I still feel that flutter when I hear Elvis Presley belt out Blue Christmas. I was too young when I first heard it to really understand what it was about.
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The Order of the Limes
At Alice Yard, Woodbrook, until June 7, you can see 286 pieces of burnt fruit pinned to the wall.
The charred limes (Al Braithwaite’s The Limes Installation) are arranged in a circular shape and lit so that their shadows create swirling patterns, an effect somewhere between Magic Eye Books, colour blindness charts at opticians and the beautiful repeated dots of Seurat’s pointillism.
An empty chair faces the installation, fixing it in place, asking questions, suggesting something devotional.
On closer inspection, each piece of fruit reveals a name written on labels, the names of 286 people burned at the stake as heretics during the time of the English Reformation in the 16th century. It was a time when England attempted a political and religious breakaway from the Catholic church by creating the (Protestant) Church of England and the Dissolution of the Monasteries eroded the local seats of papal power.
Bloody Mary, crowned in 1553, tried to re-establish Catholicism in England and some of those who resisted were branded heretics and burnt alive.
Two of the labels simply read Unknown Male. A foetus was also one of the burnt victims, having been born to a pregnant woman tied to a stake.
The horror of that period of history, turned into a beautiful art installation, is typical of Braithwaite’s work.
In a talk he gave at the opening of the installation on May 13, Braithwaite, a London-based British artist who has been in Trinidad for a year and will be here until the end of 2014, explained his interest in shocking moments in history that have in different ways metamorphosed into iconic images in both mass media and art.
There’s The Falling Man photograph of an unknown man leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11; the unidentified Chinese student standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, China; the brutal headbutt planted in the sternum of Marco Materazzi by Zinedine Zidane in extra time of a tense 2006 World Cup Final.
They’re all moments of raw and sudden violence, all now part of the social memory.
The role that art and image play in social memory means that often iconography and reality become indistinguishable as images are repeatedly emblazoned on our minds. Karlheinz Stockhausen controversially and provocatively called the attacks on the twin towers “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.”
Repetition, chaos and order
Another trademark of the installation is Braithwaite’s use of repetition.
In 2010 he created an untitled work consisting of a mahogany cabinet in which hundreds of rolled pages from Edward Said’s book Orientalism were tucked into spaces behind the glass.
In 2011’s World Trade Cabinet, he rolled dozens of pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and placed them, evenly spaced, inside the piece.
He repeated the trick to dazzling effect with 600 quail’s eggs, painstakingly placed in a cabinet, cushioned with cotton wool.
And, in a piece from a series called Hearts and Minds in 2012, nine hand grenades in the shape and blood-red colour of anatomical human hearts are displayed in a white box.
The T&T Guardian suggested to Braithwaite perhaps this painstaking attention to the detail of his work might be a rebuttal of the notion that an artist’s working life is all spontaneous and idle creation.
For him, an artistic idea might arise through spontaneity, but its execution is repeated work in the same way somebody at a factory or at their desk in an office from 9 am–5 pm carries out the same task over and over again.
Also at the talk, Nicholas Laughlin, one of Alice Yard’s directors, wondered if Braithwaite had a neat and tidy desk.
Braithwaite suggested that the “kitschy obsession with cleanliness and order” (I would add, regularity) in his work might be an antidote to his constantly nomadic life—he had worked in 40 different countries before his 30th birthday—in which he never really knew from one year to the next where life might take him.
He recognises in his work the juxtaposition of order and chaos. Describing his life as “ephemeral” and identifying a perhaps subconscious need to “put things in boxes.”
Intimately acquainted with the Middle East, Braithwaite set off for Iraq during the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
He has visited Iran, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. Much of his work and reputation have been fostered in the region and exhibited in places like Kuwait and Dubai.
He admits to a fear that he might run out of ideas if he stops moving and stops “foraging,” as he puts it.
Nature, Hirst and death
In exhibiting natural organisms in preserved states and in the humour inherent in that imagery (limes, quail’s eggs and a book called Roadkill which he is still collating, capturing images of roadkill from around the world including here in T&T) the T&T Guardian suggested to the artist that there is an element of homage to the young British artists of the early 1990s—Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin et al.
Being away from England during that period, however (Braithwaite grew up on RAF bases overseas), he says he had a resistance to the movement, particularly Lucas’s art, which was often seen as vapid and nothing more than visual jokes in art circles, but that in hindsight he accepted Hirst’s early work may have been an influence.
Both artists deal with the subject matter of cycles of life and death and their infinite interconnectivity. In Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a rotting cow’s head feeds flies which are born from maggots and then die when they fly into a zapper.
In The Limes Installation, the burnt fruit symbolises death and decay. In both works, decay gives birth to new life, whether artistically or literally.
“Fire destroys some aspects of the limes,” Braithwaite says, “but renders them more durable.” Charred fruit won’t rot like fresh fruit will.
He cooks the limes in the oven in his Cascade home. Later he tells me it was dangerous work, as the limes would explode in his face. He took to wearing goggles.
His wife, Tassanee, said they made repeat trips to the organic fruit and veg market where he would ask stallholders if they had limes of a certain shape and size.
The stallholder would pick out fruit of the right dimensions and Braithwaite would then ask: “Great, can I get 300 of these?”
So, in the darkness of the subject matter there is humour and Braithwaite sees the humour here in his current home, a place he says fascinates him.
Chicken’s feet in supermarkets, hypersexualised adverts for Hard Wine, lists of rules in public places (the strict adherence to regulations in a seemingly ultra-permissive society), a dead caiman by the side of the Beetham Highway (he wanted to capture this for his Roadkill book, but never got to see it himself, just tales about it).
When asked about the most horrific roadkill he’s ever seen, “It’s often the little ones that shock you most,” he says.
“The baby agouti and the birds which are meant to be up in the sky.”