Looking much like a re-created ruin, Michael Joo’s pensive and beautiful exhibition “Barrier Island” (2016), at the SCAD Museum of Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design, is, in some ways, just that. Based on an extended investigation of Sapelo Island, located off the coast of Georgia, it is another of the artist’s meditations on place—in this case, habitats overwritten by generations of human and ecological interactions. Sapelo Island, which might have been the first Spanish colony in the New World, is also the home of the Gullah-Geechees, descendants of enslaved West Africans and West Indians, who were brought there in the early 19th century by an eminent Georgian anti-abolitionist, Thomas Spalding. Joo’s interest in Sapelo is in part environmental, the island a natural barricade protecting the mainland from floods and pollutants—and in part based on its colonial history. The island’s last private owner was R.J. Reynolds, Jr., the tobacco heir whose widow sold it to the state of Georgia in the 1970s, except for the land owned by the African American community, much of it now being gentrified, acquired by mainlanders, and thereby ousting the original residents.
Joo summarizes and interconnects that history in an emblematic, elegant four-part project. One component of “Barrier Island” is a compressed cube made from the red clay of the island; embedded in it is a speaker that plays a recording of island sounds, its vibrations causing the cube to disintegrate. Another consists of big marble slabs, polished on one side, rough on the other. Suspended on metal armatures, like facades, billboards, or gravestones they are inscribed with these words—BORN, PLACE, MARRIED, DIED—the condensations of a life. There is also a whitened remnant of a dwelling, made of tabby, a mix of lime and seashells invented by Spalding, used for construction by the slaves.
The most ravishing of the works is Entasis, a series of six monumental pictures of trees. Scanned from images of 30 or more species; they emerge slowly from surfaces treated to appear silvery gold, suggesting gilded daguerreotypes of unprecedented scale. The ghostly pictures seem to be lighted from within, the visibility of the images shifting, depending on the viewer’s position. Their title comes from the way Doric columns swell in Greek architecture, making them seem more organic, and, here, linking the trees to the colonnaded Spalding mansion. A critique of all that the plantation stands for, “Barrier Island” refers to the once wanton despoliation of natural resources and the slave labor involved. The show is a poignant memorial to Sapelo and its problematic past.