New York

Maura Sheehan

Arnold Herstand & Company

In Maura Sheehan’s installation Trade Winds, 1991, the sweet scent of sugar, a cool breeze, and views of tropical islands and open beaches transform the spectator into a tourist. Sheehan rolls out a black velvet carpet, inviting us to kick off our city shoes; pours brown and white sugar around the periphery of the room, and completes the balmy effect with ocean views displayed in faux windows and a large rotating fan.

Trade Winds utilizes the gallery exhibition space like a large diorama punctuated with cartographic symbols. A nod at Joseph Cornell’s earlier piece of the same title, Sheehan’s installation brought his cosmology to life. The carpet divides the room into two halves, drawing a geographic and political division between the north and the south, between our world and our “sphere of influence.”

Our imperialistic vantage point is made clear at either end of the carpet as it extends between two renderings of our southern neighbors. On one end, the carpet unfurls from the mounting bracket of a projection screen, a symbol of pedagogy that hangs on the western wall. A projection of a map of the Caribbean as we would see it from our perspective in New York appears on the cloth in dark, almost invisible hues. The Caribbean islands recede in perspective from the great expanse of the North American continent. Here, by turning a map upside down, Sheehan calls our attention to America’s imperialist relationship to its territories. The Caribbean is no longer “below” us; it has become the object of our attention and desire.

On the eastern end of the carpet stands a fan with an array of flags chained to its face, each representing a country of the archipelago; it blows the collection of colonies into the room. They are manipulated by the “trade winds”; indeed, the sculpture is an active metaphor for the way these colonies are economically tied to the greater forces of capitalism. What were once “natural”—the winds, islands, and agriculture—are co-opted and controlled by imperialist agendas.

The north side of the room is punctuated by two windows that look onto the Manhattan cityscape, framing a living picture of our immediate environs. The northerly orientation of the view is emphasized by an enlarged image of a compass formed with sticker dots affixed to the center of the wall. Along the edge where the floor meets the wall is an embankment of white processed sugar. On the south wall, Sheehan displayed two constructions that mimic the gallery’s windows. These are made from glass slats that cantilever outward in sections like venetian blinds. Applied to the back of each glass is an idyllic scene from the West Indies. From here, we look south toward the Caribbean in counterpoint to the Manhattan vista behind us, and instead of white sugar along its baseboard, there is brown.

Here the ingredients that initially seemed to combine into a serene, idyllic setting are inverted like Sheehan’s map, to expose the underbelly of our system of leisure. Sandy beaches, tropical rum drinks, and desserts sweetened with refined sugar are revealed as signs of oppression. In this Caribbean paradise, the viewer winds up feeling more tainted than elated; those qualities most often associated with vacationing—freedom and escape—are here turned against us as we become aware of our role as complicit participants in imperialist exploitation.

Kirby Gookin