Loss - whether personal or ecological - leaves an imprint, the scale of which is usually only measured by those who feel its direct impact. While climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet, the lack of direct quantifiable impact on individuals often leads to a culture of denial and ignorance, even escapism. Artists Yto Barrada and Bettina questioned this approach of individual and collective escape, instead pondering whether solace can only be found through collective action after all.
The exhibition The Power of Two Suns by Yto Barrada with guest artist Bettina, then reflected on our individual and collective reactions to the onset of disaster, ecological or otherwise. Curated by Omar Berrada, the theme perfectly aligned with the kind of work the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) wanted to exhibit in its new permanent space, LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island, which opened up for artists in September 2019.
The Center wants to focus on art conceptualised around themes of ecology, sustainability and resilience pertaining to the Governors Island in specific, and the New York city in the larger context.
In keeping with the theme, Barrada worked with artist Bettina who had lost all of her artwork in a devastating fire. Over the decades, she rebuilt her body of work while working from the solitary confine of a room inside Chelsea Hotel. Through questions of personal loss, the artists entered the broader realm of ecological loss, asking if the increasing solar radiation and greenhouse gases are increasing the environmental damage and whether environmental catastrophe stems in part from the amplified solar radiation caused by the greenhouse effect, and whether a solution can be found by amplifying the power of solidarity?
The project for Barrada was inspired by the state of her hometown, Tangier, which lies at one end of the Strait of Gibraltar, which was once the gateway to Europe. Now, the Strait has become a symbol of forced isolation, as crossing is allowed in one direction only. Barrada’s work has repeatedly highlighted such social constraints. Tangier, Virginia, on the other hand, is a small island slowly sinking into the Chesapeake Bay. Its inhabitants –many of them crab fishers – are hoping for a sea wall to insulate them from the coming flood. The crab traps piled up on the docks like three-dimensional minimalist grids provided inspiration for Barrada’s imposing sculpture - a chimerical, incomplete gabion wall.
Overall, the exhibition pondered human reactions to the onset of disaster. It acknowledged the temptation of insularity as protection, yet proposed hospitality and care as a counterpoint, no matter whether the loss is individual or collective.
The exhibition then presented a small selection from Bettina’s remarkable body of work. On the plinths were a set of long wooden pieces, floating like the ghostly remains of an ancient ship; on the long tables, an array of sculptural experiments in wood and marble. Each of these belonged to a larger series developed out of self-imposed constraints from which gesture and accident subtly emerged.
On the far side of the exhibition space, two-dimensional works by both artists engaged in a closer conversation around clear lines, simple shapes and a dramatically reduced palette – as though to convert the ominous sense of an ending into the primordial forms of a quieter beginning. For the artists then, the whole idea was to experience the constructive power of constraint and the potential for imagination and resilience to out-survive the catastrophes. Yet, Barrada warned against the individual and social isolation that is an inevitable part of surviving disaster and propagates a more cooperative approach, is possible, if only to make the process less painstaking.
The exhibition The Power of Two Suns was on display from September 19- October 31, 2019.