Artist Antonia Wright On Reclaiming Memory Through Art

"Like a secret in my body"

Photograph courtesy of the artist.

We all have moments in our lives when we know we would live differently if we had the chance. But, what if we just said, "Screw chance," and took matters into our own hands? Here to inspire you on your mission to reclaim your memories is Cuban-American artist Antonia Wright. 

After being exposed to performance artists while studying poetry in New York, Wright became determined to explore the medium in her own way. We sat down with Wright to discuss her career so far, as well as get all of the info on "Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire," her upcoming exhibition featuring an immersive installation which inverts day and night, that opens this Saturday at Miami's Locust Projects.

Under the water was sand, then rocks, miles of rocks, then fire from Antonia Wright on Vimeo.

When did you decide to pursue art as a career?
The day I decided to commit to being an artist was one of the best days of my life. I knew what I loved to do and what I now had to do. Although it was a totally frightening career choice, it was also one of the most liberating.

Moving to New York to get an MFA in poetry was a pretty affirming moment. I started to research poets who were performance artists and discovered people like Vito Acconci. From there, my poems walked off the page and into the streets in an action poem style. Photography has always been a big part of my life and when I started researching early performance work, I never understood why the “documentation” of the work was of such bad quality. I went back to school, to the International Center for Photography, to learn the skills necessary to capture aesthetically compelling work, to eliminate the hierarchy between the performance and video and photos. At that point, I hit my stride.

How did the idea of this performance come about?
When I was 15, I fell in a frozen lake. I was walking on a lake outside of Boston and the ice started cracking. The next thing you know, I was fighting to get out. The lake was a water reservoir so it was illegal to walk on it. Afterward, I was scared to tell anyone about what happened for fear of getting into trouble. Even though I was freezing for days after, it was also kind of exciting.

When I do these performances now, the feeling in my body seems to mirror that lake experience. I did a performance a few years ago where I threw myself through sheets of glass and after that I found the vocabulary to describe how I felt physically eluded me. It was like a secret in my body. When thinking about how to approach the reenactment, I started reading about how William Turner worked. He would take real-life events and turn them into the most beautiful images using color and light. He was also very interested in the sublime—man’s powerlessness in the face of nature. I channeled him as an inspiration when making the video.

What will the viewer experience as they enter this exhibition?
There are two phases of the exhibition—day and night. When you walk into the gallery during the day, in this reality, it is actually night. There are 75 night-blooming jasmine plants in boxes with shop lights above them suspended from the ceiling. Because the lights are off, the plants are tricked into thinking it is night and release their rich smell. The viewer walks through a maze of flowers and arrives at the video projected on a screen of myself walking and falling through a frozen lake in the center of the gallery. There is an audio score accompanying the video by experimental jazz composer Jason Ajemian. Every day at 5:30pm, the video turns off and the lights start to turn on in a synchronized choreography to a piece of music. The "day" then begins and the lights turn off again at 5:30am. It is a very sensorial experience with smell, video, light, color, and sound.

Describe your creative process.
It’s sort of like building a puzzle. I get an idea and then see how it best fits. If it is an idea for a performance, I start to think, Should it be live? Is it best for video? What time of day? What kind of camera? Where should it be shot? Then I think, How should it be installed? Single-channel or installation? If it is for a live audience, then everything changes; now you are thinking outside the frame and with a 360-degree view. Then the questions start again. All the projects start with an image. If the work is physically challenging, then I work backward to figure out how I can make it. How can I cover myself with bees while doing tai chi? How can I throw myself through sheets of glass? How can I fall through the middle of a frozen lake?

I start researching and make calls to people whom I think can help me. The first 10 calls are all usually the same: “You can’t do that, it's impossible.” But then I find someone who is one the same page as me and the fun starts. When we finally have a date, then I prepare physically and mentally. Trampoline training, tai chi practice, ice baths, ashram stays, etc. A lot of research goes into the projects—the goal is to make the final image.

What is your outfit made of?
For this project, I am wearing a suit made of raw silk inspired by William Turner’s color palette in "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons." I wanted the fabric to reflect the light like the golden flames in the painting.

What was going through your mind leading up to the performance?
On the day of, usually, I am just focused on all that needs to get done to get the shot right. When I am performing, I switch into my body and try to be as in the moment as possible. When I fell through the lake, I opened my eyes and it was so incredibly peaceful. Frozen lake water is this deep emerald green, and all I saw was this thick liquid that was so quiet. I held myself under the ice for as long as I could to experience it.

Do you feel as though recreating the experience you had as a child on your own terms has helped with some of the trauma you must have felt?
Falling in the lake the first time wasn’t what I would call traumatic. It was while it was happening —don’t get me wrong, but after, it was more of an exciting mystery. It was kind of like recovering from an intense illness. Or losing your virginity and wondering what the hell happened? I did feel an immense sense of power after I shot it last winter. I was in total control of the situation this time, which was more fun.

I can’t help but notice that your series “Are You Ok?” is reminiscent of Adrian Piper’s “Catalysis” series. Who are some artists you look to for inspiration when creating your own works?
Adrian Piper is incredible. I also love the work of Ana Mendieta, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, Pipilotti Rist, Patty Chang, Diane Arbus, Nikki S. Lee, Hito Steyerl, Tino Seghal, T.S. Elliot, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara. The list is endless and always changing.

How would you define art?
Ezra Pound said poetry is “news that stays news,” which I’ve always liked.

How would you describe the community of artists where you live?
I feel like Miami is growing so fast it is hard to pinpoint what it is anymore because everything is constantly changing here, but at the same time, it’s Miami—this surreal, gritty, gorgeous city that attracts a unique type of person. The art community here reflects that. It is unconventional in its core; it is hardworking, dedicated, supportive, and fun.