Plymouth Rock (2012) is the latest work by Trisha Baga. In it, the New York-based artist grafts a polysemic voice onto the eponymous site in Massachusetts – the historical disembarkation point of the Pilgrims arriving to establish a religious colony in 1621, and today a broken landmark that has been altered repeatedly.
When I visited her studio, Baga suggested that Pangea – the mythical landmass from which all Earth’s continents come – was the true origin of the rock. After the sediment broke away from the first continent, it travelled for centuries, before becoming a stepping-stone for the émigrés (although Plymouth’s townspeople only ordained it as such roughly 100 years after they arrived). Since then, this historically questionable rock has been transported to various sites, breaking with each move. At one point, the remaining pieces were paired and glued together. Baga described this awkward task as fitting ‘two egg-shapes on top of each other, which had to be filled with mortar’. The process provided Baga with a framework, ‘a type of mathematics behind the video piece’, in which tv clips, shadows, squiggly subtitles and sound are collaged together.
In cinema, the term ‘non-diegetic’ refers to imagery and sound that does not occur as part of the action. Non-diegesis decentres the narrative, causing its meaning to alter, synchronize or synaptically deviate – a constant flow of extra-sensory material that can render the viewing experience fuzzy and abstract, not unlike the historical authenticity of Plymouth Rock. In Baga’s video, the patchwork soundtrack and visual frames become a metaphorical crutch for the rock, replicating a futile attempt to compensate for a loss of weight and gravity.
In the studio, Baga projected the work-in-progress onto a wall supporting two small canvases, a folding chair, a take-away menu and a curled piece of masking tape. In the foreground, a toothbrush rested on top of a boombox, which, treated with sand-textured paint, stood on a cardboard box pedestal. The light falling from the projection onto the props creates shadows and volume, a method that achieves ‘different readings of space [which] are layered on top of each other’. A portion of Baga’s jam-packed studio is usually transferred to the gallery for shows: ‘I bring most of the crap from my studio to the gallery. Everything on that wall, some of these boxes, that stereo and my toothbrush, and just see what they [at the space] have to create shadows.’ This improvised relationship between objects and video is an important characteristic of Baga’s work. She is ‘not trying to present an illusory studio’, rather, ‘the video is influenced by what my studio is like’. She pushes these objects to ‘perform’ in front of the video landscape. The boombox, for instance, is also a sculpture, actor, and surrogate Plymouth Rock.
A pulsating jellyfish fills the first frame, as the narrator says: ‘Plymouth Rock, a re-creation, this is the one, yes this one. This right over here. Not that over there, but this one. I wonder what that is?’ The voice-over starts to abstract itself through indecision, and then distracted questioning. Cut to a moment when a figure seems to walk through the projector’s light. Baga programmes this visual hiccup in order to emulate a real-life theatrical disruption, yet it doesn’t interrupt the narrator: ‘I think we need to find that place where I stop and you begin, so you can go there, and I can go there, in a place where you are not … If your place is over there and my place is over here, then the place where we are can be bigger and bigger.’ Baga mobilizes visual and vocal tics to expand the film into space, and yet also reference the screen, and even insist upon it.
A pulsing spotlight, hands moving up and down the frame, shadows produced by a woman twirling – these point to action outside the frame. Visually they appear to sit on top of the projector lens, never penetrating the scenic landscape. Sound effects replicate and match these visual twitches with chattering crowds, pounding piano keys, mobile phone ringtones, the sound waves hover a layer above, yet not in the narrative. Baga’s voice recites a litany of statements-turned-questions, ‘Hello? I can’t hear you over this wind? Hello? Are you there? Hello?’ Subtitles describe the rock: ‘I move me, they break. We move you, I break. Less than one third of my original body remains. The gap is filled with common mortar.’
Baga directs the narrative at the boombox, but also aims it at all the objects on the wall, hoping to ‘use the attention of the viewer as a material’. She argues for a spectator whose attentiveness is ‘scattered and directed at scattered things’ by constructing a disjointed narrative. She explains that the effect is essential: ‘If the attention isn’t diffused, then my actions on the objects just seem odd.’
Baga’s process tiptoes between calculation and chance, bombardingyou with information only to suddenly stop, zoom in and focus. The aim is for the audience to experience what the artist describes as, ‘different ways of looking that ebb and flow […] I want to achieve the feeling of this broken body, which is trying to remember its voice. This is my sympathy with the rock.’
Trisha Baga is an artist based in New York, USA. Last year she was included in group shows at Vilma Gold, UK, London; Greene Naftali, New York; and the Fourth Wall at Vox Populi, Philadelphia, USA. She currently has solo shows at Vilma Gold (until 20 May) and at the Kunstverein München, Germany (until 17 June).
First published in Issue 147