MARRAKESH, Morocco — A coach full of journalists and Biennale folk gets lost, but it is not yet cause for panic. All we know is we are somewhere between Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains. The desert has drawn us into a barren embrace as if we were fatalistic characters in a Paul Bowles novel. The driver asks directions from roadside shacks; we can only hope that the suspension on our coach is equal to the rocky road, which bakes beneath our windows.
On the crest of the hill up ahead, like a mirage, is a wrecked ship. It is the sight we have been promised: a monumental installation by Russian artist Alexander Ponomarev. It is on the highest point for miles, a skeletal presence which calls to mind at least one or two Werner Herzog movies.
It is a relief to get out of the coach and join the line of curious parties who snake around a trail which takes us on a twenty minute trek through an oasis up to a settlement of tents, carpets, and sun loungers. These are almost as unlikely as the giant ship, which waits in the wings for we know not what. Drinks are poured. Canapés served. We wait. There is a lot of waiting at the Marrakech Biennale.
Word gets round that a performance is due. Lifeboats have come loose from the ragged looking ship up there; from base camp we can just make out rigging, a crow’s nest or two, a proud metallic funnel, now useless. It is rumored that the artist will soon exploit certain lax local health and safety arrangements and blow his creation up. We have come so far an anti-climax seems inevitable. And still the sun beats down.
But at length we are shepherded towards the foot of the steep, crumbling hill from where the artist gives a speech. With mane of grey hair and red utility jacket, Ponomarev looks more explorer than artist. After all, this is a man who organizes a Biennale in Antarctica, and has crossed Baffin Bay strapped to the prow of another ship. And plus, in homage to Leonardo, Ponomarev has even piloted a submarine into Venice.
His words are brief, to the point, and stirring. He urges all the world’s captains, presidents, kings, queens, etc. to stay with their many ships and not abandon their people. But he tells us we must stay down at the foot of this small mountain while he climbs to the summit. And after the performance we can join him up there: “It is necessary, in fact.” We have been told.
It should be noted that in this desolate place are also two helicopters and no fewer than four helipads chalked into the sand. It had been assumed that these were conveyances for rich collectors, who are suspected to be in our midst. But now Ponomarev reaches his ship and begins waving to one of the choppers which, to our collective delight, takes off with a roar made all the more deafening in the desert’s silence.
The flying machine, another Da Vinci invention, veers off around the summit and swoops back round to make a pass at the hillside. Now one sees that the aircraft has a Quixotic lance attached to the cockpit. Like an extended leaf blower, this is kicking up dust clouds, which engulf the red figure of our captain. It makes three trips round the steep face below the ship and reveals a set of buried letters. It barely seems to matter what they say; and never mind contemporary art: this is the thrill of an impromptu air show. As performances go, it was more silly and just as terrific as anything you might get on terra firma.
Now we can see Ponomarev working the zig zag trail between those uncovered letters and lifting them up to rest on stands so that we can indeed read his message. “Vada a bordo, cazzo,” it says, quoting the words of an Italian coastguard to the captain of sinking cruise ship Concordia. In inglese, that’s “Get on board, prick.” Now we have relevance as well as extravagance, we could go home happy. But the next stage of proceedings are even more surreal.
Fifty or sixty onlookers then climb up the 200 meters or so of scree which separates us from the ship. They are, for the most part, dressed for an art opening and unprepared for the minor landslides which occur at every other step. We thread our way through the letters, unsure of quite how the return journey will go. But the rewards are palpable, as the ship can now be seen and heard. Made from bamboo, it rustles and shimmers in the wind, a beacon for a timely political statement.
If good public art re-activates or defamiliarizes those spaces in which it finds itself, “Voice in the Wilderness” is a clear triumph. The boat can be seen for miles and its beams and struts frame the snowy mountains to the South. N 31 26’ W 08 10’ in the Agafay Desert will never be the same again, that’s for sure. It’s a paradox, but if you have something important to say, something with the resonance of a prophecy, a remote hillside in rural Morocco is as good a stage as anywhere. Just remember to bring the journalists.
Alexander Ponomarev’s “Voice in the Wilderness” opened March 2 as a parallel project to the fifth Marrakech Biennale. The festival runs through March 31 at various venues in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Editor’s note: The author of this article was compensated by organizers for travel expenses to the venue.