Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine by Sasha Wortzel at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, St. Augustine

By April 12, 2023
Video still of a dark grey and black moody marshland disrupted with a rising yellow sun.
Sasha Wortzel, For those of us who live at the shoreline (sunrise), 2021, silent digital video, 00:05:21. Courtesy of the artist.
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Sasha Wortzel’s exhibition Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine is on view at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum. This exhibition is a multidisciplinary, immersive experience that utilizes sound, sculpture, and projection to craft a narrative about the active decline of the Florida landscape. Housed in two rooms and comprised of seventeen works, the show is an inspiring and sobering take on contemporary Florida.

The first room is dim and silent. Two large-scale projections and one short film play on opposite walls. To the right, a five-minute film, For those of us who live at the shoreline (sunset) presents a sprawling vista of the Gulf coast with the sun hanging just above the horizon. At the sun’s last light, the screen fades to yellow and the cycle begins again. The smallest format film, but the longest in length at sixteen minutes, For those of us who live at the shoreline (labor) provides an intimate look at a sea turtle laying her eggs. The vibrant night blue of the film contrasts with the oranges of the other two works. Of the three films, For those of us who live at the shoreline (sunrise) is the most potent. Offering a view of the Everglades, the sun rhythmically rises and falls in a short arc. Think Instagram Boomerang. The projection addresses stymied efforts of conservation. For every law that aims to save Florida’s biodiversity, there are many more that hinder its progress. In the spirit of Prometheus: the sun never rises to its apex and continually resets to its original position.

A small grey bench with a small conch sculpture hanging above it. Nearby is a video showing crashing blue and white waves on a beach.
Sasha Wortzel, Conch VII (mothers), 2022, PLA filament, paint, 16 x 10 x 9 in. Photograph by Monarch Studios and courtesy of the artist and Crisp-Ellert Art Museum.

Wortzel transfigures the second space into an astral biome flooded with vibrant orange, green, and purple light. The room is filled with five interactive sculptures called Listening Islands. Each island is fashioned in a low poly style, hued with breezy blues, and adorned with a 3-D printed fighting conch. The sculptures invite the audience to touch, sit, lay down, listen, and feel the vibrations of the sound. One Island is a simple rectangle bench titled Island V (stool for labor), which waits for a participant to sit under the pointed whorl of Conch VII (mothers), hanging forebodingly above. Nearby, Island III (day bed) presents a large flat surface that beckons to be laid on. This Island is an exhilarating experience, filling the body with sound vibration. However, the most impactful work in the room is Island II (conversation chair). This sculpture presents two benches that require participants to sit facing one another. As a native Floridian, this encounter recalls the intimacy possible between people on the beach, a liminal space where words tend to be more fluid and truthful. Wortzel asks us to sit and face those things that require difficult conversation: What will happen when the Everglades dry up? How will the sway of political powers affect the biodiversity of the state? Are we prepared to lose Florida to a wave of political and ecological disaster? Though the answer to the last is ‘‘no’, it begs the question—What do we plan to do about it?

The weight of the artist’s thesis lives in the estuary of sounds that swirl through islands. Upon entering the gallery, I first heard a boat’s propeller thrumming through the water, then the bellow of rain and thunder, and finally the sound of insects in the grass (if you’ve ever listened to a marsh at night, you’ll know it is electric with life). Layered in those sounds, the most striking sonic experience is the Kaddish–the Jewish prayer of mourning for the living. Here the prayer is the voices of the Artist’s family and friends, embedded with liquid sounds, submerging the listener and creating a spiritual state of contemplation. Previously, I had no knowledge of the Kaddish, but among the islands I heard and felt its presence fully realized and appropriate.

Installation view of the exhibition Dreams of Unknown Islands including grey bench sculpture with 3D printed shells, monitors, and orange/pink walls.
Installation view of Sasha Wortzel, Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine, 2023, Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, Flagler College. Photograph by Monarch Studios and courtesy of the artist and Crisp-Ellert Art Museum.

Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine offers a rare view into the suffering of Florida’s ecosphere. At the surface, the work offers a picturesque view of the landscape, but the somber overtones remind us there is much to be done with little time left. The confluence of moods does a skillful job of un-idealizing traditional Floridian imagery. It is not happy palm trees and pretty seashells—it is political pollution and the loss of diversity in a beautiful, spiritual, and misused landscape.

Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine, an exhibition by Sasha Wortzel, is on view at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum in St. Augustine, FL through April 22.

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