by Patrick Jaojoco
Rock, Mosquito and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governor's Island
GOVERNOR'S ISLAND | AUGUST 19 – OCTOBER 31, 2017
Walking through Governor’s Island is like walking through a time warp. The old barracks, the plaques on small boulders marking the invisible histories of Native American settlements, how the island was sold to Dutch settlers in the 1600s at the cost of two axe heads and some other small items, the stories of how the streets were named, the histories involved in making the island what it is today. What is missing from each of these histories is the fact that they are inherently also geological. The concrete paths and stone architectures have now left their mark on the geological strata. These stories intersect with millennia’s worth of matter pushing into the present in strange, unexpected, and often incredibly beautiful ways.
This is the sublime of the Anthropocene, our current era in which human and geological histories are indistinguishable, and is the starting point for David Brooks’ recent exhibition Rock, Mosquito and Hummingbird in the island’s abandoned central Fort Jay. Building off of past work (Repositioned Core, 2014) in which the artist had used an archive of core samples—a method of drilling and extracting tubes of earth to test for rock qualities and sediment layers—as cylindrical material for architectural interventions, the exhibition on Governor’s Island uses three ninety to one-hundred-foot-long samples of earth newly drilled from nearby locations on the island and encompassing millions of years of geological history. The samples are supported on steel scaffolds that lead us into the depths of the old fort’s underground magazines, tracking the geologies with which the specific layers of colonialism, militarism, and global trade commonly associated with the island intersect.
By entering the old military storage space through an almost hidden archway between two officers’ homes, we reactivate it, tracking the dust of the fort as well as that of the artist’s intervention. Twisting through the space’s main hall and its connected rooms, the three samples and their bare steel scaffolds follow separate paths: the straight line of a drill (Rock), the erratic bumble of a mosquito, and the calculated zig-zag of a hummingbird. As such, they interweave in a seemingly organic way, forcing us to duck and bob through their architectures. At the end of each path are plaques detailing different temporalities: the formation of the island’s bedrock 570 million years ago, the introduction of Asian Tiger mosquitoes to the US in 1985, and the speed with which hummingbirds flap their wings, clocking at 80 times per second.
Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History is not lost here; unique and varied intersections of multiple timelines, all ultimately producing the present, are housed within the fort’s old rooms. The artist pressures deep histories into the now, constructing an active archaeology in which these histories are not only presented, but interacted with. The different strata of rock, soil, and clay sparkle beneath the exhibition lights, and are beautiful in their own right. Small crystals dot the hummingbird’s path, the stone’s straight line is steadfast, the mosquito bobs and dives; you can almost hear its whizz in the crumbles of the rock. Geology is at the core of the artist’s work, and yet Rock, Mosquito and Hummingbird relies on simultaneities; a kind of temporal synesthesia emanates from the work in the core samples’ articulations of rock, bird, and insect history.
The visible layers of rock, combined with details of living things, creates a new temporal framework through which we can begin to search the building itself for meaning. The bricks and stonework surrounding Brooks’s site-specific installation reveal their own timelines beyond their architectural uses, their dust collecting on the ground and unifying the whole space. It becomes clear that the dust is the site at which the work and its surroundings truly, literally intermingle. It is a combination of the dust of prehistoric Earth, the dust that glaciers moved, the dust that was around when humans first came to the island and which saw the supposedly peaceful trade of the land, the dust that was shaken off of military coats, and ultimately the dust that I brought along with me back to Brooklyn on my shoes and pant legs. Housed within this dust are the very interminglings of deep time and present day—and everything in between—for which the artist creates a platform by way of architectural intervention.
Brooks’s installation makes tangible, through visible forms and various digestible facts, a radical interwoven archaeology of the present. By pointing to different scales of time and memory housed in our surroundings, Brooks provokes something almost incomprehensibly immense, but makes it accessible through minute shifts in perception; looking into the installation’s weaving histories, we may begin to confront the multiple timeframes of the Anthropocene.
PATRICK JAOJOCO is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.