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Of loss, of lack Cozier shows in T&T for the first time in 13 years
It has been 13 years since visual artist, curator and writer Christopher Cozier has exhibited his work in T&T. His latest show at Y Art Gallery is an amalgam of preparatory drawings produced for various exhibitions he has held around the world—New York, Johannesburg, Miami—between 2010 and 2013. What Cozier makes accessible to the T&T audience, through a bridging of word and image, is a vocabulary with which one can begin to speak and attend to matters of lack and loss in our society. “My work is about traces and memory—the thing that is not there. It is about what is absent. I have been thinking about that a lot since the destruction of Carlisle Chang’s art at our airport. It is a wound,” says Cozier. The artist addresses the wound of absence by asserting its very perceptible presence through the translation of everyday objects that become a powerful sign or index of an existence hollowed out by violence, politics, greed and indifference. Images of an empty lot of land or car park—what Cozier calls “all that’s left”—and the recurring motif of feet (an image that stays with Cozier since he saw the lower legs of one of four youths who were shot and killed near his home) are among the visual paradigm he is creating. “My interest in the dead body is connected to the absence of dreams, the spirit and potential; and the empty lot suggests the absence of our historical legacy—the erasure of our architecture,” Cozier says.
In a striking image of a man clad in a shirt, jacket and trousers eating out of a paper bag, Cozier not only draws on childhood memories of seeing classmates hiding to eat, but also references artwork he saw on a trip to Spain: Francisco Goya’s painting of the Roman mythological Saturn devouring his son. “We are going through that kind of Saturnalia where the State is devouring its potential. Look at the society now. Politics is being used to get hands on money rather than to do good,” Cozier says. He infuses his work with both humour and gravitas to produce a language that is approachable and simultaneously trenchant in its capacity to cut to the heart of the matter. His piece Ghost Bread is a playful take on our hunger. He uses a hovering, spectral slice of bread to signify the elusiveness of all that we think we need to survive. “It is the sustenance you never quite get, and it is a white sandwich loaf, so you know it won’t really help you.” Cozier uses the breeze brick or ventilation block, an element that characterises much of our architecture, to think about issues of development for postcolonial independent nations and unrealised visions of promise. “The bricks were a big part of the era in which I grew up. They were part of a development narrative, tropical architecture, nation euphoria, new housing schemes. They existed in a world of promise. Now we see footage of crises and violence and the ventilation-block pattern is in the background. You realise it is not a world of promise—that there is something dystopic about it.”
In his series called The Arrest, Cozier is influenced by the lyrics of soca songs which, in a number of cases, come with instructions to put our hands in the air. This idea propelled the artist in the direction of thoughts of being arrested, of being seized and taken into custody and of the halting of progress. “We are all in a state of arrest. We are arrested by our social conditions,” he adds.
In many of his works, Cozier blurs the line between what art scholar WJT Mitchell calls experiences between the seeable and the sayable, showing and telling. Cozier melds words and images to produce drawings that attempt to harness the communicative and symbolic capacity of both modes of thinking. In his exhibition one can find a paragraph of words forming a leg or an arm, leading to a sketched foot or hand. In one piece, an incomplete picture of a foot and leg is accompanied by the words: “When you miss me I gone yes.” Cozier takes a phrase used in our daily parlance, extracting it from its casual usage when we tell someone we are leaving, to give it new, weighty meaning. All that is gone in our society—have we noticed those absences? “I am always trying to find a way to get images and words to meet—trying to find a vocabulary. My drawings are made from free-association writing. I am writing about what is going on in the country and the way I feel. It is a flow of anxieties. “My thoughts reveal themselves going into the work, but then they obscure themselves as the writing becomes layered. I find this is an interesting tension,” he says. Christopher Cozier’s career in the visual arts has long been about making connections and forging dialogues. For over 25 years, he has been running artists’ workshops, exchanges and residencies linking local artists with international practitioners. He was recently granted a Prince Claus Award for his contribution to the development of cultural action in the Caribbean.
While his work deals with the subject of lack, it is also tied to facilitating support for and engagement with contemporary art practice. “I want people to see my work as more than objects and that they can enter the head space I am struggling with. At the end of the day, my objective is to get people here to take contemporary artwork seriously.”