets pasted all over the streets (often as incongruous and temporary as the sand sculptures); a graffiti installation on a wall at the Queen’s Park Savannah (whose buzzing flies and mis-matched patterns and silhouettes seemed to be the antithesis of pretty decoration and monument); and, more recently, in a series of audacious video-work which uses their unique experiences of the Trinidad and Tobago landscape as tools for consideration of flux.
These videos, some of which use footage filmed at Tobago, are not tourist brochures. They get down to the essence and pulse of the country far more effectively than any such brochure might. Here are images of the sea, rendered in a manner that transforms our understanding of the surface of water. Birds dart in and out of the frame, in silhouette, but somehow seem to shape-shift; a highway snakes its way over solid ground with traffic flowing through it, a strange, mechanical lifeblood. Iconic places in the country such as a building in Curepe, a mosque and a famous bridge, become the backdrop for complex matrices; for provocations; for tricks of nostalgia, of camera-work and of tone. People move in and out of the frame, the human voice is sometimes present but barely audible. In between are graphic images and patterns from Milne’s ceramic work. There is a general mood and tone of disorientation: the skyline is inverted and it is hard to decipher mountain from cloud. This is all decidedly unfixed, yet assured: the position of the individual seeking permanence in impermanence.
In a sense the recent move toward multi-media / video seems natural because of how that platform is constituted by the ephemeral: each frame depends on a physical reality no longer present, on a recollection of the previous frame. The videos also understand how sound can create physical and emotional sensations. Like the sand, they ask us to consider what is left behind in their wake.