“I remember my first experience with an ambulance. I was so little that I thought I was in the belly of a dragon,” the artist Daniel Lind-Ramos recalled last week during the installation of his hotly anticipated MoMA PS1 survey, which opens today. “My mother asked me later in life, ‘How do you remember that?’ Maybe because I was so impressed.”
His memory of the ambulance forms the crux of a pivotal sculpture that debuts as part of the exhibition. In Ambulancia (2020), from 2022–23, a skeletal mattress spring, emergency siren light, loudspeaker, metal chairs, and wheelbarrow form a hauntingly zoomorphic figure in Lind-Ramos’s signature style, a contemporary blend of Arte Povera aesthetics and spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora that utilizes organic and found objects from his community in Loíza, Puerto Rico.
“I was in New York at the beginning of the pandemic, as scared as everybody else by all of the sirens,” said Lind-Ramos, who had been stranded in an East Harlem rental after his March 2020 debut exhibition at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. “I connected that experience as a child and thought, Wow, what can I do with this?”
At the time, the idea of the ambulance led to “very apocalyptic” thinking. “Is this the end of human beings?” he asked himself. “A lot of people were dying. They didn’t have time to bury them separately. It’s interesting because nobody talks about that now. They say you forget—but I don’t forget.”
The plastic tubing that could have been seen as an airway, now seems to represent the respirator that keeps Ambulancia’s intubated creature alive. Each item that Lind-Ramos adds to his assemblage sculptures holds distinct significance: the metal chairs and mattress skeleton symbolize people who have died from COVID; the wheelbarrow signifies lifting thousands of dead bodies.
For the past fifteen months, shortly after winning a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in September 2021, Lind-Ramos has been driven to filter the intensely personal yet communal experience of the pandemic through these new sculptures that would incorporate dichotomies known all too well in Puerto Rican folklore: humor and healing, hope and dread. During a visit two Decembers ago, his studio in Loíza—a town of Afrodescendientes on the Island’s northeastern coast, where the artist was born and raised—was cluttered with mops, brooms, metal buckets, and an outdoor hose awaiting their role in a future work; they are now the backbone ofAlegoría de una obsesión (Allegory of an Obsession), also made for the PS1 show.
When we spoke in his studio, the first weeks of lockdown were still quite raw and sensory. He described a sense of abject fear—his two daughters worked as front-line nurses—as well as his early obsession with cleaning supplies like Clorox (the inspiration for Alegoría de una obsesión). Lind-Ramos relied on sketches he made during his Harlem lockdown to channel the particular deep, emotional upheaval and collective trauma during that time. It’s all part of his approach of showcasing the sublimeand the terrifying side by side. “I think about the forces of nature. They are terrible,” he said. “But at the same time, you are like ‘Wow.’ It’s a little romantic.”
One of Lind-Ramos’s most well-known sculptures is Maria-Maria (2019), first exhibited at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. That piece comprised, among other things, lacquered coconuts and FEMA tarps, which five years after Hurricane Maria are still ubiquitous across Puerto Rico. A work started around the same time Baño de María (Bain-marie/The Cleansing), 2018-2022, features in the PS1 survey. It’s arguably the show’s most compelling: FEMA tarps and burlap shape a totem-deity, who is surrounded by a five-point aureole, decked with tambourines, trumpets, and hammers that invoke deafening gale force winds alongside the majesty of Puerto Rico’s oceans and mangroves.
As a sculptor, Lind-Ramos relies on the intimacy of memory and the universality of calamity to assemble his art from everyday materials—a TV, a shovel, found shoes, roofing, and dried tree trunks—to fantastical, contemplative effect. His works responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria capture the devastating inequalities and ravaging effects on the archipelago and simultaneously conjure the aesthetic joys of Puerto Rican life and resilience. In Baño de María, the swirling, atmospheric shapes that radiate from the tambourines reflect rising water temperatures that ultimately create powerful hurricanes, as they follow the pathways once used in the transatlantic slave trade route, traveling from West Africa to the Caribbean.
“I start with an idea based on an experience, and then there are objects that relate to that experience,” Lind-Ramos tells me in front of the finished sculptures. “Maybe I have one object that generates everything, but I don’t have the others. I make a drawing or a sketch. Then something happens. Objects start coming. I start finding them. I start making them.”
The current survey, titled “El Viejo Griot — Una historia de todos nosotros,” takes its name from a discarded boat found on a nearby beach that friends carried back to his studio. It now forms the center of a new work, El Viejo Griot (2022–23) that is surrounded by cargo sacks, stamped with dates of monumental events in Puerto Rican and Antillean history: 1804, the Haitian Revolution; 1898, the US invasion of Puerto Rico; 1952, approval of the Puerto Rican constitution by Congress; 2017, Hurricane Maria.
El Viejo Griot harkens centuries of fishing as economic survival and migrations to Puerto Rico from nearby islands, embodying the exhibition’s themes of recovery and survival, which feel, for much of humanity, especially dire.
“I’m talking from a very specific place,” Lind-Ramos said, “but at the same time, I am talking about the human spirit because we are all migrants or have somebody in our past who has moved.”