No W here Collective: Now, Here
July 16 through September 30, 2022
By KELCEY EDWARDS, November 2022
There are many ways to describe the function of artists in society. In the context of Now Here, an exhibition featuring works by the artist trio that form the No W here Collective—Alice Hope, Toni Ross, and Bastienne Schmidt—I am reminded of the definition of artists as those among us who take a long, hard look at things that the rest of us are too busy to see. Making formal, aesthetic and intellectual connections, the objects they leave behind exist as an embodiment of their vision and process, a collision of time, method and materiality. In particular, their works are part rupture and part totem, lifting the veil on something felt and yet unseen. Now Here is a collection of site specific sculptures inspired by and exhibited at the Amagansett Life Saving Station in Amagansett, NY this fall. Through poetically titled works created in 2022 like Ripped (Alice Hope), Unraveled Faking Box (Bastienne Schmidt), and We Require a Pilot (Toni Ross), the audience is lured into a layered conversation where the works are in dialogue with each other, the drama of the surrounding landscape, and the fragile state of the world. However, to begin to understand the complexity of the exhibition, we must begin with the site itself.
The Amagansett Life Saving Station, built in 1902, is one of thirty such stations located along the South Shore of Long Island, hearkening back to a time before geolocation, when local fishermen and whalers—and later the US Coast Guard—would patrol the waters from shore in search of seafarers in distress. From a plaque on the wall of the first floor, I learn about a Coast Guardsman stationed there who intercepted Nazi agents on the beach during WWII. Despite the enemy claims to be fishermen, the Coast Guardsman sensed something was amiss: something felt and unseen. The Nazi agents, they later found, had buried several boxes of explosives. I wonder how many lives he saved that day, three years before the war against fascism was won? I wonder how he’d feel now, 77 years later, if he knew that fascist regimes were once again gaining power throughout Europe?
Curated by Guild Hall’s Christina Mossaides Strassfield, Now Here extends throughout the building and the surrounding property. As a whole, the exhibition possesses the same mix of calm reflection and apprehension as a walk on a beach during a storm. Outside the building, one is greeted by bold words stenciled on sewn sand bags, among them LIFE, SAND, STILL and HERE—Schmidt’s reference to flooding coastlines. Above them, a signal flag woven into a potato sack undulates in the wind (Ross, I am in distress). A canoe made of tracing paper (Schmidt) is propped against the foyer wall, and upstairs, a series of grids featuring a range of materials, from a pile of unspooled rope to paper and muslin which Schmidt describes as “fragile and recyclable materials…to underline the ephemeralness of our grazing on this earth”. All are displayed in quiet stillness against the coiled tension of loosely ordered chaos: the crashing sound of the waves visually articulated in Hope’s wall piece Ripped—layered, torn, blue tape arranged to resemble a turbulent ocean. Through the window, Hope’s magnificently coiled silver Coke can tabs wink in the sand in Undocked.
The indoor work is largely concentrated in a room that once served as crew quarters. I imagine the three artists, toiling away, weaving unspun yarn and fabric and other materials associated with domestic life like so many generations of women before them. It is powerful to see their artworks displayed here, in this room where the men slept. While the sculptures were created in isolation, shown together they possess an unmistakable and familiar harmony. For in life as in art, there is a sisterhood among these women that can be felt in the language of the collective’s work. The three friends formed a “pod” during the pandemic, Ross explains, describing the experience as one of saving one another through artmaking. Their creative alliance served as a life line, perhaps a manifestation of the “faking box”, the device that inspired the exhibition. The faking box (using the nautical term “fake,” which is to coil or arrange a rope so that it is ready for running) is a device with a rope wound around wooden dowels designed so that the rope could be catapulted without becoming tangled to people in distress at sea.
Many of the rich, bright colors throughout the exhibition are reminiscent of life saving and/or navigational devices such as buoys and signal flags—objects dedicated to communicating help and danger, often intended to be seen in the dark, and at great distance. The loosely woven unspun yarn works of Ross explore the maritime history of communicating vital messages across distances. These reinterpretations of signal flags are an extension of a broader practice that she describes as “exploring the rhythms and patterns of language.” The abstracted flags are woven into jute netting: the same material employed to prevent erosion. There is a dire quality to Ross’s work that reminds me of the early days of the pandemic, and the overwhelming mix of fear, hope, and desperation. In her artist statement, Schmidt observed that “coming out of a particular difficult time such as the pandemic underlines the yin and yang of seafaring as a metaphor for life.” She describes the feeling of still being at sea, and I am reminded of one of my favorite definitions of art, which is: the byproduct of an individual or collective act of hope and courage.
Tragedy struck on the morning of the day I came to see the exhibition. A construction vehicle bulldozed over several exterior works, trampling a field of planted sculptures by Schmidt titled Buoy / Stakes comprised of 78 painted and sewn temporary markers and ceramic cones, the path of destruction leaving in its wake the colorful wreckage of damaged artworks crisscrossing the pale sand like a trail of broken flowers. The vehicle also destroyed Hope’s delicate, large-scale, intricate artwork prophetically titled Ghost Net—a canopy of trammel netting and what seems like thousands of used Budweiser can tabs stretched across the property. The title was intended to reference abandoned fishing nets (one of many types of ghost gear killing ocean life) rather than anticipate its own demise. Hope identifies the can tabs she works with as “relics of consumption and tokens of redemption,” and it is painful to see the magnificent installation, which no doubt took countless days of labor to create, in its fallen state—crushed, torn down, ruined.
The vehicle stopped before it could demolish Ross’s elegant pine wood sculpture, Ramp—an homage to the ramp on the facing exterior wall of the Amagansett Life Saving Station. The piece was most likely spared as a result of its nuance. In mirroring the ramp it was inspired by, it is easily mistaken as a disconnected piece of the building’s architecture. At this point in our tour, the artists take a break, resting on the bench at the top of Ramp, a feature Ross included for just such a purpose. It has only been a few hours since the damaged works were discovered and I can see they are still processing the loss. On the other side of the property, a law officer is asking questions and taking notes as the damage is surveyed. While the careless destruction was not a result of malicious vandalism, it is nevertheless devastating.
The irony is not lost on me that for an exhibition intended to slow us down so that we might see, work was destroyed by the unintended intervention of human negligence. And yet, what better testament to the great need for art in our time, an era during which we are seeing an increase in global catastrophes as a result of climate change and a return to fascism in governments around the world. How could this happen? We ask ourselves. If only they were looking. WM
Kelcey Edwards is an award winning filmmaker, published writer and art curator. Her films have received support from Sundance and Tribeca Film Institute and have screened at top festivals such as SXSW Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival, and have been broadcast on PBS and streamed internationally. She most recently directed the 2022 SXSW Audience Award-winning documentary feature THE ART OF MAKING IT—a film Jerry Saltz called "one of the most majestic and unexpected films about the secret life of art" which is now available for streaming on platforms including Amazon Prime Video and AppleTV. Edwards' fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as storySouth and Border Crossings, and her nonfiction has been published by White Hot Magazine, Portray Magazine, and Hamptons Art Hub. Edwards holds a Masters of Fine Arts from Stanford University and is a seasoned curator of more than 50 exhibitions including video, performance, and installation art between Austin, New York City, and the Hamptons. She recently joined the faculty at Hofstra University as an Assistant Professor of Television & Film.view all articles from this author