After The Shipwreck

Before the shipwreck things had a transcendental character and they were beautiful and perfect, and Nature was a manifestation of the Divinity and it was awesome and inspiring, and inanimate objects were secondary in importance to people and they were user-friendly, and efficient, and useful.  Thus, street signs stood upright, and entrances were free from obstacles, and blue sofa cushions came with their blue sofa, and Everlast punching bags truly lasted forever, and candy bars belonged in candy stores, and American flags waved proudly in the wind, and TV remote controls actually controlled TVs from remote distances, and shoes were meant for walking, and coffee cups were meant for drinking coffee, and letters arrived to their destination, and everything had its place and time in the universe.     

After the shipwreck everything changed, and things lost their transcendence and became empty and vulgar, and Nature fell silent, and a long winter set in, and still lives displaced portraits as inanimate objects occupied the place of people and the objects themselves were useless and poorly made.

Rick Salafia’s still photos and videos are images after the shipwreck.  They portray nothing but mundane, useless, inanimate objects that are either lost or broken or misplaced (placed in the wrong context).  In a word, trash, res derelictae (things without owner), disjecta membra (disjointed things)—broken sticks, torn letters, tilted buildings, chewed pizza, ripped open punching bags, dead end roads, “No littering” signs ), etc.  In addition, official monuments are desecrated, and the American flag is stuck in a fence like a kitchen rag, and Hallmark sunset views are ruined by electric poles and wires, natural light competing with GE. 

One of the series is entitled “Fixing Things with My Camera.”  Perhaps a more appropriate title would be “Recording Broken Things with My Camera,” since the clownish, grotesque artist that emerges from these pictures (“Self-Portrait”) is not interested in fixing anything but only in filming a chronicle of individual and collective disasters, mistakes, absurdities, oversights.  Just that—traces of human failures.     

Perhaps the artist would not agree, but his work has more in common with a Baroque Vanitas than with the Surrealist objets trouvés (found objects) alluded to in one of the series.  It says that all worldly things are destined to die and that our most sacred beliefs—Nature, Technology, America, Rules and Regulations—are essentially rubbish and lies.  It is all vanity; nothing lasts forever, particularly an Everlast punching bag.  

It is not a coincidence that many of the images are set in winter.  Behind his Dadaist sense of humor and his American taste for the mundane, Salafia has a true “mind of winter” that beholds “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Steven’s “The Snow Man”).  I do not mean to say that his images are empty but rather that they reveal the nothing that is actually there. 

The series of videos Adjacent To Familiar share some of the same concerns.  Like the photos, they deal with mundane inanimate objects or parts pf objects rather than with people—a role of toilet paper, a cup, a porch swing, a piece of tarp floating in the wind, water dripping from the edge of an awning, etc.  In addition, many of the videos take place in winter and deal with vanishing, transient phenomena such as melting snow, raindrops and evaporating water.  In other words, they are permeated with a subtle feeling of melancholy and an awareness of the passing of Time, that is to say, an awareness of mortality.    

Yet, other elements are new.  Whereas the photos were practically  “anonymous,” some of the videos are the collaboration of a father —the artist himself— and his small daughter, whose hands and disembodied voice show up briefly in some of the scenes.  We are dealing, thus, with some sort of “family” video.  Fortunately, there are no birthday and barbecue scenes, only the faint voices of a daughter instructing her father what to do and specifically what to film.  “—I’ll tell you what to do,” we sometimes hear in the background, or “—Just say ‘now’ when it’s time.”  Perhaps that is why some of the videos are so fresh and unpretentious—they show the world through the eyes of a child who sees the world through the eyes of a camera lens.   Another unexpected element in the videos is the attention paid to Nature.  The photos were set in an urban setting comprised of sidewalks and highways (gray asphalt serves as the background in many of the pictures).  In contrast, the videos take place alternatively inside the house or outdoors.  Natural scenes are quiet and uneventful whereas domestic scenes are animated and noisy (we hear domestic noises and voices in the background).  Yet they are both equally ordinary and extraordinary.  The sublimity of Nature is degraded to the ordinariness of domestic life and the ordinariness of domestic life is elevated to the sublimity of Nature.

The viewer who expects “breathtaking” natural views will be disappointed.  Salafia does not know the word “drama.”  In his suburban world very little happens; things are never “important.”  Instead what we see are mundane natural events framed in a domestic setting—a piece of tarp waving against the passing clouds; snow melting on a table instead of on a mountain peak; water dripping on a table instead of on a mossy rock ; water evaporating off an awning instead of off a lake, etc.  Yet, although the scenes themselves are deliberately banal, they retain some of the beauty of Nature.  They are not beautiful but “almost” beautiful—modest, circumstantial, ephemeral.  As in the photos, Nature with a capital “N” is systematically trivialized and desecrated, but in doing so another nature with a small “n” emerges, a nature that is also dreamy and poetic and spiritual, not because it is “sublime” but rather because it is not.  Snow melts and the toilet paper runs out, and as ridiculous as this analogy is, both things are beautiful, and funny, and sad.

After the shipwreck there is not only emptiness and cynicism, but also a humble sense of beauty that finally does not make any claims to eternity.

Humberto Huergo