Folding Time in Space
I am standing in a dark, vaulted tunnel, my head almost grazing the ceiling. Its dampness is a respite from the sharp wind above ground. The “listening tunnels,” I learn, were used as auditory lookouts for enemies burrowing into the fort. Soldiers dispatched into these underground corridors sat in silence, listening for shovels and pick axes pick-picking their way into the exposed underbelly of the garrison. Decades later they would listen for submarines. I imagine a pimply sixteen-year-old boy, burrowing his face into the collar of his uniform, primed to imagine ghouls and Germans in every cracking of the dark. The ease with which the mind conjures phantoms folds from the pubescent soldier back into myself and out into the cold air surrounding Fort Adams.
Fort Adams is a military fortification resting on a tip of land jutting into Narragansett Bay, in Newport, Rhode Island. For the span of a semester, graduate and undergraduate students in an interdisciplinary course were shuttled out of RISD and into a conversation with the history of the fort. Fort Adams: Drawing Parallels, Listening for Echoes is their culminating exhibit, featuring fifteen site-specific installations spread around the sprawling structure.
Young in a bellicose world, old for the New World, Fort Adams detaches time from space. Built in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is a monument stalled, anachronistic since its inception. Never attacked, never a shot fired, technology changed where mortar remained and Fort Adams was handed down through men’s evolving military sophistication. Its sheer mass allowed it to escape progress’s normalizing veneer, as the slits for sliding out one’s musket attest. Fort Adams is a two-hundred-year-old readymade, a massive control variable that, through its permanence, highlights the changing context around it. An anchor in space, it affords historical progression a fixed background against which to contrast. Time’s overlaps are made visible, folding into itself and undercutting history’s propensity towards deletion.
Entanglement must occur, as contexts are overwritten and translucently layered, at times literally so. In one room, cream-colored bricks mortared into the wall are imprinted with text:
u would remember:
The inscribed bricks are made of soap. Their slick surface passes for plaster and their soft color melds them into the crumbling wall. Washed-out pink stucco molding laces the corners of the room, marking these adjoining passages as the private quarters of high-ranking military officers. Here, Vanessa Nieto Romero (MFA Printmaking 2017) resurrected the names of laundresses who would have serviced these very men. Each name is preceded by a plea: I desire you would remember. The quote is taken from a letter written in 1798 by Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, the fort’s namesake and eventual second president of the United States. Passages from the letter are echoed throughout the installation. The full text is cast in a plaque made of soap placed at the foot of a John Adams bust. Another text—“Mrs. Kessler,” from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters—is reprinted on a piece of fabric, wound up through an antique laundry-wringing machine. The piece, I Desire You Would Remember the Ladies, opens a wormhole through its steadfast adherence to remembrance. By adhering to the past we are looped back to the present, to the continual unsung labor of women. Romero works in the realm of poetry, allowing diaphanous memory to materialize through metaphor. Understated violence is made all the more poignant through the softness of her palette and humble materials. Erasure is circumscribed in the enactment of womanhood. Soap will disintegrate into water, as is its condition, as did these women, eroded by time into history.
Again I think back to pubescent soldiers. I think of 12 Memoirs by Minhee Kang (BFA Textiles 2017), an installation of twelve tubular weavings undulating from the ceiling, giving ethereal form to twelve tired soldiers who would have inhabited this barracks. Like Kang, many of the artists were drawn to resurrecting ghosts, the coldness of the fort begging for an infusion of human stories.
A startling injection then, a sure sign that the matrix has glitched: two dots of warm yellow appear at the entrance to the fort. Where cannons once stood, a set of ceramic pineapples flank the main gate. Anina Major (MFA Ceramics 2017) rid the fort of its phallic guardians and replaced them with fruit. Historically, pineapples were staked outside sea captains’ homes upon their return from trade travels. Eventually, the pineapples were subsumed into local culture, a symbol of greeting, visible to this day in the forms of doorknocker and embellishments on private homes’ gates. Major co-opts a symbol of imperialist wealth into the very force that emasculates the fort. Absurdity is wielded as disarmament, and the displacement of two pineapples speaks to the displacement of thousands of lives, to Rhode Island’s prominent position in the North Atlantic slave trade. And yet, the glaze is lovely, the pineapple-stitched ceramic lace making up the fruit’s body carefully rendered. The piece affectionately undercuts its own symbolic violence and presents itself as a welcoming object, a reflection of the fort’s current role as a historical site: You’re Welcome. In the tender vein of dusty attractions, the Visitor’s Center, paces away from Major’s installation, advertises weddings (beaming couples in the brochure), regularly scheduled tours, and a haunted house extravaganza in October. Fort Adams pushes along, adjusting to a world where misinformation is lobbed in lieu of cannon balls and war no longer approaches on ships but drops down from the sky.
Inside-Out, an installation and performance by Nathan Miller (MFA Photography 2017), draws parallels between military and spiritual warfare. His work, unlike that of Nieto and Major, conjures not mediation but conquest. An impressive wiring job turns an enclosed, powerless, vaulted western casement into a three-part media installation. A video of people fighting, interspersed with text and sound, is projected on the wall, followed by a series of free-standing photographs depicting baptismal scenes in natural settings, and finally, two crates on top of which the artist and a second singer performed live the traditional hymn “Lord Keep Me Day by Day.” Sound and light extend the work into the entire chamber, and the result is loud, dominant, as abraded masonry is met with blunt decibels. Even the photographs of devotional watery worlds are presented on slabs of cement. Perhaps then it is unsurprising that Miller eschews engaging with the specificity of the fort—violence has a way of essentializing its subjects. The artist works with Fort Adams symbolically as a stand-in for mechanisms that uphold and spread imperialist patriarchy. Oppressive systems, like the progression of chambers in Miller’s work, propagate first through force and second through belief; conversion, purification—accept hegemony into your heart and be born anew. And yet the crowning gospel performance speaks to pathos, release, acceptance, and even redemption. If we are to trust that the pendulum swings, that homeostasis is the end goal of living systems, totalitarianism can breed multiplicity, oppression subjectivity, and imperialism locality.
The sparseness of the fort begets animation. The silence of the tunnels calls for sound. I shine a weak flashlight into dense darkness, trying to imagine how Reverberations, the installation by Ariana Martinez (BFA Sculpture 2017), quiet this morning, would echo around me. The artist created a compact, anxious space by using the tunnels’ acoustics to reverberate decentralized sound. As I later learned while listening to the sound element on my own, Martinez layers different audios, disembodying voices with no clear origin point—a tour guide’s explanations, submarine sonar static and beeps, beep, snippets of political speeches, gunshots, blast, just one bomb, beep, what would happen if your next beep door neighbor was foolish enough to believe he didn’t need his own fallout shelter beep kill him beep beep beep this situation is not new, it’s only in folk tales beep that power is used rightly to eradicate evil beep beep in the world beep the facts beep are simple beep beep beep beep coercion works.
Life, as Charles Darwin speculated, must have started in a little warm pond. Creativity then must surely also need a balmy incubator. Pockets of folded time afforded this to sixteen artists, who found heat in displaced memory, archeological fragments, oral history, and land amid the blustery walls of Fort Adams. I sincerely hope that work as ambitious as that in Fort Adams: Drawing Parallels, Listening for Echoes continues to find places in which to thrive.