Of Polynesian navigation and ticker tape

BEIRUT: In the days before the compass and other technological aids, Polynesian navigators made voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean using techniques passed down through the generations in song.

They accomplished these journeys by observing the position of the stars, the movement of currents and wave patterns and the way they were affected by islands and atolls, as well as the flight of birds, winds, weather, and the hues of sea and sky.

In addition to natural aids, Polynesian seamen used “stick charts” – maps capturing the ocean swells and the way they were disrupted by the presence of land masses. Created using the midribs of coconut fronds, these charts were not referred to during the voyage. Rather the navigator memorized them prior to the journey.

It was these ancient techniques that formed the premise of “Atholhu,” the show now up at Workshop Gallery featuring work by Belgian artist Cathérine Lommée and British artist Thomas l’Anson.

The title is taken from the etymological root for the word “atoll,” the coral formations that encircle lagoons formed by the rings of extinct volcanoes.

As the coral grows, the base it forms on gradually erodes. This delicate balance of proliferation and destruction piqued the interest of the artists, both of whose practices revolve around themes of growth in response to shifting frameworks.

There’s a certain romance to the idea of Polynesian navigators setting sail with nothing to guide them but the patterns of nature.

It’s a concept that lends the exhibition an element of grandeur, one somewhat at odds with the minimalism of the work itself and the diminutive space housing it.

The work has evolved some way from its anthropological premise, crystallizing as a series of simple gestures ripe with symbolism.

On one gallery wall lean 22 rounded, beechwood sticks. These rods possess none of the organic irregularity of those culled from coconut fronds. Machine tooled, they are smooth, anonymous and identical – save for their varying lengths, caused by the fact that several have snapped into pieces, which litter the floor below.

The remnants of a performance piece entitled “22 Rods,” they are the victims of gravity and an unforgiving stone floor. Those on hand to witness the work would have seen Lommée hold 11 of the sticks perpendicular to the floor, before releasing them to scatter on the tiles.

L’Anson then held the remaining 11 rods parallel to the floor, before throwing them from the gallery’s mezzanine to land on those below. This process was repeated 11 times.

Stacked against the wall, the battered sticks betray nothing of their original purpose. The chart formed by the two artists’ encounter with gravity has been swept aside. The only clue as the nature of the performance lies in the brochure accompanying the show, itself intended as supplemental framework to the exhibition.

A series of six black-and-white inkjet prints by Lommée have been nailed to the wall opposite the window. Entitled “Horizontal Study,” this set of near-identical images captures what might be islands, photographed from above against a dark sea.

An enigmatic symbol, a conglomeration of straight lines that might be a map of some new constellation, is inscribed on the glass of the gallery’s front window in black vinyl. Attributed to both artists, the work, entitled “Pli,” consists not of the abstract shape itself, but its position within the gallery’s surroundings.

Through the glass that supports it, viewers look out toward a monumental stone arch, above which are the branches, and through which the dangling mass of roots, of an enormous banyan tree. It is the juxtaposition of tree and pattern that constitute the site-specific work, perhaps a nod to the multiple contextual clues used by navigators on the ancient oceans.

The final work in the show is l’Anson’s silent video “Simulacrum.” When The Daily Star visited Workshop Gallery the staff was unable to get the flat screen TV to work properly, eventually leaving the work to play out on a screen interrupted by lines of static that caused the footage to jump from left to right and back several times a second.

Another exploration of movement and the patterns formed by falling objects, the video consists of a hypnotic shot of pieces of stock market ticker tape falling from the top of the frame spiraling lazily to the bottom against a blue sky.

Due to the malfunctioning equipment, what was intended as a slow, methodical procession of twirling pieces of tape crisscrossing like falling leaves became a schizophrenic, jerky tangle a third of the way down the screen.

Not what the artist intended, perhaps, but an interesting modification of a work rooted in ideas of movement, pattern and unmapped responses to stimuli beyond the actor’s control.

“Atholhu” is up at Workshop Gallery in Jisr al-Basha until Oct. 24. For more information please call 01-494-331.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 09, 2014, on page 16.




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