The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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OCT 2022 Issue
Art The Irving Sandler Essay


Cecilia Vicuña, <em>Galaxy of Litter</em>, New York, 1989. Photo: César Paternosto.
Cecilia Vicuña, Galaxy of Litter, New York, 1989. Photo: César Paternosto.

The Irving Sandler Essay Series
Edited by Alexander Nagel

This essay series, generously supported by Scott Lynn, is named in honor of the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, whose broad spirit was epitomized in the question we would ask, with searching eyes, whenever he met someone or saw someone again: what are you thinking about? A space apart from the press of current events, the Sandler Essay invites artists and writers to reflect on what matters to them now, whether it is current or not, giving a chance for an “oblique contemporary” to come in view.


In 1992 the artist Lawrence Weiner made an object with the art dealer Massimo de Carlo. The object was a ballpoint pen titled Afloat. The pen was designed with more than half its barrel to be a transparent chamber, which was filled with a clear liquid. Inside the artist placed the phrase “Afloat at the mercy of the waves.” “Afloat” was printed on a rectangle that moved freely within the chamber; on the other side was the word “somewhere.” To be somewhere, afloat, under the control of and with no protection from the waves—it’s literally ominous, but I don’t think it’s meant to be read that way. Mostly the phrase is idiomatic; waves aren’t capable of mercy. As a sentence the noun and verb are absent—we don’t know what’s afloat. As a sculpture, what’s absent defines what’s present. The artist’s choice enables his audience to imagine the possibilities: Am I floating? Are you?

The phrase is built in four parts—somewhere, floating, mercy, waves—and suggests three questions: Where are you? What are you doing there? Under what conditions? These all have to do with a sense of orientation, and how one interprets “the waves” sets the parameters for much else. Are they cosmic waves? sound waves? ocean waves? From the position (somewhere) of a person opening an essay on floating, I take the waves to be one’s faculties of imagination and intuition, the sum of a writer’s creative and critical capabilities, which make up the patterns of their thinking and in which they immerse themselves without reservation. To be at the mercy of those patterns suggests not being in control of one’s thoughts, and there’s truth to that, but it’s a necessary and willful forfeiture that enables a condition of openness, unguarded and therefore quite vulnerable. Writers take the risk for the reward of discovery, but the rewards are always indeterminate. One may not find an idea to embrace.

The phrase in a pen has a message in a bottle quality to it. There’s a sense of romance and hopefulness one feels. Twenty years after it was launched, the artist permitted the phrase to appear on tote bags for the non-profit art organization Printed Matter. This was in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The organization lost a tremendous amount of valuable material in the floodwaters of the great storm. Whenever I see those bags, I remember the massive waves overcoming the city and all I think of is the will to survive.

A person’s will to survive can lead to unexpected actions. If you are on a boat, for example, and the waves become unmerciful, you may decide to jettison various cargo, to preserve the vessel. If you do, and your cargo floats, you’ve created jetsam. If you decide not to and your vessel sinks, but your cargo floats: flotsam (from Old French floter, meaning to float). What’s interesting is the maritime law that distinguishes between the two. If you’ve created jetsam, you maintain ownership of the cargo. Flotsam is up for grabs. However, not all codes allowed for jettisoning cargo as a defense mechanism, against pirates for example, to qualify as jetsam. What those lawmakers had in mind were rough seas, stormy waters, turbulent currents—the mercy of the waves, in other words.

Such laws of the sea establish parameters of intent and torment when considering aspects of ownership over floating things. They reflect the thinking of a mercantile class. For a definition of floating that attends to the subject on physical terms, the classic source is Archimedes. In his book, On Floating Bodies, Archimedes defines the phenomenon in clear language rooted in mathematical reasoning. It is theoretical; proofs follow propositions. Here are two:

A solid lighter than a fluid will, if immersed in it, not be completely submerged, but part of it will project above the surface.

And a little later,

If a solid lighter than a fluid be forcibly immersed in it, the solid will be driven upwards by a force equal to the difference between its weight and the weight of the fluid displaced. 1

The first proposition concludes with a consideration of surface—a floating body is simultaneously above and beneath it; the second with the idea of displacement. Both statements are arranged like equations in which weight is a constant, but in the second a variable of force is introduced. With an agent of force, Archimedes shows how displacement occurs as an equal transaction, an even ratio, a form of symmetry. He establishes the idea of floating as a fixed relationship, such that whatever quantities of force may be applied, the relationship remains unchanged. To float then is to achieve an equilibrium.

In his proofs Archimedes uses the phrase “a condition of rest.” In a condition of rest, the solid cannot stay fully submerged. It follows that a solid is in a condition of rest when floating. If a condition of rest is a state of inertia, is floating then a degree of stillness? But a ball floating on a lake doesn’t remain in the same location. External factors like wind or water currents push it, and the ball does not resist. So we could say a solid has achieved an equilibrium—and is floating—when it is fully open to the influence of external forces. If we overlay the element of time on this relationship, we see that the moment a solid achieves this state of equilibrium it simultaneously becomes available—unconditionally—to whatever external forces may compel it. The moment of floating therefore occurs at the threshold of stability and uncertainty, right between the calm and the storm.

Is there a way to extend that moment? What if one’s cargo was too precious to imagine ever going overboard? In William Peck’s book, Egyptian Drawings, there are a pair of photographs taken by Harry Burton, titled Two views of the barque of the Night Sun in the tomb of Horemheb (1332–1305 BC).2 One shows an unfinished wall relief and the other a preliminary drawing. Both depict a ram headed deity carrying the sun on a crescent-shaped boat pulled by attendants who are on foot. A rope connects the hands of the attendants to the bow of the barque. Clearly, they are representations of force—maybe even supernatural force—since their power moves the divine vessel. The deity appears as the master of these forces, afloat, and in control. What’s more is that the attendants who pull the barque do not float; their feet don’t penetrate the surface line, while the arc of the hull does. This signals another type of power: floating as an expression of status.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a display of ritual objects from the tomb of a high steward to an Egyptian pharaoh. The steward’s name was Meketre and the contents included many exquisitely crafted miniature boats. One is called Model Sporting Boat (ca. 1981–1975 B.C.). It depicts (as the wall text explains) one of the “pleasures of an Egyptian noble’s life.” Everywhere there is action: At the bow one man readies a harpoon, while another removes a harpoon from a big fish; elsewhere someone is presenting the high steward with a bunch of ducks. There are abundant rowers. The only figure in a position of rest is the high steward who commands all those who are in action. To be floating, and to be in control of the rowers and the harpoon throwers, reflects the dual powers of the deity who carries the sun. The force of men is to the high steward what the force of nature is to the deity who carries the sun. One distinction: Meketer floats on a “sporting boat.” The hunt of the noble is for merriment.

Model Sporting Boat, ca. 1981–1975 B.C. Plastered and painted wood, linen, linen twine, copper. Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift.
Model Sporting Boat, ca. 1981–1975 B.C. Plastered and painted wood, linen, linen twine, copper. Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift.

In Spain’s royal art collection there’s a painting assigned to a student of Rubens that shows a young boy afloat on a cloud amidst an impossible mélange of birds, many of which are perched in what might be described as conditions of rest. The boy is Aeolus, ruler of the four winds. Typically, Aeolus is portrayed as an old man at the mouth of a cave, receiving the mighty goddess Juno—an image that comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. So this painting, titled simply Aeolus, is an outlier. In one hand Aeolus grasps a bouquet of feathers while he reaches out with the other, palm open, as if about to receive something. In the lower corner of the canvas mountains appear in the distance, giving a hint of location to this otherwise placeless painting. This work is currently held at the Prado Museum, but it first hung in the entry room at Zarzuela palace, where it was noted in 1701. Zarzuela palace was built by King Philip IV—patron of Velázquez—as a hunting lodge.

In the Odyssey Aeolus lives on the floating island of Aeolia, where his six daughters have married his six sons and they all live quite happily. If this mythical image of a floating island as a site of royal inbreeding is supremely isolationist, the floating islands that actually traverse Earth’s oceans are the opposite. These floating islands are made of rock lighter than the fluid it was formed in: pumice. Pumice takes shape when volcanic activity on the sea bed produces lava that hardens as it rises to the surface of the ocean. Some pumice rafts are enormous, visible to satellites drifting in outer space. A team of scientists studying the eruption in 2006 of the Home Reef Volcano in Tonga were able to reveal two pertinent facts:

Pumice is an extremely effective rafting agent that can dramatically increase the dispersal range of a variety of marine organisms. … The high population numbers have fundamental implications for increasing the genetic diversity of the populations they may contribute to [and] will greatly enhance the establishment and persistence of new populations. 3

Here is the floating island not as a place that stagnates but as a vehicle of migration that enriches the populations to which it adds. This is closer to the imagery used by Édouard Glissant in Sun of Consciousness (1956) when he is questioning his ability to orient himself in the French culture of Paris after arriving from the Caribbean island of Martinique. He writes, “But am I able to say, in detail, that I feel Racine, for example or the Cathedral of Chartres? Sensitive to the swaying, to the swell of waves, may I buoy in some hollow of tide, take pleasure or live there really?”4 Glissant overlays an image of the waves upon the notion of culture. If he is sensitive to it, if he gives it his attention to it, will he float? And if he does, will it be enjoyable? Will it last? Will the waves show mercy to the migrant?

Student of Peter Paul Rubens, <em>Aeolus, </em>ca. 1600. Oil on Canvas. 55 x 49 in. Collection of Prado National Museum.
Student of Peter Paul Rubens, Aeolus, ca. 1600. Oil on Canvas. 55 x 49 in. Collection of Prado National Museum.

Glissant follows this question with another metaphor that hinges on balanced dualities: “imposed upon my eyes [are] the gaze of the son and the vision of the Stranger.”5 The writer identifies two types of seeing and connects them with two opposing archetypes. From Archimedes we know the point where these forces meet is a moment where floating occurs. At the end of the text Glissant returns to this metaphor with the image of a ferryman who is uncertain he will reach the shore. Glissant’s ferryman understands “that it is given to him, for all reasons, to be both the same and the other, the son and the stranger.”6 The second time around stranger is not capitalized. Glissant reduces its status from a proper noun to a common one. The son and the stranger become unified, equalized in the being of the ferryman. In that sense, Glissant’s opening question might be answered affirmatively. The ferryman, the arriving one, the immigrant, floats.

I’ve learned an Icelandic phrase that celebrates the vision of the stranger: “keen are the eyes of the guest.” A native Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, used a variation of it to describe the artist Roni Horn, who is not from Iceland. Nonetheless, “she has defined Iceland” for him. Kjartansson writes, “Few know the country as well as Horn does and her work has taught me how to look at and feel this place.”7 In her book Island Zombie she pays close attention to the weather and the landscape, which includes a substantial amount of volcanic rock, and she offers my favorite description of floating. Horn is in an upstairs room near the Arctic circle, overlooking the ocean. The room is sparsely furnished and the thing she sees is “amplified dust,” “tiny tufts of airy down.”

Occasional clumps cling to the table legs and catch high up on the walls in odd, unreasonable places. This plumage is more loft than thing. In its almost weightless state the feathers tremble perpetually; perpetually since each clinging imperceptibly barbed clump quivers in the presence of itself. It is a movement that cannot be seen among things too light to be still.8

The plumage becomes “more loft than thing.” How does the noun become a verb? And what happens when that takes place? The plumage’s primary quality is no longer its materiality but its movement. It becomes float. But “loft” is also “upstairs room,” which is where Horn happens to be. In this sense, she identifies with the dust, and by extension with its movement. In other words, the artist floats. The floating feathers are in a state of near weightlessness, and that enables a movement—a quiver or a tremble—that is both perpetual and imperceptible. It’s a movement hidden by another movement; it shows how floating can be cloaking.

At another point in the book Horn is surveying “discrete chapters of geologic events” in the landscape. She describes how sand follows lava and lava is followed by an expanse of ash. Then her eyes fall upon something particularly striking:

On this plain an occasional large boulder, an erratic, appears. The boulders are sandblasted smooth, giving the look of something plastic and formed. The consistency of spacing between them is striking, as though each was positioned in a specific location in this duneless desert. 9

It is not the smooth surface or the suggested plasticity that strikes Horn, it’s the intervals between the boulders. That distance is a measure of time, and the consistency of the intervals gives her a sense of artifice, “as though each was placed.” What did the placing? A glacier. Horn refers to the boulders as “erratics,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as, “rock fragments that have been transported by ice to locations other than their place of origin.” Like Horn, the rocks aren’t local; they too arrived from elsewhere, and from another time—a geological float. Sophia Roosth explains, “Floating, for geologists, means that a time period is relatively constrained but not dated absolutely. So too, a rock that is found on the ground unattached to bedrock is also in the float—undated, out of context.”10 Rocks in the float exist in a zone of approximation, which calls for blurring boundaries, and the separation of temporal and spatial experience.

In 2017 Julia Bryan-Wilson asked Cecilia Vicuña whether the art that she made in the seventies felt like part of the past, or part of her present. Then she asked if “all those temporalities [are] constantly interwoven and spiraling together?” Here’s Vicuña’s response:

When you’re creating a work, you are really outside time and space, while, at the same time, everything you do is totally site-specific and moment-specific.… I am constantly faced with that double capacity, the ability to be boundless and completely of-the-moment.11

Who hasn’t gotten so absorbed in their task that time seems to pass differently? And not in a daydreamy kind of way, but in a concentrated manner that transports you out of yourself. Isn’t her experience of a “double capacity” also a kind of floating?

In a piece called Galaxy of Litter (The Hudson River, New York, 1989), Vicuña floated little boats amidst random trash in the river. In the photographs she took, the darkness of the water reaches every edge while bits of cork, thread, leaf, feather—and more—mingle on the surface. None of it is meant to last. Her boats are built from debris, the kind of material Vicuña collects and sculpts into what she calls “precarios.” She writes, “Precarios is what is obtained by prayer, uncertain, exposed to hazards, insecure.”12 Uncertainty, insecurity, being exposed to external forces—these are qualities of floating things. The twelfth century Japanese poet and Buddhist priest Kamo-no-Chomei opens his major work, Hōjōki (composed in 1212) with an image of foam floating on river water, and the pathos his words arouse feels similar to that which Vicuña’s work creates. Chomei writes,

The flowing river
Never stops
And yet the water
Never stays
The same.
Foam floats
Upon the pools,
Scattering, reforming
Never lingering long.
So it is with man
And all his dwelling places
Here on earth.13

Remarkably, Chomei concludes the poem by associating this essential transience with the experience of humanity. Life is floating; floating is fleeting. Glissant echoes and expands this sentiment, “Whether on the wave, or in the city, the foam is fragile. It awaits its moment of being tried by the shore, and until then it struggles to endure on its crest.”14 Glissant adds struggle and endurance to the metaphor of foam as an image of humanity, which seems to beseech the mercy of the waves.

Around four centuries after Chomei, in the Edo Period (1603–1867), social and political unrest leads to civil wars that bring new lords to power, and these new lords want different things than their predecessors. What it means to float changes dramatically. Here’s the novelist Asai Ryōi, from his book Tales of the Floating World (1666),

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.15

To float is to be in the moment, a moment that passes from a solitary, contemplative experience to a hedonistic one. The artwork of this period celebrates courtesans and their lovers. Scenes of seduction and sex spread widely. Licensed quarters for pleasure-seekers are established in major cities, and flourish. With an emphasis on sensual gratification, the floating world alters the architecture of the city.

Lawrence Weiner made an interesting choice when he moved his phrase from the inside of a pen to the outside of a bag. He dropped “somewhere.” The move tightens the structure of his phrase, putting more emphasis on being afloat. He’s placed it on posters and pins too, and each time it attains a new form its meaning multiplies. There are less malleable phrases. In the late eighties one of my favorites occurred as wooden letters attached to pontoons in a harbor in Rotterdam: “We Are Ships at Sea Not Ducks on a Pond.” The phrase has appeared in many iterations since then, but every time I encounter it, I have the same response: either way, we float.

  1. Archimedes; Heath, Thomas Little, Sir, The Works of Archimedes, 1897. Cambridge University Press. p 257.
  2. Peck, William H., Egyptian Drawings, 1978. E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., New York.
  3. Bryan, Scott & Cook, Alex & Evans, Jason & Hebden, Kerry & Hurrey, Lucy & Colls, Peter & Jell, John & Weatherley, Dion & Firn, Jennifer. (2012). Rapid, Long-Distance Dispersal by Pumice Rafting. PloS one. 7. e40583.
  4. Glissant, Édouard, Sun of Consciousness, 2020. Nightboat Books, New York. p.9.
  5. ibid. p 10.
  6. ibid. p 73.
  7. Horn, Roni, Island Zombie: Iceland Writings, 2020. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. Blurb.
  8. ibid. p 107.
  9. ibid. p 60–61.
  10. Roosth, Sophia, “The Sultan and the Golden Spike; or What Straitagraphers Can Teach Us about Temporality.” Critical Inquiry, Summer 2022, Vol 48, No. 4. p. 706.
  11. Bryan-Wilson, Julia, “Awareness of Awareness: An Interview with Cecilia Vicuña,” in About to Happen by Cecilia Vicuña, 2017. Siglio, New York. p118
  12. Cecilia Vicuña, About to Happen, 2017. Siglio, New York. p.9
  13. Chomei, Kamo-no; Moriguchi, Yasuhiko; Jenkins, David, Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, 1996. Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley. p 31
  14. Ryōi, Asai, Tales of the Floating World (1666) translated by Richard Lane in Images from the Floating World, 1982, Dorset Press, New York. p11

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