Jessica Lanely for BOMB Magazine - 28 August 2018
Art of enslavement and escape.
I approached Radcliffe Bailey’s Vessel (2017) from the parking lot of Jack Shainman Gallery’s interdisciplinary art facility, The School, located in Kinderhook, New York. In an open field, the sculpture stood, an acute peak. The closer I moved to it, the more I could hear the conical steel structure moaning. Heat emanated from Vessel, and I entered what seemed to be a dislodged piece of machinery. Inside I could feel the vibration of the soundscape of banging cello, raucous wind, twittering cicadas, and swelling ocean conducting through my feet, up the ladder of my bones, and through my head. I looked up ten feet to a circular opening of Robin egg blue sky where a pristine conch shell hung. I realized that if the thin door closed, I could be trapped forever in sweltering heat, at the whim of a beautiful yet frightening aural cacophony, only able to see the conch shell and the sky.
Vessel is the symbolic doorway into Bailey’s exhibition, Travelogue. I stood inside of it sweating for fifteen minutes, and as a result the rest of the exhibition expanded in meaning. Travelogue opens a conduit between the historical reality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and present-day forced im/migrations through the examination of essential ideas of escape, movement, survival, and memory. The works in Bailey’s exhibition propose the involuntary immigration or enslavement of black peoples as a model for other modern dispersals.
As an artist, Bailey has the methodology of an apothecary: from a storehouse in his mind of beakers and bottles filled with the detritus of global movement and wreckages, he adds what he needs bit by bit, making him adept and fiercely dedicated to any medium he chooses. Windward Coast—West Coast Slave Trade (2009–11) is an unabashed nod (as it should be) toward the earthquake of humanity forcibly carried from Africa into the budding Western world. In a sea of deboned piano keys that undulate like waves are scattered a decapitated head, a ship, and a tiny nkisi statue, all illuminated in black glitter. Windward Coast contains the body dispersed, the method of dispersal, and the memory dispersed. It asserts that there is a main artery shared between memory, survival, and the sounds of a people.