Ethereal text-based silkscreens suspended by nautical rope, an understated graphic wall painting and a long row of small framed india ink drawings made up the core visual environment of poet, performer and visual artist Caroline Bergvall’s exhibition “DRIFT” at Callicoon Fine Arts (her first show in the United States). Yet, as is often the case with the Norwegian-French artist, the most remarkable medium was voice, though here it was presented too subtly, in two audio recordings playing through headphones dangling from the gallery ceiling.
Bergvall’s show derived from two related 2014 efforts, an artist’s book and a multimedia performance (both titled Drift). These projects’ written and spoken texts compellingly crossbreed accounts of linguistic and geographical migrations, culled from medieval maritime poems in bygone dialects as well as contemporary reports of a “left-to-die” boat of African émigrés in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite Bergvall’s finesse as a poet, her works at Callicoon—detached from literary and performance contexts—came off as somewhat unmoored themselves, transplanted artifacts that unfortunately underplayed the guttural charge of her voice.
The drift of living languages and the specters of their antecedents constitute the field of Bergvall’s intermedium oeuvre, which is defined by an obsessive attention to graphic and phonetic obsolescences. One such artifact is hafvilla, an Old Norse term for losing one’s course at sea that figures into her book and was the title of one of the works on view. The show drew out the graver connotations of the often passive and romanticized (even emancipatory, per the Situationists) activity of drifting, by bearing witness to the experience of 72 stranded African refugees for whom such wandering became fatal. A group of migrants set sail from Tripoli in March 2011 on a small, ill-equipped rubber vessel, bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa. After its fuel supply was depleted, the boat drifted for two weeks; its distress calls were unconscionably ignored by multiple aircraft and other ships, leading to the death of all but nine aboard from starvation and dehydration. In one of the exhibition’s audio works, Bergvall recited a plainspoken chronicle of this event interspersed with details quoted from survivors’ accounts.
This inconspicuous, immaterial work activated the otherwise cryptic pieces on view. Bergvall’s spoken account likened the refugees’ vessel to Zodiac brand inflatable boats, thus calling attention to the outline of a boat formed by a constellation of stars painted on a nearby wall, a visual pun evoking the night sky’s function as a seafaring navigational system. The translucent letters of the neighboring four silkscreens were legible only from select points of view in the gallery, requiring visitors to shift their orientations in order to read the texts, which consisted of the artist’s own translations of passages from the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” and the 13th-century Icelandic “Vinland Sagas.” “Blow wind blow, anon am I” is the closing refrain on two of these prints, its rhythm conjuring bearings in flux and resonating with both the silkscreens’ fluctuating textures and the title of the series (“FOG,” a term the artist deploys in her book to suggest both memory loss and signal loss).
Bergvall posited “DRIFT” as, antithetically, both forensic report and runic sign. The politically benign ancient naval texts in some ways cast an unsettling contemporary case of disorientation into sharp relief. Yet as a testimony to atrocity, the latter remained largely underexposed in the exhibition, which lacked both the semantic complexity of the related artist’s book and the force of live speech afforded by Bergvall’s performance works.