- Sub Mirage Lignum by Nari Ward
Nari Ward's Sub Mirage Lignum is a large-scale installation, spanning four large galleries and five distinct works. The installation juxtaposes the tropical island of Jamaica with the postindustrial town of North Adams, where the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is located. Known for work that transforms found objects into emotionally resonant assemblages, Ward created this work out of leftover construction materials from previous MASS MoCA exhibitions, factory detritus from the museum site's previous industrial tenants, and material culture from Jamaica. Sub Mirage Lignum, like much installation art, is highly affective, activating an embodied viewer: visitors perambulate under a boat, past vacant stalls, among towering snowmen, and finally into a darkened room with video projection.
Though constructed out of disparate forms, Sub Mirage Lignum coheres through overarching themes of displacement, movement, labor, and tourism as it attempts to suture together Ward's native Jamaica and MASS MoCA's North Adams. In this way the work recalls Stuart Hall's definition of diaspora (a transnational community characterized by "having at least two foci of identification, and maintaining active relationships with more than one so-called home")1 and Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic. Ward's title is a gesture to these theories of hybridity: sub, for example, is intended to carry the double meaning of " 'underneath' and 'substitute for another (space),' " while lignum is a reference to Jamaica's national flower, which blooms on a tree called lignum vitae.2 What is most interesting, then, is the way that the installation draws attention to the commingled routes of the tourist and migrant. The local and visitor, object and looking subject, are always changing places without ever being reduced to equivalents by having their respective privileges or restrictions ignored.
On entering the first gallery space, one encounters Ward's Nu Colossus. Fashioned out of wood found on the abandoned factory grounds in MASS MoCA's complex, the work is an enormous structure modeled after a small conical fishing trap used to catch minnows. Planks jut into the vortexlike interior. As if caught in the teeth of a behemoth, antique, weathered furniture is wedged helter-skelter among the planks inside the fishing trap, whose gargantuan size and chaotic interior invoke the sublime and resonate with Susan Stewart's observations of the gigantic, especially as they apply to postminimalist sculpture and land art. Placed at the beginning of
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the installation, Nu Colossus signals a radical rupture of time and space characteristic of migration and displacement, themes evoked throughout the exhibition.
Opposite the fishing trap, a thirty-foot-long wooden fishing boat floats several feet above the ground, supported by thick panels of clear Plexiglas. Considered as an element of Nu Colossus, the boat appears at risk of being sucked into the trap. Originally, the artist intended to use large panels of glass found on the museum's grounds to create a covered walkway that would simulate the underside of a glass-bottom boat.3 Although that idea was abandoned in favor of using an actual boat, the effect is similar: the viewer takes a fish-eye perspective, circling around the fishing boat. Thus the touristic gaze is rerouted through the eyes of its object, the fish. Gossamer fishing line hangs down from the bottom of the boat, adding to the piscatorial effect. Yet the boat itself is less a recreational vehicle than a tool of labor and economic subsistence. This maritime profession not only exists in both New England and the Caribbean but also speaks to economic dependencies forged during colonialism. For example, Atlantic cod is an ingredient of Jamaica's ackee and saltfish, and New England boat makers built slave ships.