AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
“In Plain Sight” teaser at https://www.mariangoodman.com/exhibitions/416-tavares-strachan-in-plain-sight/
“You know, when you’re a kid on an island of 250,000 people, you have to stay in your lane. I wasn’t really good at that.“
– Tavares Strachan, quoted in Elephant magazine, autumn 2020
During September and October this year work by US-based Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) was on display at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London, presenting an “immersive and site-specific experience“. A Guardian journalist described it slightly differently, as “baffling, complex, not to say deeply complicated” (while giving it a five-star review), although looking at and into Strachan’s work it seems no more confounding to me than any other conceptual oeuvre!
I didn’t make it out of South London into the Central London galleries between our first and second ‘lockdowns’, and I’m not much inclined to now, until the new Covid vaccine is hopefully wheeled out in early 2021 (I’m biting back the feeling that it is all too good to be true, after all the dire news in 2020).
In 1972 John Berger noted that “The days of pilgrimage are over, it is the image of the painting which travels now“, which gives me a handy ‘out’. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agreed with the art critic Ossian Ward, who some 40 years later wrote in his book Ways of Looking, that “encountering a work of art in the flesh is paramount to its understanding“.
As a sort of compromise solution, many galleries have set up online viewing rooms and gallery walk-throughs so that people can engage with art as it is hung in an exhibition (and, presumably, buy it), while they are unable to visit either due to temporary restrictions on movement, or due to safety fears. The Marian Goodman gallery is one of these institutions, so although I missed the physical show, I was able to view some of the work online, and download a handy list of the works exhibited (together with little thumbnail pictures).
Strachan has a fascination with human aspirations and physical limitations, as well as the obstacles that have traditionally been imposed on people by cultural strictures and structures, rather than by the limits of the human body.
Specifically, his art has been influenced by the life of Matthew Hensen (1866-1955), an African-American explorer who, in 1909, took a key role in the first recorded expedition to reach the North Pole. For some reason (entrenched racism, presumably) his name seems to have been virtually erased from history.
Strachan’s interest in inhospitable climates, in the achievements of Matthew Hensen and in the power of the individual is not new. For his 2005-06 work The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want he arranged for the excavation a 2.5-ton block of ice from the Alaskan Arctic. The ice was then transported to the Bahamian capital Nassau using some kind of special refrigeration unit and was displayed in a solar-powered freezer in the courtyard of Strachan’s childhood primary school.
The piece is, quite literally, monumental, and evocative at the personal level of individual biography, as well as in the much wider sense of referencing the fragility – but also the adaptability – of the natural environment and the dissonant beauty of displacement. My husband points out that this work of art could also be interpreted as a massive ‘fuck you’ to Strachan’s old school, given it seems to involve plonking a massively inconvenient hunk of Arctic ice in the playground.
Strachan’s later multimedia, multi-part work Orthostatic Tolerance (2010) makes reference to the physiological stress that astronauts experience when leaving and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. As part of the work, Strachan experienced some of the training received by Russian astronauts as well as taking part in experiments at the Bahamas Air and Space Exploration Center; as part of this ‘installation’, he endured 16 units of G-force.
More recently Strachan has been working on an ongoing written work of art called The Encyclopedia of Invisibility (2018), included in the London exhibition, which currently comprises some 2,400 pages and 15,000 alternative entries. These describe individuals, locations, objects, concepts, works of art and scientific phenomena that have been un(der)recognised or have simply … disappeared, including both an ancient Israeli unit of measure called the omer, and Richey Edwards of British band the Manic Street Preachers. On archival paper, leather-bound, the work was exhibited in a glass case evoking the silent power of books compiled in past centuries by colonial-era white men, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, in a work that questions the validity of our collective memory.
Also included in the recent London exhibition, the immense double-panelled 2020 painting Every Knee Shall Bow (measuring some 2.5m x 2.5m) immediately brings to mind the Black Lives Matter campaign and the colonial past of the Bahamas. The pop-culture style painting features Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie on the cover of a 1952 magazine, while Queen Elizabeth gazes out at the viewer, foregrounded by incongruous (to me) snowy owls. Importantly, in terms of context, the Queen ‘took the knee’ when she met Selassie, with emperors deemed to be of higher rank than simply royalty.
The upstairs gallery at the Marian Goodman Gallery was given over to a collection of busts entitled Distant Relatives, individually named for influential people of colour throughout recent history in the USA and the Caribbean. They are named for, for example, the writers James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, nurse Mary Seacole, Henrietta Lacks (whose cells revolutionised the understanding of cancer), and the explorer Matthew Henson (of course). However, the realistic busts are often obscured by elaborate African masks, their individual features symbolically erased by the foregrounding of their African ethnicity.
Strachan’s neon works are also iconic, and his latest is intended to be installed in Colorado in the near future, on a massive scale. Conceived prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but resonating very deeply with the situation in 2020, individual words make up the simple phrase “We are all in this together“, whether interpreted as a call to action or as an expression of unity.