MIAMI — Hew Locke’s installation For Those in Peril on the Sea was exhibited once in a church’s nave at the Folkstone Triennial in 2011 and later at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in 2013, where it’s currently on view for a second iteration. Once part of the PAMM’s inaugural programming, the installation has powerful context in a museum that sits just miles from the Port of Miami, bordering Biscayne Bay, in a city comprised primarily of immigrants. The piece features dozens of small boats — model ships and replicas — suspended from the ceiling, forming many horizons that nearly blend into one; we must look up toward them, as if we were submerged beneath the water. The boats are handmade and decorated by Locke with cardboard, papier-mâché, and wood. Each is different — there are multicolored miniature oil tankers, British police boats, Indonesian fishing boats, cruise ships, rafts, schooners — but they do have one thing in common: they all face the water.
Adorned with fake flowers and gold paint, the boats are dedicated to the countless people who’ve lost their lives en route to new land, to those on those journeys now, and to the children whose parents come from countries far from home, pondering the strange state of belonging to two places at once. Upon viewing the boats for the first time, craning my neck to glimpse their tiny details, my mind — prompted by their playful, toy-like quality — wandered briefly to the Friendly Floatees.
Made known by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the Floatees were 29,000 plastic bath toys, manufactured in China by the toy company the First Years. Loaded into a shipping container departing from Hong Kong and sent overboard during a storm in 1992, several Floatees washed up on the Alaskan coast later that year. Others, however, floated over 17,000 miles, traveling the Arctic Circle and making landfall in Britain in 2007. Their trip, as detailed in Donovan Hohn’s book, Moby-Duck, sat at a funny intersection of many stories: those of environmentalists, oceanographers, beachcombers, and toy factories. While the Floatees have nothing to do with Locke’s boats, there is something to be said for a toy that seems ready to travel perilous waters, despite its size and vulnerability.
Many histories, interwoven by virtue of their taking place on the sea, are represented by the ships. One of them, “Nanashi Maru” (Japanese for “The Nameless”), pays homage to the boats capsized during the 2011 tsunami; another, labeled the “MV Sirius Star II,” refers to an oil tanker seized by Somalian pirates in 2008. Locke himself traveled across the sea, first by boat from Edinburgh — where he was born — to his family’s native Georgetown, Guyana, and then back to Great Britain by plane (he now lives in London).
In a conversation with Jarrett Earnest for The Miami Rail, Locke explains, “I am very conscious of the predicament of Cuban Americans in relation to the piece … There are people in Calais trying to sneak onto a ferry to get into London and at the same time someone is doing the same thing in Havana, or getting onto a rickety boat off the coast of Senegal to get to Tenerife, where you have people sunning themselves on holiday and in the midst of a dramatic rescue situation.” Just last year, the Miami Herald reported that eight Cuban migrants had arrived on the shores of Miami Beach in a 25-foot wooden boat “with a small engine.” Two years before that, a boat of Haitian migrants made it to Ft. Lauderdale (a city just north of Miami); one man drowned. Meanwhile, as in Tenerife, tourists on vacations lay in the sand, unwitting background characters in a story encompassing so many others.
The day I visited the exhibition, there were a group of high school students there with Alex Zastera, one of the museum’s teaching artists. When he asked them to examine and point out the boats’ details, one quietly observed, “There’s life on them.” Though she was mostly referencing the fake plants, spilling out of the boats all lush and verdant, the statement was also a poetic ode to, as Locke described in a video documenting the piece’s first installation, “people on the sea, some of them, as the title says, in peril, and some of them going about their daily business.” The installation seemed to stretch far past itself, out the museum’s windows and to the bay — which itself reaches into the sea — where cargo and cruise ships float, seemingly the same size as Locke’s little boats, all belonging to the same horizon.
For Those in Peril on the Sea continues at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Boulevard) through August 28, 2018.