2019 Biennial
Floor 6

Solo en Inglès

Find sound descriptions and transcriptions of all works with sound, as well as an audio description of Carolyn Lazard's work.

Transcription: Ellie Ga

Gyres, 2019

Sound description: The shuffling of photographs on a table’s surface. A light switch flips, making the top video begin. A photograph slides into the center.

Ellie Ga: I was supposed to meet the oceanographer at the annual Beachcomber’s Convention in Ocean Shores, Washington State. The trip had been planned for a long time. Then it so happened that my mom died. 

[The artist swipes the photograph from its spot] 

Ellie Ga: “Then it so happened,” such a weird way to say it. I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it to the Beachcomber’s Convention, but the wake and the funeral were organized so quickly. 

[Photograph of funeral parlor interior slides on table into view]

Ellie Ga: My dad had died a couple of months before. [rustling of photographs] There’s this thing at the funeral home about putting personal objects in the display case to make the room feel more homey. My brothers must have put my mother’s dolls in there.

[Photograph placed on the table] 

Ellie Ga: I think they were porcelain. Besides the dolls, the other objects on display were put in the open coffin, next to my mother, like the ancient Egyptian tradition, entombed with valuables and useful things for the afterlife. When I walked up to the coffin, in the coffin, on display, was a pack of cigarettes, the novel Catcher in the Rye, which was banned from being taught at the high school where she worked. 

[Sliding of photograph]

Ellie Ga: There was a pack of post-it notes. She was constantly writing notes to herself, they were all over the house, especially her spot at the kitchen table. People thought it was a quirk, but it was a marker of the deterioration of her mental health over the years. At the funeral, my brother gave me the book In Patagonia, a belated Christmas present. He always wanted to know what to give me for Christmas. He’d obsess over it. Maybe because he was―or I guess is―mentally ill. He kept emailing me. Finally I wrote him back: “okay, why don’t you get me Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia?” I would reread it around the time my brother fell―or threw himself―out a window.

[Photographs are swiped from their spot on the table, sliding noisily. A silence video plays]

Ellie Ga: After my mom’s funeral, I went straight to the Annual Beachcomber’s Convention, in Ocean Shores in Washington State. I pay my three dollar admission fee, and I enter the fair. Filled with tables, covered with stuff that people have found on the beaches, that craftspeople make from the things they find on the beaches, and the blue and red ribbons given out at the beachcombing contest. Entries were sorted into categories.

[Images swiped and rustled] 

Ellie Ga: So there’s the oceanographer’s table―it’s pretty obvious, I think it was the first thing I noticed when I walked in―with a banner for his magazine: The Beachcomber’s Alert. The oceanographer has been mapping the rotations of ocean gyres. Gyres are turnings, a combination of wind patterns and currents. He’s been calculating how long it takes for flotsam to orbit on these gyres. He calls it gyre memory. Either the flotsam gets spit out and eventually washes ashore, or it’s broken down and gets sucked into what he’s named the Great Oceanic Garbage Patches. . . .essentially toxic plastic soups.

[The rustling of photographs, swiping sound]

Ellie Ga: The oceanographer has all this stuff on his table. The stuff he’s been studying: one of the twenty-nine-thousand bath toys that fell off a cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean; one of the 61,000 Nike sneakers lost at sea in 1990, on its way from South Korea to the U.S.; one of the 34,000 hockey gloves that went overboard in 1994. “It’s free data,” he says. To launch that many drifters, hi-tech GPS floating devices, at one place and at one time, would cost way too much money. He says that beachcombing is the poor person’s oceanography. In a way all these people here, these beachcombers, are his research assistants. Everybody wants to show him the stuff they’ve been finding on the beaches. I can’t really have a conversation with him with all the people coming by, so I go outside to the parking lot of the convention center.

[Rustling of photographs]

Ellie Ga: Behind the convention center is a thrift shop called Flea Market Finds. In the windows are dolls ―porcelain dolls, just like my mom’s dolls at the funeral. In this thrift shop, in this small thrift shop in Washington state. Before he was a writer, Bruce Chatwin, the author of In Patagonia, was poised to become the youngest director of Sotheby’s. He was very good at appraising objects and spotting fakes. His last novel is about a collector in Prague, named Utz. Chatwin met him one night many years before, during the Soviet era in Czechoslovakia. Utz had a very fine enormous collection of Meissen porcelain. They look like kitsch porcelain figures, but they are very sought after and expensive. Utz was afraid the state would seize his collection. He stayed in his apartment with his world of porcelain figurines.

[Ga’s narration pauses as a video plays silently]

Ellie Ga: At the end of Bruce Chatwin’s life, in the late 1980s, one of the AIDS-defining illnesses he had was a fungus that was eating away at his brain. His collecting became manic. . . .he went on shopping sprees, pushed in a wheelchair in the middle of a busy London street, near Piccadilly Circus. Hanging from the wheelchair are plastic bags filled with antiquities, including a prehistoric stone hand axe.

[The images are swiped quickly from the screen]

Ellie Ga: I read an essay written by a man whose father and best friend and son had died the same year. His son had been born still born. Someone well-meaning mailed him and his wife a styrofoam cooler with a giant filet of Alaska salmon, you know, to aid them while they were grieving. . . .so this guy is a vegetarian and thinks that salmon is the worst thing you can eat―the infringement on tribal fishing rights and the way that it’s farmed―but what makes him lose it, is the styrofoam cooler. The idea that it has a longer life than any of us. 

[Images shuffle]

Ellie Ga: Utz says, “objects are tougher than people. Objects are the mirrors in which we watch ourselves disintegrate.” Bruce Chatwin could afford―well, with his wife’s money anyway―to buy antiquities to be left to museums or auctioned off to form foundations, but for the most of us, the best we can hope for is that our objects, our personal objects, end up in some shit thrift shop like this one in Washington state.

[Images are swiped and replaced]

Ellie Ga: Back at the convention center, I record a conversation with the oceanographer while we look at the display that took first place in the beachcombing contest. It’s covered with debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The oceanographer says if we had infinite resources we could trace most of these things back to the 10,000 or so people who have died, and then it wouldn’t be here. We might as well be looking at tombstones.

[Ga swipes the image and places new ones]

Ellie Ga: I follow a beachcomber back to his museum filled with the forty years’ worth of the stuff he’s been finding on the beaches, from container spills to the debris of naval drills. I go back to London―the newspapers filled with images from the Mediterranean―people risking their lives on small rubber boats to claim asylum in Europe. I read an interview with a beachcomber in Lesvos. He’s organizing volunteer efforts on the beach next to his home. I started volunteering.

[Ga swipes the images and shuffles the ones off on the side]

Ellie Ga: I’d go to Greece for a couple of weeks here and there. I have a small child―back then he was a year old. When I wasn’t away I would meet an archeologist. The archeologist and I would go on walks for prehistoric stone tools. She’s an expert on stones. She used to be a nurse for AIDS patients in the 1980s. She told me how people treated the patients back then -- and how people treated her for treating the patients―one of her patients told her a joke, how do you feed a person with AIDS? She said, I hadn’t really thought about it but I suppose a high protein diet. The patient laughed and said, “No, a piece of toast shoved under the door.”

[Images shuffle]

Ellie Ga: I tell the archeologist about volunteering on Lesvos. She had just listened to a program on the BBC about an Egyptian man who has lived on the island of Lesvos for a long time. He’s Muslim so he is in charge of burying many of the asylum seekers who didn’t make it across. The body is washed and wrapped in cloth, then stones are placed on the body, to weigh the body down before burial. There were not enough big stones left on the beaches of Lesvos. He had used them all up burying people―now he was resorting to heavy pieces of wood.

[Ga slides new images onto main screen]

Ellie Ga: I ask the archeologist why people left stones and pebbles on tombstones, particularly on Jewish tombstones (that’s what I associate it, but maybe I’m wrong). She said that maybe it’s similar to the stones being put on the body―both religions came out of the desert. Perhaps at one point the stones were used to keep the body free, to keep away the birds of prey.

The small stones on the tombstone could have something to do with the crossroads. Leaving a stone at the crossroads goes back a long way for humans to mark where we’ve been. For example: cairns, hikers put stones upon a stone, marking all the people who passed by. Explorers used them to leave messages behind, letters for people to find and send on. 

[The light switches off audibly. Photographs below are shuffled and rustled. A light switch is flipped. A map of the Greek island of Symi slides to the center of the table]

Ellie Ga: Legend has it that a painting of the Archangel Michael washed ashore [photograph placed loudly] on the island of Symi in the Aegean Sea. Someone found it and took it home. But every morning the painting was back on the beach again―next to the monastery.

[Photographs swiped away]

Ellie Ga: Since then people launch messages in bottles – throughout the Aegean – in the hopes of reaching the miraculous icon. My Greek interpreter and I are waiting on a bench in front of Symi’s monastery. I hand her a note given to me in Alexandria, in Egypt, by a Greek Orthodox priest. The priest had said, “It’s true―messages in bottles really do wash up on the island. If you go to Symi―give this note to my friend.” My Greek interpreter reads the note. She says, “this is for the person we’re about to meet."

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: We follow the monastery guide through the inner courtyard. We walk past the beds laid out for pilgrims––arriving this weekend.

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: Into the monastery’s museum. . . .

[New image placed]

Ellie Ga: Where messages in bottles are on display. Most of the bottles are from people who are sick, asking the Archangel Michael for help. The monastery guide says we can’t understand―what it’s like to be so desperate––to make this irrational act of launching a message in a bottle into the unknown. Folded up in the letter is usually a little bit of money to help the bottle on its journey. He says, “the monastery always mails back a receipt––if a return address is included.” My Greek interpreter rolls her eyes. Of course the monastery mails back a receipt.

[Images swiped away, a new image slid onto the table]

Ellie Ga: I ask an ocean physicist who works at the University of Athens if she can tell me why so many messages in bottles wash up on the island of Symi―if there are specific currents that make this possible.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: She says the circulation in the Mediterranean is more complicated than in the open oceans.

[New image placed]

Ellie Ga: It’s practically a landlocked sea. The currents bifurcate, they go north and south, bouncing off the coastlines. She says look. . . .“There are islands here here, here, and here. The Mediterranean is filled with eddies. Eddies are like small gyres but they don’t stay in one place.” “Are eddies gyres that drift?” I ask. The ocean physicist hesitates for a moment. “I guess you can say that eddies are gyres that drift.”

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: So, with the bottles on Symi, you’d be better off asking the fishermen. They always know more about their particular part of the sea than any oceanographer. She says, “When I was child, I launched messages in bottles, while on vacation on the island of Evia. Evia,” she says, “do you know where that is?”

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: The monastery guide leads us back into the courtyard. The crowds are lining up to see the miraculous icon. People walk up to the icon, pulling out photographs and children’s clothes, wiping them in the gesture of a cross on top of the glass that protects the icon from the public. Candles in the shape of babies are being left at the icon’s feet. My interpreter says these are tama, the Greek word for an offering, for fertility, health, prosperity, or whatever else.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: The poet Yannis Ritsos was said to have hid his poems in bottles buried them in the sand for safe keeping. He spent most of the 1950s and 60s in the “re-education” camps for political dissenters, and exile on various islands throughout the Aegean Sea during the dictatorship in Greece.

[Pause]

Ellie Ga: He drew faces and figures and faces on the stones and driftwood he collected from the beaches.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: The stones are on display in Athens at the Museum of Exile.

[Big pause]

Ellie Ga: The founder of the museum lights a cigarette and says, “The poet Yannis Ritsos never buried poems in bottles while in the reeducation camps. It’s a legend. But I did see a movie once about messages in bottles with Kevin Costner. It was very good. Did you see it?” I follow him down the corridor.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: “This is like a message in a bottle,” he says. “But not launched at sea. A final message from an exile, written on his shirt, torn and flung from the execution van.” “These are sketches my mother made in the women’s camps. She was taken away for seven years.” “Was she still alive when you started this museum?” “No,” he says, “for better or for worse. Here are the stones that Yannis Ritsos gave her. He said to my mother: to draw a human face on a stone while in the reeducation camps was a form of resistance.” He talked about the tama (the offerings) left behind at the churches. It was a reminder that despite the polarization of society people want the same things in life. The same basic things anyway.

[Images swiped away. A new image is placed. Ga pauses.]

Ellie Ga: The fishermen say it’s too complicated to explain as they pile fish on the dock in front of Symi’s monastery. It’s an offering for the Archangel Michael’s name day. “There are too many micro currents. We would have to sit in front of a nautical chart.” They say that messages in bottles don’t arrive so much anymore, not like they used to. The fishermen say it must be because of the crisis―people can’t afford to put money in the bottles these days.

[Photographs swiped away, images rustle]

Ellie Ga: I ask the owner of the wine shop if she has ever found a message in a bottle addressed to the Archangel Michael. She told me no, never, but my grandmother found her sister. fifty years ago, most of the population left Symi. There were no jobs. Her grandmother left Symi and made her life in Athens.

Her grandmother’s sister had gotten married (years before that) and moved to Alexandria.

[Swipe]

Ellie Ga: These two old ladies, having come back to Symi after fifty years for the Archangel Michael’s name day were sitting on a bench in front of the monastery. They started talking and realized they were sisters.

[Swipe]

Ellie Ga: Recently, the owner of the wine shop met a group of people walking. They had just climbed up the rocks from the beach below. (They hadn’t seen the path.) She said, “I stopped and asked what they needed. They were so happy to be on solid ground. We took photos together. I don’t care what my neighbors think. I will help any way that I can.”

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: She started a refuge for asylum seekers out of the old post office next to the harbor along with a cop from London. It turns out his precinct in London is across the street from where I live. Back home, we both get our coffee from Frank’s coffee stand (next to the tube station). The cop pulls out several life vests and props them up against the stone stairs. They were left behind by four teenagers over the summer. They told him, “by the time we had reached Symi we hated the sight of the life vests, but used them as pillows when we had to sleep on the street.”

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: I tell the cop about the landfill on Lesvos. The cop picks up one of the life vests. He says, “This was drawn by a twelve-year-old from Aleppo. He’s drawn a head in black felt-tip pen. A man with a mustache from a side profile. A bubble with hello. Underneath that bubble is the word ‘sorry.’ On the back of the neck––below the skull of the head there is a picture of a knife and a scar wound on the neck. Above the Yamaha logo he’s written, ‘I will be good.’ Later on, I said to a friend, the cop really missed his calling in life. He should have been an art historian. He described that life vest in such detail. As if he was describing a painting. But they just rolled their eyes and said, “It’s a classic police report. A thorough description of a scene.”

[Ga swipes the images away. A light switch is hit and the camera goes dark. The photographs on the table are shuffled loudly and reorganized. The light switch is hit again, the camera turns back on]

Ellie Ga: There are two miraculous icons in the Aegean Sea depicting the Archangel Michael. One is located on the island of Lesvos. It’s a portrait of the Archangel in clay and blood. Every year people bring the Archangel Michael pairs of shoes―metal shoes―so that when he goes out at night to avenge the people, his feet will be protected as he runs.

[Images swiped away and replaced]

Ellie Ga: At the beauty supply shop the shoes cost fifteen euros, but they can also be purchased at the monastery and left behind as a tama, the Greek word for an offering. Then the monastery can re-sell them every year. Most people drive to the monastery, a few go on horse, and some people still walk following the old tradition. If they started from the capital, the walk would take to the north of Lesvos―sixty kilometers or thirty-seven miles, around ten hours. This summer thousands of people walked this way, in the other direction to get from the northern beaches to the registration camps. It was supposedly illegal to give anyone a ride―’aiding illegal migration.’ Sometimes wet shoes were left behind on the beaches. After they dried, they were used by new arrivals in the following days.

[Images swiped away and replaced]

Ellie Ga: The night before the metal shoes festival on Lesvos, I got a text message from my brother with a link to a New York Daily News article about a lawsuit that had been filed against a priest for mental abuse. The priest is the principal of a Catholic high school in Staten Island. The lawsuit was filed by three former teachers who were colleagues of my mother before she died. The priest knew that she suffered from crippling arthritis but he arranged her teaching schedule so that after every class she’d have to change classrooms―walking to the opposite end of the school.

[Image of a bag placed down audibly]

Ellie Ga:  -- her bags so heavy filled with stuff. She lugged her bags from one end of the school to the other. If any of the students carried her bags they were given detention. The article quoted from the affidavit. It mentioned that the priest called a sick elderly teacher, “a crusty, vodka-shitting bitch.” I texted my brother back: “you know that’s referring to mom.”

[images swiped away, video silently plays]

Ellie Ga: At her funeral, my brother (my other brother) gave me this copy of In Patagonia. I re-read it a couple of years later, around the time he fell. . . .or threw himself. . . .out a window.

[Long pause]

Ellie Ga: In Patagonia started out as a history of nomads but ended up being about the descendants of Europeans who had taken the land in Patagonia after the gold rush. The stack of index cards Chatwin carried with him to Patagonia is archived at Oxford’s Bodleian library. Along with letters of protest from people whose stories he exploited to write the book.

[long pause]

Ellie Ga: To access the archive, I needed a reader’s card.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: To get the reader’s card I said the oath––from the 1700s––about not burning the library down with candles. The librarian hands me the reader’s card. “Welcome to Bodleian Library,” she says.

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: Patagonia―the farthest point that people walked from their point of origin during a time when North America and Siberia were linked by a land bridge.

[Long pause]

Ellie Ga: As we’re pulling into the parking lot of the convention center for my second time attending the Beachcomber’s Fun Fair. I’m with my cousin this time. She’s a marine biologist in the area. She says there’s just no way ancient humans walked all the way to Patagonia. For sure, there was some movement over ice-land bridges. There were seventeen ice ages. . . .so people crossed over in different places. But there are other ways a species gets to a place.

(Note From the artist: “Ideally, video stops here.”)

Ellie Ga: People have always lived by the water and boats have always been carried away by drifts, sometimes for hundreds of miles. The news coverage on the radio is about the people walking from Guatemala, walking through Mexico. They will be at the U.S. border before the week is over. A call-in listener asks, “Why don’t they just stay in their own countries? Build up their own damn countries?”

[Images are swiped away]

Ellie Ga: Behind the convention center is the thrift shop. It’s gotten a paint job since the last time I was here. And the dolls are still there in the window. This time, the windows are covered in signs and slogans. Inside, there’s a broader range of stuff for sale than what I remember—though the second amendment sticker rack feels like a new addition. I ask my cousin if scientists in her field still use terms like ‘invasive’ to categorize species (it seems like such a loaded term). She says, “we sure do. We say invasive, nuisance, native, non-native.” 

[Long pause]

Ellie Ga: Forget for a moment that classifying a species is a fallible human act that makes no difference to the species itself,

[Narration pauses, images are swiped]

Ellie Ga: “Except,” she says, “in how it’s treated at the Department of Natural Resources. A nuisance for one is beneficial for another. Take (for example) Japanese eel grass. It’s used to wrap shellfish crossing the Pacific.” She says, “It hasn’t exactly displaced the local eel grass. But this grass is everywhere here on the coast. It turns out to be great for ducks, but it drives the oyster industry crazy.” She says. “It’s called a nuisance so we can spray it. Because the eel grass makes it hard to get to the oysters, our famous Pacific Northwest oysters―by the way, also an invasive species from Japan.”

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: She picks up a readymade message in a bottle. I ask her what she did with her parents’ stuff after they died. She got in trouble (with her siblings) for throwing out too much. My cousin says, “You know my father, he was a real hoarder. I found a closet filled with thousands of bread ties, those square plastic ones. They were organized (by color) in paper baskets that blueberries are sold in.”

[Image swiped away. A silent video plays. John’s business card slips into the center of the table]

Ellie Ga: John’s Beachcombing Museum is now officially open. He started beachcombing forty years ago. After he retired, he cleaned out his workshop and donated his plumbing equipment to the Boy Scouts. “Since your last visit, my museum has become the top tourist destination in the area,” he says. More popular even than the set of the movie Twilight. “This is the biggest drifting thing out there,” he says. Gill net floats. Tens of thousands of these were used in just one of those two-mile radius drift net. They’re banned now. Cedar floats. “Made here in the Pacific Northwest, that the tribes once used to net the rivers,” he says. I ask him if this is this one of the oldest things you have in the collection.

[Images swiped away]

Ellie Ga: The beachcomber has many examples from the cargo spill that the oceanographers have studied: The bath toys, the hockey gloves, the Nike sneakers. “Here’s the small plastic display,” he says. This was another cargo spill: the Raggedy Ann doll heads. (There were hundreds of those on the beach.) Rat poison containers from transoceanic grain ships. Smoke bombs. Man overboard buoys. We follow the beachcomber to his tsunami display.

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: Everything you see here is from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. My cousin tells us that around 200 species have drifted across the Pacific Ocean on tsunami debris like this. 

[Images swiped]

Ellie Ga: The beachcomber points to the rafters––“and here’s a survival suit from a crabbing boat that washed up not so long ago. I heard that two crab-fishermen were hit by a rogue wave.” My cousin points to the survival suit and whispers to me, “I can’t believe it's just hanging up there next to the plastic ducks.” She knew the crab-fishermen. A father and son. Killed while fishing. Only their dog survived. Her friend took the dog in.

[Image swiped away, the light switch is hit. Image collection slowly swiped away]