years – stems from an obsession with how unmoored and isolated these loating lands can be. Throughout his notes and writings, Smithson returns again and again to the lost island of Atlantis, a stand-in for his connection with deep, geological time, and for how the weight of history, myth and nature is such that it might be invisible, but is ever-present beneath our feet. Exhibited here, alongside several ilms and sculptures, are reams of the artist’s drawings, maps and plans for various island projects, some more plausible, more ambitious, than others, the majority of which never happened. In Island of Ashes, a pile of wood burns at sea, while Lake of 32 Islands is almost cute in its utopian vision of neat, numbered islands resembling molehills on a lawn; drawings for forking jetties and island mazes resemble tree forms, branching off in all directions. In one completed project, Mangrove Ring, Smithson planted a circle of mangrove seedlings in the lagoon shallows off the coast of Florida – as he explained in a 1971 interview, ‘Mangroves are called “island makers” because they catch sediment in their spidery roots.’
Upstairs, his imagined islands become wilder, evolving from natural metaphor to the performative aspect of the igure and body. Made from coal, wood, concrete and asphalt, they are allegories for the increasing reach of industry. Drawings from 1970 envisage spiralling, Babel-like towers atop cones of heaped earth, spouts spewing waste out into the surrounding ocean. Another applies his Glass Island proposal across the whole of Antartica, surrounded by poured cement oceans. In a proposal for a sort of mobile island, Smithson planned to ill a barge with yellow sulphur that would travel through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Paci ic. These were not, however, critiques of industrial impact on the environment, such as Olafur Eliasson’s 2018 spectacle Ice Watch London, where viewers were invited to consider their personal relationship with nature. Instead, there is a violence to some of Smithson’s proposals that is also alchemical: his industrial materials and processes represent a pragmatic acceptance of human intervention as a form of nature in itself. He believed there should be ‘artist- consultants in every major industry in America’, a recognition that the system can be better reformed from within. Fi y years later, we are still to learn many of those lessons.
The impression of Smithson from this exhibition is of a proli ic and relentless imagination; the occasional coffee-stain and torn edge implies the speed of putting down on paper each new idea. The tragedy of his early death is that many of his works remain provisional, rudimentary – we have to make do with them anecdotally, unmade and on paper, which at times can feel repetitive and insuf icient. To dwell on this, however, would be to miss the point: Smithson’s philosophical writings on the ‘non-site’ of the gallery-based artwork hinges on a conception of the artwork as connected, as if by a thread, to its ‘site’ in nature. Can we treat these drawings, these proposals, as non-sites, even if their realised counterparts never existed? The tropical desert island as a paradisiacal device that pervades our culture suggests that we can – the island, for us and for Smithson, provides renewed hope in the landscape, a rupture between past and future, eventually turning glass back to sand. Phoebe Cripps is assistant curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, and associate curator at Flatland Projects, Hastings.
Nalini Malani, Can You Hear Me?, 2020, video
Nalini Malani: Can You Hear Me? Whitechapel Gallery, London 23 September to 6 June Can You Hear Me?, Nalini Malani’s irst UK commission, is an immersive theatrical installation comprising more than 88 animations based on her notebooks over the past four years. Issuing from nine video channels, projected multi-coloured drawings and citations illuminate the exposed-brick walls of the Whitechapel’s Gallery 2. A few sound channels emit mainly piano music as well as Malani’s voice so ly reading Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, snippets of which are also projected. Well known outside the UK for her ‘video/ shadow play’ installations combining large-scale video projections with reverse-painted, revolving cylinders made of translucent Mylar, the animations in Can You Hear Me? address key preoccupations, such as violence against women and social injustice, much more straightforwardly; they were made by drawing and writing directly with her ingertips on an iPad. Bitesized citations, some in type, some in script, from poets and writers such as Marcel Proust, Adrienne Rich, Veena Das, Noam Chomsky, Bertholt Brecht and Langston Hughes, to name but a few, are layered with scribbly, but technically adept, graphisms depicting corporeal forms, o en of women, with the immediacy of graf iti. This directness is complimented by the speed at which images and texts appear and disappear, are overridden and erased.
At irst, this seems akin to the noise of the infosphere of social and news media. And the rage inferred in many of the animations does indeed stem from Malani’s anger at continuing war crimes in India, Pakistan and Kashmir, a particular reference here being the horri ic case of the gang rape and murder of Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old girl, in Indianadministered Kashmir. As anthropologist Das states, nationalism in India is brutally inscribed on the bodies of women. ‘She was only 8’ is scrawled in vibrant red, its bloody associations being used to dramatic effect throughout the installation, but it is clear that this is less a use of art to create political consciousness than an outpouring of an enraged citizen whose medium is art. Hence the fantasy elements of some of the drawings which imagine Asifa as a wondrous Alice in Wonderland character. This never seems trite as the accretion of graphisms give equal weight to the expression of and testifying to inner feelings, eg boredom during lockdown, and ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘scary’
Art Monthly no. 442, December 2020 – January 2021
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