Memento Mori

An Icelandic shipwreck and a California car crash inspire massive installation at MOCA

Seventy-one years ago, on March 14, 1948, 14 British sailors drowned off the west coast of Iceland, their ship wrecked by seas so turbulent that one reporter called the waves "mountainous."

Exactly 61 years later, on March 14, 2009, a young man lost his life in a car accident in California, on the other side of the globe.

These two tragedies are unexpectedly brought together in a gigantic installation by Los Angeles artist Ali Silverstein at MOCA Tucson.

Called The Fantastical Reconstruction of the Epine GY7 Chapter 1: The Fragments, the work takes up all of the museum's Great Hall, an enormous space that once was a garage for fire trucks.

The hall is filled with Silverstein's vast paintings, small collages, larger-than-life sculptures and delicate rubbings, most of them about the deaths of the men lost at sea when their ship, the Epine, went down.

Only one piece is about the young accident victim, Cole, who was Silverstein's boyfriend. It's a continuously looping movie that she shot to chart her grief and shock in the year after his death. The movie was originally a feature-length documentary, but for this installation the artist fractured it into nine small fragments, all of them playing at the same time, each on one of nine separate screens. This discordant version of the film pictures Silverstein undergoing a healing ceremony in a forest, strewing some of his ashes below the pines, meeting his family.

But much of the imagery is of that haunting Icelandic beach. Long before Cole's accident, the couple had traveled to Dritvik Beach, where the doomed sailors' ship went down. One year after Cole's death, Silverstein returned to that remote shore, a rocky place of cliffs and crashing waves. Her journey linked him, in a way, with the seamen who had perished there years before.

The artist went out on the beach with dear Icelandic friends and their small boy to release Cole's remaining ashes to the winds. In the movie's most moving scene, the father explains to his son, kindly but matter-of-factly, that first we're alive, and then we're dead, and it's up to the rest of us to put the deceased to rest.

But at this wild rocky spot, Silverstein was also struck by the dozens of pieces of metal debris scattered on the sands, among reeds, below cliffs. They were the remains of the tempest-tossed ship, "left to rust for the past 70 years," as the artist put it. She couldn't re-create the Epine, despite the title she gave the installation, but she felt compelled "to gather the pieces of the ship...and to resurrect them into a new form."

After researching the wreck, poring over newspaper accounts of the mass drownings and collecting the names of the dead, she went back to the site in 2018. Working with a team of friends, often in the "silent, pink, un-dark of Icelandic summer nights," she and her friends made rubbings of all the metal pieces they could find.

Rubbing is an art form often associated with death; many people make rubbings of ancestral gravestones to memorialize those who have passed. Likewise, Silverstein and company memorialized the sailors by reproducing the bits of metal tools and ship fittings they had once used in their nautical work. The team laid white paper across the metal parts, then rubbed them with charcoal or pencil to reproduce their shape and texture.

These lovely, delicate pieces hang in many parts of the installation; some are large, some small, but all are colored in ghostly gray and white. The rubbings also serve as templates for many of the other works. On one wall, the metal fragments are writ large, painted in bright primary colors on oversized canvases. Elsewhere, colored in pastel paint, they cascade down a huge drape of canvas, held high by a slab of wood.

Even the show's big wooden sculptures, blackened by fire, are carved in the shapes of the metal pieces. Most touchingly, wild imagined portraits of each of the seamen are crafted out of collaged colored papers that mimic the rusted tools. Their names are there too: Mark Bradley, 25, deck hand; Fred Thompson, 39, mate; Harry Horner, 51, chief engineer.

Silverstein writes that her two projects—the movie about her own grief and the other artworks of the metal debris—are actually much alike. In each case, she tried to make sense of the tragedy "by giving it a new form."

By bringing the two disasters together, Silverstein honors her personal grief for a loved one, while expanding it into a more universal compassion for strangers. And she follows the advice of the father who explained life and death to his son: she is honoring and then burying these dead, and going on to live life.

One of the three small solo shows in the back galleries also deals with death. Rachel Frank tracks the fragmented habits of animals in the Sonoran Desert, zeroing in on the prized Sonoran pronghorn, using ceramics and even a Sonoran pronghorn mask—which she wears in her film. The pronghorn is already endangered, and the border walls now under construction at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and elsewhere have put the species at even greater risk of death and extinction.

For So Long, Lilly McElroy made 365 copies of a cheesy stock photo of a sunset. Piling the pictures one atop the other, over the course of a year McElroy banished the suns by sanding a hole right though them. The hole's strange shape is both sexual and virginal: it looks at once like a vulva and a Virgin Mary.

Caroline Wells Chandler's Close Encounters tackles sexual identity via a unique medium: his cheery and colorful crocheted figures gallop across the walls like so many Keith Haring runners bursting with joy.

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