“When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.”
—Leonardo da Vinci
The river is an endlessly rich metaphor as its constant state of flow and flux takes the artist, viewer, reader, writer, musician, listener on journeys, conveying travelers through to new territories. The Mississippi River with its grand American sweep, forever entwined with Mark Twain’s fictional escapades, provides the cultural and historical backdrop for The Raft, a collaborative video installation by Rico Gatson and Chris Larson. The two artists sit on a plywood square the size of a large canvas for hours on end, floating across the river of Larson’s studio, dipping into the darkness of past troubles and signaling hope for change through a musical conversation.
On ViewThe Boiler/Pierogi Gallery
October 23, 2015 – December 13, 2016
The main projection shows the view from a video camera affixed to the top of their makeshift raft; we see four fluorescent office lights glaring in each corner of the square, two turn tables, a host of records scattered about. Side views of the raft are projected on the other two other walls, and a fourth projection contains another scene of constant motion, of small lapping waves, murky with glistening sun crystals shining. There is no horizon, no sense of where this is, though we are told it was taken from a moored boat in the Mississippi. The medium of video is apt, considering its absence of stillness, as the flow of image and sound keeps with the rhythm and theme of the river. The two men—one black, one white—sip gin from mason jars, communicating only through music. The viewer senses the raft moving, as an assistant slowly pulls it back and forth across the studio. The effect, after prolonged viewing, is the feeling of actual motion-sickness.
Music is the connection between the two men and between the men and the river. They rarely talk and, when they do, we can’t hear them, as we are listening to the records they have selected. There is a musical dialogue, a back and forth of one song speaking and another responding, as we listen to the records that one man has chosen as the other picks out tracks from the album. The video is three hours long, cut and edited from the eight hours the artists spent swaying and spinning on their raft. I had to tear myself away after an hour in the gallery, hanging in anticipation of hearing the next song. The choices were varied and compelling. I heard some gospel, soul, folk, early punk and rap, and rarely an entire song, but a sampling of many. I recognized Billy Holiday, Neil Young, The Clash and Public Enemy. Interspersed between the music is a scratchy vinyl version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, wonderfully poignant during the run of the show, as our streets filled once again with protests over race and inequality. Music flows like the river, signaling brief breaks in the clouds and the passage to better days.
I felt heaps of nostalgia that I did not expect to feel, nostalgia for camping out on a friend’s floor in college, having brought over my record collection, before the time of distracting technology and looming responsibilities. I was also conscious of Gatson and Larson’s friendship, of their past as college buddies who went on to grad school at Yale together. The depth that thirty years can bring to friendship is woven into the work, and we watch that depth unfurl through the embrace of music, formative music, in the sense of music discovered in their formative years and music that still connects them.
Clearly Larson and Gatson connect through music, but their oeuvres also show commonalities in their shared themes of identity, history, place, and time. They also share the key medium of wood. Larson has previously created large, unstained abode-like wood structures that link back to Minnesota’s lumbering roots and the pioneer spirit of building homesteads out of nothing. Gatson’s work connotes migration and change through brash abstractions of iconic events like the Watts riots. His Magic Stick series uses basic wooden constructions to create elegant abstract black painted sculptures, reminiscent of both high Modernism and totems of mixed heritage. Here, the artists’ placement on a plywood square is no accident as the wood acts as their artistic conduit, but also so naturally alludes to Huck and Jim’s makeshift raft of on their journey toward incredible trust.
Huck eventually rejects his inherited bigotry and discovers that Jim is much more decent then most the free white men who want to claim Jim as property. Twain’s river is a conduit to an enlightened and truly democratic America where all people are created equal. Gatson and Larson’s The Raft tells a musical tale about an America that has not arrived at this enlightened state, but still journeys down this river. The songs Gatson and Larson choose brim with desire for change, lament a broken system, and linger in protest. Their artistic collaboration is symbolic of what “collaboration” means— of people working together, of sitting together in their commonalities and insisting on change, keeping the American journey toward equality marching. The river then becomes metaphor for the street, flowing with collaboration and congregation, taking the slow march of many bodies through an urban estuary into the ocean of civic change.