One of the most poignant installations at the Biennale . . .
We are inextricable from the sea. In an island environment, not only does it sustain us economically but also physiologically. This close relation is at the heart of “Sea Lungs”; imagining that the sea fans that wash up on the beach and resemble our own cardiovascular and pulmonary systems are in fact our own. A reminder that our own life force can be found in the sea.
In an environment where art materials are less accessible, I focused on using materials that could be found locally. The sea fans are an organism of the reef that wash up on the beach when they die and detach from the reef. The material that makes up the pieces are sail cloth, typically used for the spinnaker, referencing our vital sailing community in the work. I use local faces and bodies in the work, again – contextualizing the materiality and visual references in our very specific place.
Ultimately the work references an issue that exists globally but particularly in the Caribbean, our reefs are dying at a staggering rate. The Caribbean is home to nearly 10% of the world’s reefs yet some estimates report that 80% of the reefs have died in the last few decades. This work is about establishing our relationship with the sea and reefs as vital and then anthropomorphizing the reef responding to its own demise. Without necessarily focusing on cause or solutions, “Sea Lungs” is taking a moment to empathize not only with the reef but our societies as we recognize this reality. “Sea Lungs” is an immersive installation allowing the viewer to walk in and amongst the anthropomorphized reef and to perhaps bridge the process of grief and empathy as we are not separate from the fate of our reefs.
Grenada National Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia
Asher Mains jokes about having a “beach-based art practice”. He scours Grenada’s beaches, searching for the regularly offered detritus, the gifts from the sea. Concerned for the death of the life sustaining coral reefs in the Caribbean sea, he considers the sea fan the “lungs”, the breath of life. The large, multi-layered humans he then paints become the anthropomorphized figures that need these lungs to breathe, as do we all.
The models Mains uses to create his figures are Caribbean people. The synthesis of peoples that have created this unique region has been kind—beauty is abundant. His creative process involves photography, three-layer hand cut stencils, spray paint, the sea fans, then finally light directed to cast shadows. His canvas is the rip stop used in the sails of the sailing vessels. It is specifically used for the big ballooning spinnaker, which fills with air to propel the boat with speed. A highly intensive hands on process, each of the 8 foot tall hangings can take months to complete.
Hung in installation, the viewer is encouraged to walk in and among the figures, thus completing the feeling that one is also in the water with them. People are often perplexed when viewing from the front, not sure if the figure is projected, or exactly at what they are looking. Often when they step to the back view, and audible, “ah” is heard. The lungs of the figures are created by the shadow cast from the actual sea fans.
Mains is from the island of Grenada in the Caribbean where he lives and works. A lush tropical jewel, people live from the wealth of the sea. It is estimated that Grenada has the highest per capita consumption of fish in the world. That food source depends on the survival of the reef. Without reef, the whole system breaks down. Reefs in the Caribbean are dying at an alarming rate. Reportedly, 80% have been lost over the last 20 years.
From a family of artists, he has been a traditional painter for many years—since he was a young teen. This exploration into mixed media installations is a recent iteration of his practice and was first seen at the Trio Bienal in Rio di Janeiro Brazil in 2015. Mains recently completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Practice with Transart Institute, Plymouth University in the UK. He is a teacher of art at St. George’s University in Grenada, and also is the director of a fledgling art school in Grenada.
He often tells his students, “When someone looks at your work, there ought to be that sense of place that is felt. They should know that you as an artist have been there, and that this is deeply ingrained in you.”
There is no doubt that the viewers of Asher Mains “Sea Lungs” in the Grenada Pavilion at the 57th Biennale di Venezia will feel his angst for the survival of the coral reef and the people of his island home.
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Photos by Gordon A. Gebert.