By Natalie Willis.
Heino Schmid’s practice can perhaps be described as slippery or amphibious - and it’s not so much to do with the water, as it is to do with his fluidity in dealing with the bounds of what we believe to constitute drawing, sculpture, painting as separate genres - the proverbial lines in his practice become blurred. This movement between the medium and the means is why “Temporary Horizon” (2010) was chosen for the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics” on display at the NAGB.
“Temporary Horizon” (2010) is what initially appears to be a delightfully simple video work that shifts at one moment from performance – with the artist clad in a white shirt and jeans (a sort of uniform of modernity for many of us) as he attempts to place the bottom of a Kalik bottle on the neck of another lying flat on the table. It then shifts to a still-life of sorts, as, almost impossibly or by magic, the bottles balance on top of each other and remain unmoving for what feels like eternity. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the bottles eventually become re-animated and topple over before rolling off the table in the video. Schmid comments that “The image combines the use of common material and repetition to candidly examine the shifting tensions between action and inertia, balance and imbalance. The positioning of the two bottles, though fragile and ultimately unsustainable, evokes surprise through its temporary equilibrium, with a false horizon [of the water in the bottle] created as a byproduct of this balancing act.”
The work is displayed across from a newly created work by Schmid for the exhibition, “Pull” (2017), almost as if they are in conversation with each other. The works in this particular section of the exhibition, entitled “Beyond The Tropical”, deal with the way Bahamian contemporary artists are moving past the manicured ‘tropical’ image of Caribbean paradise to produce work that engages with our specific regional and international context in ways that challenge these notions of the ‘picturesque’. Schmid’s work typifies this in many ways. The artist and educator, currently Associate Professor of Art at the University of The Bahamas, uses found objects and materials from our everyday environment to re-inform the way we view our surroundings. His work provides us a moment of unfamiliarity wherein we have to re-navigate what we thought we knew our surroundings to be.
This is in part achieved by his work often operating in ‘white cube’ spaces, much like video displayed in this white background and on a white table - they both blend into each other before Schmid activates the space in the video by entering the shot. The ‘white cube’ is the default we often think of in regards to most gallery-based contemporary art work. White walls are meant to indicate a blank slate, tabula rasa, and clinical quality, an idea of a neutral space - but, as the world of art is built of symbols and histories, the white cube is of course anything but. As Brian O’Doherty, the Irish installation artist and critic known for his seminal text “Inside The White Cube” produced in 1976, the white cube is not neutral at all, it is an art-historical construct. The history of the white cube is one that elevates anything within it to be considered art - hence the problems we have with people thinking that fire extinguishers are being exhibited rather than their proper placement as protection from fire hazards.
The neutrality desired by the construction of white cube spaces is best thought of as setting a stage, it creates an environment and set of social rules for how to engage with the contents of the space in a particular way. That being said, as Caribbean and postcolonial subjects, given our mixed heritage of European, indigenous and African ancestry, with the healthy dollop of globalization and American influence, our art history is a little bit all-over-the-place - and that provides a beautiful freedom in many ways. We are not bound by the rigidity of being boxed in by “white” as many other Western practices are, because while we are Western, we are also not. We have the freedom to move between different historical references–but not in a neutral way–we carry our history whether we engage with it directly or not. Schmid might be in a white shirt and jeans, and in a white space - he could literally be anyone by these listed signifiers - but he cannot escape the racial ambiguity of his skin in the image and what curiosity that piques. He is a trickster not just by the act performed, but by his movements between elements of blackness and whiteness as his mixed Bahamian and European heritage allows.
There is both a tension and contention for bi-national and mixed-raced subjects, wherein there is a perceived privilege of being able to move between whiteness and blackness, an implied ease of sorts that isn’t afforded to most black folks. This is not, however, quite true in itself. Being a black and white mixed subject means that while perhaps a certain whiteness might provide some privilege of moving in primarily white spaces that other black bodies may not be so lucky to do, there is also a distrust that becomes present on both sides and a displacement that can never quite be reconciled.
Caribbean work in the white cube space can also feel this displacement, a feeling that harkens back to some difficult parts of our history as a people descended from all manner of migratory bodies: displaced Black Africans, European colonizers, Chinese, Greek, and South-Asian migrants brought in or moved for opportunities in new lands. We feel it all.
Angelika Bammer, the feminist scholar of “Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question” (1994) describes our plight as the "deconstructive dilemma of needing to step outside and remain inside the same systems". She states that "Identity is at times about what we are essentially not, but are also not free to dispense with." The tension of the beer bottles elucidates this in an understated and succinct way: if we take them to be the fragile balance of our European colonial history and African ancestry, the way that we try to reconcile these two sides of our heritage, and the loop of this video in the way we must gently balance them, hold this balance for as long as possible, and watch as the bottles collapse before we must loop back and do it all again. It feels true to the constant push and pull we feel on our identity here, amidst this displaced backdrop and new territory we are forced to navigate.
The magic of Schmid’s trick lies in this balance, and become more real than imagined if we use it as a metaphor for the way think and come to know ourselves. The balancing act is difficult, it may occasionally feel like a performance, but it is an exercise we are much accustomed to. And just as the video– while filmed in a white cube–is displayed in a space with richly coloured walls in a building with a history just as richly coloured - perhaps we just need to look outside the bounds of our personal frame of reference and add more colour to this clinical space to begin to move past these difficulties.