OLU OGUIBE: ASHES
at The Scene Gallery, March 28 - April 6, 2002
42 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10001
A Life Once Removed
In Olu Oguibe's installation, "Ashes", we become virtual first responders to a desolate relief in gray, an ash-shrouded setting decentered and unfixed of meaning and focus by its lack of color. There is no body to triage, but ready evidence of an abrupt interception in a young market trader's quotidian schedule. A mental snapshot for forensics proffers evidence of a life vacated: an assemblage of clothing is laid out like a cast of its owner, one which will wait interminably for investment by its owner, the unmade bed, another cast of the missing occupant, a tumbler of water with its layered meniscus of fluid and dust, a core sample diary of recent events, framed photos on the bedside table, frozen witnesses to that which happened, a wristwatch still marking time, an alarm clock arrested in the moment, spare change from last night's events spent in the comfort of camaraderie, and the billfold which will ID the absentee. A generic dresser-drawer, nondescript framed prints on the wall, and a lone briefcase standing on the floor complete the unsettling scene, a Pompeiian postapocalyptic benediction in dust. There is no evidence of violence, but everywhere, an alluvium of ashes and a single curtain that hints at the altered world beyond . . .
Dust and ash are universal tropes of death and entropy. The Phoenix repeats its 500-year cycle of self-immolation and rebirth from its own ashes. "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down . . ." is a childhood game recitation that refers to the days of the Black Death. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . ." is a funereal mantra that points to the alpha and the omega of worldwide creation myths in which we are formed from material to which we return. Ashes are the residues from crematoriums and the remains of incendiary cataclysms; ubiquitous, ash is materiality reduced to a common denominator, its accrual marking time like the waterglass in our protagonist's bedroom.
The installation, both timely and timeless, is accompanied by framed testimonials of individuals recalling the event. With their wandering dates, days, seasons, and misplaced references to holidays and persons, these documents evince the kindly Lethean purpose of layering time over memories of psychic pain. These letters frame "Ashes" as a diorama exploring the DMZ between universal issues of order and disorder.
Oguibe has worked on the theme of catastrophe, war, and trauma for more than a decade and in 1995 created one of the first memorials to the victims of the Oklahoma Federal Building tragedy. A firsthand witness to both war and bereavement, his installations deal with the grief of intimate loss, strategies of commemoration and psychic recovery. For several months in 2000, he was an artist-in-residence in Tower One of the World Trade Center. Dust is this artist's leitmotif and metaphor for catastrophe and rebirth. In circumscribing finitude, he tenders the excavation, genesis, and fostering of hope.