MIAMI BEACH — A year ago, when the unthinkable happened and the world first stood still, Sasha Wortzel would take a walk down to the beach every day at sunset. “It was one of the only things I could bring myself to do, but it also became a ritual or meditation each day,” they explained to Hyperallergic from their studio in Miami Beach. Like so many others, Wortzel was looking for ways to process the grief of lost connections, lost souls, and a loss of certainty. The sunset, with its habitual fade into the horizon, was a slow burn the artist could count on.

In this search for something to hold onto, Wortzel also turned to their faith. Raised Jewish, they began joining a Zoom call a friend had organized to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that “doesn’t even mention death, it’s much more about living for the day,” Wortzel notes. The idea that ritual could carry one through a disorienting moment of ambiguity became crucial in the wake of a global pandemic, and became the backdrop from which Wortzel created many of the new works in Dreams of Unknown Islands, their solo exhibition now on view at Oolite Arts.

Curated by Kristian Kennedy, the show exists within a space of transition. Each work sits perched on a threshold, layered with multiple references to the cycles of life frequently explored within Wortzel’s practice. Comprising film, sound, and sculptural elements that manipulate animal forms, horizons, and the passage of time, Wortzel sets the mood for contemplation, mourning, and memoriam.

At the entrance to Oolite Arts, the artist has also displayed the Audre Lorde poem, “A Litany for Survival,”  illuminated in a molasses-colored glow mimicking sunset. Its words, “For those of us who live at the shoreline….who love in doorways coming and going/in the hours between dawns/looking inward and outward/at once before and after” grounds the exhibition in its purpose.

Installation view of Sasha Wortzel, “Dreams of Unknown Islands” (2021), sound Installation, polymer PLA filament, 9.5 x 9.5 x 18 inches (photo by Pedro Wazzan)

Upstairs, “Sitting Shiva” (2020) occupies the center of the gallery: two quintessential woven beach chairs, the customary woven backs of which have been replaced with the skins of invasive Burmese pythons. Enveloped in natural light from the gallery’s expansive, sunny windows that reflect off soft blush-painted walls, this work reminds us to pause, reflect, and honor the passage of time, migrants, and communities that share the same shoreline that inspired the exhibition. 

The titular work is a series of 3D-printed polymer conch shell-shaped sculptures that hang from the ceiling and serve as speakers for remixed renditions of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Wortzel created these recordings by asking friends, artists, and poets to interpret the prayer for themselves. The gentle hum of these sculptures guides us through the gallery in a winding maze, an allusion to the occlusion effect that occurs when we hold a conch shell up to our ears.

In two opposite galleries, Wortzel displays three interconnected video installations, the “sunrise,” “sunset,” and “labor” iterations of For those of us who live at the shoreline (2021), which orient us to considerations of place despite not revealing where they were shot. While the sunset unfolds in real time — capturing the elusive ‘green light’, a blink or you’ll miss it moment — the sunrise is manipulated to gently bounce in the air. Its 16-minute sequence of a sea turtle nesting into the sand requires patience but is surprisingly emotional.

Installation view of Dreams of Unknown Islands: Sasha Wortzel (photo by Pedro Wazzan)

As the pace of life begins to creep back to normal in some parts of the world, Dreams of Unknown Islands is a soothing respite from the monotonous drone of pandemic life, a place from which we might heal our relationship with nature, time, and grief. It’s a quiet meditation on life and loss, during a year when we need it most.

Dreams of Unknown Islands: Sasha Wortzel continues through April 4 at Oolite Arts (924 Lincoln Road, 2nd Floor, Miami Beach, FL). The exhibition is curated by Kristan Kennedy.

Nicole Martinez is a freelance writer based in Miami covering arts, culture, and Cuban diaspora. Follow her on Twitter: @niki_frsh.