To the Sandcastle
Written by: Christoforos Marinos
I can recall, as a child, seeing pictures in English children’s books of boys and girls playing on the sand and making sandcastles – and I tried to play on my sand. But a Mediterranean beach is not a place for playing on. It is dirty and very dry. The tides never wash the sand or make it firm. When I tried to make a sandcastle, the sand would just run away between my fingers. It was too dry to hold together. And even as I poured sea water over it, the sun would dry it up at once.
-Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle(1957)
Assuming that the ice marks the North and the sand marks the South, Meta Isaeus-Berlin’s installation Sandcastle for Grown Ups reveals not only a mood to move to places with completely different weather and social conditions, but also an evolution of the artist’s ideas. Twenty years ago, with sculptures such as the Container (1994) and Nudge (1995) Isaeus-Berlin simulated the experience of a frozen landscape in the interior of a room. In a text published in the catalogue of the group exhibition See what it feels like! in the Rooseum, Roza Martinez had aptly pointed out the importance of the viewer’s involvement with the artist’s sculptures: “The elegance characterising her work becomes a force that generates new forms of experience, as viewers participate by comprehending or physically modifying her works.”i
But what does it actually mean to build sandcastles at the stressful times we live in? One wonders, as a famous Greek song says, why “It is bad to build palaces in the sand,”… Does such an action reveal something about our culture, the way of our existence, and the dispersion of man? The artist Pierre Bonnard, in his painting Child Making a Sand Castle (1894), had approached this unique carefree moment in a child’s life with great sensitivity. The philosopher Michel Foucault, on the other hand, in the last sentence of his book The Order of Things, used the element of sand to demonstrate how knowledge is structured: “then we can indeed bet that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”ii
The “peaceful absence of man” conveyed by the installation Sandcastle for Grown Ups at Mare Gallery could constitute a insightful commentary on the current social situation. Why does the Sandcastle proposed by Meta Isaeus-Berlin address adults and not, as one would normally expect, children? Exactly what do these room interiors that are entirely covered with sand refer to and what kind of houses do they portray? Over the recent years, the word “sandcastle” is used more and more frequently to describe various aspects and events of the recent crisis. Two years ago, an online newspaper article wrote: “During the financial crisis, the credit rating agencies were criticised because they had issued overly positive assessments of the highly dubious (junk) bonds of the USA mortgage industry. They now tell the agencies to also overrate the equally dubious rescuing of Greece. Unsurprisingly, the experts now consider the project of establishing a European credit rating agency a sandcastle, which the European politicians wish to build with excessive zeal.”
The atmospheric rooms of Meta Isaeus-Berlin could also constitute a metaphor for both the relationship between the countries of the North and the South and the mentality of these people. In a short text advocating August Strindberg, the Norwegian Nobel writer Björnstjerne Björnson opposes those who fail to grasp the displacement of their compatriot: “It is a fact that the Swedes stand out when it comes to this kind of dimorphism: liberal yet full of prejudice, young and old at the same time.” In Sandcastle for Grown Ups – a potential insinuation about the “dimorphic” Swedes – the reference to the great playwright is much more complex: in Meta Isaeus-Berlin’s installation, the furniture, the clothes, and the objects that make up the dining room and the bedroom are reminiscent of a set in a Strindberg’s play.
In many respects, the installation Sandcastle for Grown Ups bridges the gap between scientific phenomena and literary narratives. In order to conceive such a claim, one will need to refer to the radical thinking of Michel Serres: “Inanimate Objects, Do You have a Soul?,” wonders the philosopher in one of his texts, in which he tries to explain how his reading of the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf helped him understand the entropy of things. In Woolf’s novel, remarks Serres, one can find answers to questions posed by philosophers and scientists of the past. Therefore, in such a work, where the “interior duration” has a regulatory role, many engrained convictions are overthrown: the objects of the world, inert or alive, live their own existence and have a soul. Additionally, the best calculator of time is one’s dwelling and most importantly: our perception is what creates the world. Serres eloquently explains his reasoning: “Try moving out of your house. As it empties it becomes progressively unrecognizable. Were you really haunting such a garret? With you gone, the faded wallpaper, the walls, doors, and floors, deprived of the lines whose rhythm was supplied by your furniture, enter widowhood. Let someone else move in and the place takes on a completely different look – I was going to say a new personality – as if, alive and perceiving, it were adapting itself to the perceptions and life of its new tenants”. And just a little further below, he adds: Might our perception, then, oppose the entropy of things? Might we exist as lighthouses? iii
The conclusions that Michel Serres draws after reading Virginia Woolf’s novel are similar to those drawn after viewing an “epic narrative”, such as the Sandcastle for Grown Ups. It is now up to the viewers, in the light of their personal experience and mental disposition, to answer the question that seems to be raised by Meta Isaeus-Berlin’s installation: Might we exist as sandcastles?
Art historian, art critic, freelance curator, President of AICA Hellas