If the exquisitely mercurial art of Audra Wolowiec can be reduced to a single factor, it would be breath. It is the essence she continually returns to, the connective tissue of life and language.
Her current installation at Studio 10 in Bushwick is called ( ), which is possibly all you need to know. Much of Wolowiec’s work is about what isn’t there. Or, more to the point, the elements that are endowed with shape, surface, and weight often function as delivery systems for those that are not, literally or metaphorically. Sound waves, light beams, and elided texts define the core of her practice.
Nonetheless, there are impeccably wrought and distinctly beautiful objects mounted on the gallery walls and dangling from the ceiling. Two are casts of the artist’s ear — both titled “(h)ear” and dated 2016 — one in plaster and one in bronze. The latter sits on a table, resting atop a linen-covered wooden base, while the former is embedded in the center of a wall.
On the table alongside the bronze ear are two bottles filled with amber liquid and labeled “Kelp Extract in Salt Water with Sea.” The bottles aren’t dated, but one bears the number 001 and the other 002. A third bottle, this one labeled “Sea 006, Feb 2016” and containing what the checklist describes as “limited edition perfume,” is conceptually linked to a framed “unlimited edition poster” hanging on the wall above it.
The perfume and the poster taken together, done in collaboration with artist and perfumer Tara Pelletier, are called “Will you bring us seaweed from the moon?” — a line from a poem by Pablo Neruda, which also supplies the title of the text printed on the poster. The text itself is excerpted from the email correspondence between Wolowiec and Pelletier as they refined the kelp extract, from stage 001 through 006, into a sea-scent perfume with hints of vetiver, clary sage, vanilla, and basil.
This may sound self-referential, but the selected passages don’t mention the artists, only the developing project, which is described with a specificity that approaches found poetry: “Saltiness, a mellow floral with a little nipping bite. The smell of minerals and bright metallic.” The inclusion of fragrance adds one more stimulus — the one that evokes memory the strongest — to sound, sight, and touch in this alluringly cerebral realm of the senses. It also provides a portal into the metaphor of the sea, the exhibition’s subtly stated but complexly interrogated theme.
Hanging from the ceiling on copper cables, “If not, waves” (2016) is a five-channel, ten-speaker installation whose soundtrack you can barely detect unless you’re standing directly underneath it. There is a deep, low tone – a tuba, in fact – evoking a foghorn at night. Layered over that are the sounds of voices, men and women, playing word-association games about the sea, verbal connections devoid of narrative and emotion.
“If not, waves” occupies a central position in the exhibition. With its downward-facing speakers, each suspended at an equal height above the floor, it creates an implied interior space, an obliquely invoked seascape enclosed by invisible walls. To one side is the table with the bronze ear and the perfume; on the other are three silkscreens with handmade interventions. They consist of photographically enlarged pages from Andalusian Poems (D.R. Godine, 1993), a volume of translations from 9th–13th-century Arabic to Spanish to English that includes a significant selection of female poets.
To complete, or perhaps capsize, this series of transitions, the artist has whited-out every letter except S, E, and A. The collective title for the series is “Between the sea and the sea” (2016). The letters rarely arrange themselves into SEA, however, instead forming rhythms such as “e es es ea sas” or “ae se e ss e,” while the little white blobs of correction fluid between them resemble the simplified, abstracted waves you would find in a Milton Avery painting of the ocean.
The white-on-white distillation of typeface into graphic notation is at its most extreme in “Less Than Words Can Say” from 2014. In this work, the text of the 1979 book of the same name, written by the precision-in-language crusader Richard Mitchell (the self-proclaimed “Underground Grammarian”), has been whited-out, leaving only commas, quotation marks, and apostrophes behind. (The eradication of Mitchell’s exacting standards also acts as a wry play on the ultimate slipperiness of language.)
The punctuation marks, in Wolowiec’s intuitive schema, indicate breaths, and sheets from “Less Than Words Can Say” have doubled as scores for improvised performances by musician friends. Breath, as articulated here, is a meaningless sound paradoxically dense with meaning — as the engine of spoken language, the ligature of poetry, the pregnant pause in a confession of love or hate.
Breath is always a continuance, never a stoppage (tellingly, in the altered texts, periods are eliminated along with the words). It is a reminder that to inspire means to breathe into, and to breathe into means to fill with spirit. In the biblical account of the creation of Adam, God does not bring him to life with a magic touch, but by breathing into his nostrils.
Breath is ever-present in the exhibition, literally and figuratively — the sound of the tuba, the chattering of the voices, the smell of the perfume, the commas on the altered texts, the whispers into the artist’s ear (the cast is called “(h)ear,” after all, and not “ear”).
It is also implied in the clatter of the two slide carousels in “( )” (2016), the title piece of the exhibition. Composed of 98 handmade slides divided equally between the projectors — texts printed on paper made translucent by oiling it with the sea-scent perfume (early on, you could smell the piece as well as see it) — the work is conceived as a dialogue of short, elliptical statements, flashed side-by-side on the wall.
The words are from a poem written by Wolowiec, who likens its bisected structure to a call-and-response, or two lighthouses signaling each other across a watery expanse:
he called it an interzone /
can i tune you?
stream you? /
The carousels’ mid-twentieth-century analogue technology serves as an anchor for the fleeting beauty of the light beams projecting the papery pairings of words. Defying the seamlessness of a digital presentation, the transitions between the slides are announced by a chug and a clank, a mechanized intake of breath that is both affecting and alienating, a robotic sound that underscores the distance between the two speakers, which in turn only intensifies their attempts to connect.
It’s precisely this conflict that makes Wolowiec’s work so compelling: its outward tranquility and clean, classic forms are translucent shells masking an intense and constant struggle: to draw breath; to form words; to hear and understand; to bend language to mean what it should. The stillness we sense in her work is not the equanimity of a varnished philosophy, but the equipoise of connection and loss.
Audra Wolowiec: ( ) continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 3.