FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA
Seeing Édouard Glissant in Miami
The Pérez Art Museum in Miami’s (PAMM) current exhibition, Poetics of Relation, is ambitiously conceived. “Inspired by the writings of author and philosopher Édouard Glissant, [it] responds to Miami as a site defined culturally by its diasporic communities and it looks to place these local dynamics in dialogue with more distant contexts that share similar histories.”1
Glissant’s life’s work was a prodigious intertwined system of poems, philosophy, novels, and plays, so the exhibition sets itself the challenge of reflecting a complex, sophisticated framework. In so doing, it ends up posing two significant questions. First, how workable is the translation of this loftily cerebral, deeply literary model to visual art? Second, how does the thinking of an iconic Martinican-born, Sorbonne-educated intellectual look, actually, filtered, as it is here, through the curatorial process that discerned its traces in the work of six artists from around the world and presented it in a luxurious museum in a highly international city that is simultaneously a microcosm of the Americas, a Caribbean nexus, and a febrile cultural ecosystem in itself?
Although Glissant passed away, in Paris, nearly five years ago, his international influence and recognition continue to grow. The nervy vibrancy of his ideas, expressed in a language that could be by turns thrilling, intimidating, and haunting, inspired a generation of writers, poets, and students (I was one) from the Caribbean and around the world. His writing is complex and refractive, intellectually clear-sighted even as it insists upon and enacts a literary, artistically evocative mystery. It is remarkable in its flexibility: Glissant resonates as much with scholars as with poets, writing, as he often said, “in the presence of all the languages in the world.”
For the past several years, Glissant’s work has been gaining recognition in contemporary-art discourse as well. Prominent players in the art world, like the omnipresent Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist; and Okwui Enwezor, curator of the current Venice Biennale (with the Glissant-esque title “All the World’s Futures”), acknowledge him as a major influence. (In Ways of Curating Obrist wrote, “I have a ritual of reading Glissant’s books for fifteen minutes every morning. His poems, novels, plays and theoretical essays are a toolbox I use every day.”2) This is not entirely surprising: the glut of international fairs, the sheer volume and range of work presented cheek-by-jowl with wildly different work (with sometimes specious or tenuous curatorial frameworks), and the (incrementally) increasing representation of artists from the global south provide an obvious opening for Glissant’s critical modes. His poetics of relation, his insistence on the right to unknowableness, to intrinsic opacity in a total-information, homogenizing world, is deeply relevant to the global mechanics of contemporary art.
Most of the work on view in Poetics of Relation is aesthetically successful on its own terms, and some of it is very exciting. Hurvin Anderson’s paintings, with their sharp, clean lines; peek-a-boo perspectives; and washed-out colors, are somehow deeply, formally painterly, and, at the same time, haunting and haunted in the way of old photographs. Anderson is a British-born artist of Jamaican heritage, and the works reflect a Glissantian concern with diasporic memory, a constant coming-and-going, swelling-and-contracting between colony and metropole. Similarly, the two films by the Ugandan-born Zarina Bhimji are successful and striking works on their own formal terms—the rhythms of interaction between color, natural sounds, and music in Bhimji’s Jangbar (2012 – 15) are subtle and masterful. Xaviera Simmons’s In The Lushness of (2015)is a huge wall of black-and-white, multilingual text (including Spanish, English, and Créole), a powerful visualization of Caribbean history.
Two artists have works in the exhibition that are compelling in their own merits and also succeed in evoking the complexity of Glissant’s poetics. A major theme for Glissant is the simultaneous individuation and unity that the islands represent (an island is a world unto itself, and also inseparable from the whole of the archipelago); indeed, he described his theory as une pensée archipélique (archipelic thinking). This archipelic dynamic, the generative tension between the part and the whole, is powerfully visible in the work of the Dominican artist Tony Capellán and the South African Ledelle Moe.
Capellán’s poetics operate on optical and organizational levels. His justly celebrated installation Mar Caribe (1996) is here: hundreds of thong sandals overlap each other, some paired and some not, an absorbing rush of blues whose palette is unmistakably, undeniably Caribbean. The dirt is still visible on the sandals—every shoe bears the physical trace of a walking, breathing, individual human being—and the straps are barbed wire. From hundreds of independent steps, Capellán has composed an aesthetic history, a personal sea anchored in pain.
On a purely visual level, the exhibition is striking. As an exercise in color analysis, it is virtuosic—hue placed alongside hue, shade touching shade with intense, meticulous precision. The pinpoint concentration in how these placements are configured manifests in the uncanny color experience of the full work. Viewed as a whole, the installation simultaneously expands and narrows our vision—we are aware at once of the powerful, singular impression of a wave of Caribbean water, and of the minute chromatic interactions of which it’s composed. Total and partial; complete and fragmentary; independent and interdependent: the color impression of the work relies for its large-scale effect on a series of tiny, chromatic calibrations.
Similarly, his Mar Invadido (2015)is constructed from Caribbean detritus—water bottles; buoys; many, many deodorant containers—ranging in color from ivory, through shades of ocean blue, through nearly black. Where Mar Caribe appears continuous, operating essentially within one plane, the color gradient of Mar Invadido creates a narrowing one-point perspective, as though the viewer were standing on the beach watching the ocean tonally recede into the horizon. There is the same dynamic tension between the intimate and the grand: from many small bottles of laundry detergent (generic yet personal objects that interact closely with the daily lives of individual people) emerges a powerful visual condemnation of ocean pollution. Mar Caribe, even as it is inflected with pain, is a more general, inclusive history. Mar Invadido, made nearly twenty years later, is an explicit statement on the invasion of pollution into the defining, encompassing sea. Yet perhaps the installation can be read as defiant, or hopeful, as the color overwhelms the materials, trumps the pollutants. It still looks and feels more like an ocean than like a collection of plastic trash.
Capellán amasses his objects from the streets and dumps and beaches of Santo Domingo, so each piece is dependent on the amount of time it takes him to collect the materials—the installation has inscribed within it the days and movements through the city that went into its making. Time, daily history are marked and contained in color. While the explicit reference is a visually mythical conversation with the history of everyday life in the Caribbean, a parallel dialogue with the history of art emerges. In form, construction, and scale—in the way it inhabits the room—there is the trace of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Placebo) from 1991.
If Capellán’s poetics lie in interactions of color, Moe’s, created with scarcely any color variance at all, emerge in constellations of scale and placement. Her sculptures are created from sand and cement gathered in the places she has traveled. Congregation (2006 – 15), a set of smaller-than-life-sized heads against a white wall, is both a totality—united within Moe’s aesthetic as constitutive elements of the whole work—and a collection of singular, foreign objects. Each head is slightly different, suggesting an independent subjectivity—a hand-carved face within the greater work. Strikingly, when viewed against the white wall, the installation resembles a group of islands seen from above. Miami itself is present—Moe added to the group during the show’s installation. Congregation’s power resonates throughout the exhibition. A few rooms away, Moe’s Memorial [Collapse] (2005), magnifies the scale of Congregation: here the heads are massive, tall enough to hide behind, but they are stricken down and lie strewn on the floor. Memorials and monuments have particular resonance in South Africa (Moe mentions the recent removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town as an example3) and Memorial [Collapse] deals visually with the country’s history of violence—with, as Moe says, its literal weight.4The effect after seeing Congregation is powerful—the heavy feeling of Memorial [Collapse]’s mournful, questing quality is heightened by the dramatic change in scale. A deeply felt discomfort, an impossibility of reconciliation with history and place, suffuses the works. As Moe says: “I feel like I belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time.”5
The meaning of being from somewhere (or nowhere) is connected to what drew me to the exhibition in the first place: the extraordinary rightness of its place and time. PAMM occupies a unique physical and cultural space in the art world. With the relentlessly expansive presence of Art Basel (the Miami Beach edition launched in 2002 and essentially takes over the city each December), the rise of the Wynwood gallery and mural district in the early 2000s, and the constant flush of cash, it’s essentially a cliché by now to describe Miami’s art scene as “thriving,” or “dynamic.” For all its fraught politics6 PAMM represents Miami’s remarkable strengths and its promise—the tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity, multilingualism, and Wild-West mentality that make it perhaps the most hyper-American city of the 21st century; the temptation to see a Glissantian mondialité hereis strong. Enmeshed with and defined by the history of the Caribbean, Glissant’s work can be bloody and gorgeous, enraged and transcendent. The ocean is a constant, a guiding roar.
For Miami especially, the meaning—almost the shape—of the ocean changed this year. President Obama’s announcement of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba means different things to those who feel it most keenly: to Cubans in Cuba, to Miami’s aging, politically vocal exile population, to a conflicted, hopeful generation of younger Cuban-Americans. For some people, the change is ineluctably tied to the personal histories of their families, to stories absorbed before conscious memory, to a deep-seated poetics of exile, or to an inconceivable shift in the reality of everyday life. For some it is a betrayal, for others a new horizon of possibility. Miami is a young city with historical memory in its blood, and its efforts to grow into a cultural capital on the world stage have been largely propelled by its status as a visual-art destination. So PAMM seems an apt, in fact a perfect site, for this exhibition. Situated near the mouth of the Port of Miami, the museum literally occupies a space of crossing currents. Tourism, trade, transactions (above-board and not): the museum’s wide terrace and hanging-garden-festooned façade, designed by elite architects Herzog and DeMeuron, face them all. Its collection, appropriately, heavily features Caribbean artists: Cubans, of course, and those of Cuban extraction, but also Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and a solid sampling from throughout Latin America.
I asked the museum’s head curator Tobias Ostrander, who organized Poetics of Relation with guest curator Tumelo Mosaka, about the absence of a single artist from Cuba or Miami (although Yto Barrada’s Twin Palm Island (2011) instantly recalled a specific Miami-suburbs aesthetic: glittering palm trees, decorated for Christmas). Glissant’s poetics may inhabit the wide world, but their great dynamic tension, their evocative power, is intimately, intrinsically tied to the personal and the local. Tobias’s response was that the exhibition was framed, or informed—but not defined—by its local setting. I’m not sure that the setting is escapable, or that such an escape is desirable, but perhaps the history of the place, pervasive everywhere else, is powerful enough to frame the exhibition and inflect how it is read. In any event, this “incompleteness” leaves it open for a participatory imagination exercise of inclusion, addition, or modification, which might be the truest tribute to its inspiration: it resonates; it relates.
- Press release, Poetics of Relation: http://www.pamm.org/exhibitions/poetics-relation.
- Obrist, Hans Ulrich, Ways of Curating (New York: Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 14.
- Interview with Ledelle Moe at PAMM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6lZ-XBYzns.
- Interview with Ledelle Moe at PAMM.
- Interview with Ledelle Moe at PAMM.
- Robin Pogrebin, “Resisting Renaming,” New York Times, December 6, 2011.
LAILA PEDRO is a former Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.