The three pieces of art considered here can be thought of as constituting a spectrum: “Windward Coast” explicitly evokes the history of the Middle Passage and the slave trade; “Levitate” engages many of the same themes and is a work of the same artist, Radcliffe Bailey, and so is certainly amenable to a reading that understands it as a work about slavery; while Jason de Caires Taylor’s “Vicissitudes” was not conceived as a work about the Middle Passage, and actually produced a minor internet controversy when it was widely received as such, only to have the artist (partially) dispel that notion. Despite these differences in conceit, all are compelling commentaries on the institution of slavery and how that history lives on in collective memory. This affinity is largely explained by the fact that works of art take on lives of their own once they are made public. But the relationship between these three pieces also warrants closer scrutiny.
What, then, are the elements that these works of art have in common? The most critical is surely the importance of water in each piece. As the curatorial statement that begins this exhibit explains, these three pieces were chosen because they work to expand the set of things the viewer associates with the slave trade. Water is the artistic element which makes this new, extended reach possible.
In “Levitate,” the water signifies in at least three ways. First, as the official description argues, it represents the pathway to a new, transcendent realm. Second, the ocean serves as a vast container, as archive and tomb for so much of the world’s history, and specifically the history of the slave trade. Lastly, there is a simple sense in which water physically connects peoples and cultures all around the world. By working in these different registers simultaneously, “Levitate” brings the history of slavery to bear in unique ways. If the diverse and complex set of navigational and cosmological symbols on the tarp free the ship from this world, they also link the transcendent realm to a particular set of memories and associations. In a sense, the possibility for a transcendent experience is grounded a history of tragedy; the spiritual becomes linked with the tragic. At the same time, as a container of shared history and a physical connection between parts of the globe, the water establishes a terrestrial, but equally powerful, web of connections.
The water in “Windward Coast” doesn’t visually incorporate different cultural symbols in the same way, nor is it an invitation to a transcendent world. Yet Bailey chose what he considers the most universally shared thing there is, music, to physically make up the water of his piece of art. By doing so, he linked his work to anything and anyone either water or music reached—which is to say everyone. His own associations of New Orleans and Japan came to mind largely because they were recent history when he spoke. But that only serves to underscore the way in which his sea of piano keys invite such connections. In a sense, “Windward Coast” is in counterpoint with “Levitate,” both interdependent with it and independent from it. The former has done away with the culturally and historically specific symbols of the latter, replacing them instead with piano keys that defy this sort of classification. This makes it all the more striking that the effect of water in each piece is ultimately so similar. Once again links are established across time and place, all the while telling the story of an individual slave, seen bobbing in the water.
“Vicissitudes” doesn’t represent water, it exists within it. And here one truly sees the incredible power of association which water holds. Taylor didn’t intend to have his piece speak about the Middle Passage, but it nevertheless proved inevitable. Just as the other works make use of the power of the water, so too does Taylor’s, though in a different sense. “Vicissitudes” has to also grapple with the physical power of the water: the figures must be able to withstand strong currents. The question is no longer how to represent water, but rather how to survive it. This difference in no way diminishes the power water has to shape the work of art. In fact, in a moment of wonderful irony, the literal, physical impositions on the sculpture by the water forced the artist to design the piece in precisely the way that made onlookers certain it was a work about the Middle Passage. The structural supports between the hands of the figures, the ones that look like manacles, and the circular shape in which the figures are arranged, establishing a sense of community, are both responses to the physical force of the water on the sculpture.
This discussion of similarities is at the same time a discussion of differences, and though a far longer comparison would be justified, this piece will instead stop here. It will stop here because, in many ways, these reflections bring one right back to where this project started. One of the initial claims of the co-authors was that to make a choice about how to orient a particular piece of art to the complex history of slavery is always also to call attention to the impossibility of fully representing that history. The reader is, hopefully, in a better position to understand that claim now. If these three works of art have shown the viewer anything, they have demonstrated that the history of slavery is part of an incredible network that spans time and space. Its legacy lives on through incredibly diverse associations, voluntary or not. There is no definitive study of the slave trade, and there is even less hope of a fully representative work of art. No matter. The important thing is to realize that there is a constant tension between the individual and the communal, the historically specific and the history of the modern, the worldly and the ethereal, which art and scholarship on slavery must navigate. The story of an individual man, floating in the ocean, or of a group of diverse individuals, holding hands at the bottom of the sea, or of a fishing vessel with no people at all—all of these are part of the story of slavery.
How to cite this page: Davide Carozza, ““Levitate,” “Windward Coast” and “Vicissitudes”: Comparative Reflections,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)).