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Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire

Monica Uszerowicz

Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire, Locust Projects, Miami, 2016. Photo: Ginger Photography
It is debatable whether or not J. M. W. Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, his pair of mid-1830s oil paintings, were made entirely en plein air; there is the natural questioning that the distance of history creates, and what’s more, the fires are seemingly too beautiful to be based on any sort of immediate reality. The paint on the canvases is layered so as to appear soft, creating shades of orange not seen in life. It is these paintings that Antonia Wright attempts to physically embody in a video that is part of Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire. (The title, taken from Dave Eggers’s 2002 novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!, is laborious to say aloud, but poetic in its symbolism and storytelling.) In the video, Wright is enshrouded in layered swaths of red and orange, resembling fire or suggesting warmth itself, with the sun behind her, and stepping—almost floating—across a sheet of ice on Lake Champlain. Suddenly, she has submerged, her body bobbing in the water momentarily like a buoy before sinking. The soundtrack, composed by Jason Ajemian, is whirring and unsettling, like drowning.

When Wright was fifteen, she and a friend snuck into a closed reservoir and accidentally slipped underwater beneath its frozen surface. Wright suffered from a week-long bout of hypothermia, which she kept secret from her mother to avoid getting into trouble for wandering where she shouldn’t have been. It is not new for Wright to subject her body to treacherous conditions (other works find her covered in bees, jumping through glass, and crying in public), and the reimagining of her adolescent incident is slow and sublime, if harrowing.

The video is projected on a tilted screen surrounded by hanging boxes of night-blooming jasmine. The gallery space is dark and labyrinthine, filled with that flower’s distinct, gardenia-like summertime smell, and visitors are forced to maneuver the space delicately. Every evening at 5:30, the lights turn on, the video stops looping, and the jasmine blooms—unwitting performers—close. Admittedly, a bit of magic is dispelled when this happens, but if you are not opposed to just gazing at flowers, it helps to remember Under the water . . . is, more than a revisited memory or physical feat, an examination of duality: tropical plants and Northeastern ice, cold water and fiery heat, evening and daytime. All this serves as a reminder of the fleeting, melancholic transience that is part and parcel of existence. In his book The World Grows Round My Door, David Fairchild, lover of tropical plants, wrote, “Every living thing changes all the time, and it is amazing, man’s power to forget what tree stood just there and which vine here.” Like the memory of excruciatingly cold water hitting your skin or the fleeting scent of a flower, everything is real until it disappears.