Basel

Sam Porritt, Lost at Sea, 2018, plaster, iron dust, wire, wood, motor, steel, glass, LED bulb, 69 1⁄4 × 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8". Photo: Nici Jost.

Sam Porritt, Lost at Sea, 2018, plaster, iron dust, wire, wood, motor, steel, glass, LED bulb, 69 1⁄4 × 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8". Photo: Nici Jost.

Sam Porritt

VITRINE | Basel

Sam Porritt, Lost at Sea, 2018, plaster, iron dust, wire, wood, motor, steel, glass, LED bulb, 69 1⁄4 × 23 5⁄8 × 23 5⁄8". Photo: Nici Jost.

The spatial and conceptual center of Sam Porritt’s show “A Certain Change” is a slender, five-foot-nine-inch-tall wood-and-plaster sculpture that resembles the nineteenth-century Eddystone Lighthouse on the Cornish coast. This motorized artwork, titled Lost at Sea (all works 2018), continually rotates about its own axis, and its beam radiates out into the city: Living up to its name, Vitrine is an entirely transparent glass pavilion. Set around a bridge pier, the gallery and a companion structure that houses a fast-food stand were built as part of the redesign of a former railway-station square that remains a traffic hub.

The presentation’s visibility varies according to the time of day: After dark, the gallery illuminates its surroundings; during daylight hours, the glass panes reflect the urban life flowing across the square. The visitor approaching to inspect the nine drawings that are also on display, hung on freestanding walls within the space, inevitably encounters his or her own reflection. Vantage points are, in fact, a subject of these pictures, as the title of one work, A Matter of Perspective, indicates. In this triptych of tondos, a thick ink-brush line forms wave crests and troughs. Porritt has made striking circular frames lined with pieces of newspaper, and presents each drawing as a porthole through which the open sea comes into view, appearing at a different remove in each picture.

Another device the London-born, Zurich-based artist employs to examine the implications of a change of vantage point is a linguistic one. Four drawings face outward in the gallery, each approximately perpendicular to the next, evoking the cardinal points of the compass. Ornamental lines sprawling over them form letters spelling the messages HELP, HELP ME, HELP US, and HELP THEM. (The phrases double as the works’ titles.) Each of these distress signals involves its addressees in a different relationship: Along with a general plea for help with no specified subject, the works present calls for aid to an individual and two groups, one of which is apparently unable to speak for itself.

Complementing the vertical beacon sculpture and the drawings on the walls, a floor piece brings the ocean’s horizontal dimension into play: Oil on Water consists of a square of gray silk cloth attached at one corner to a small fan that causes it to ripple. The contraption transmutes a conventional trope of sublimity, the sea, into something more tangible that is nonetheless suffused with a melancholy otherworldliness. Like the sculpture’s plaster surface and the frames in their newspaper sheathing, the undulating fabric seems part of an almost intimate space in which things and signifiers call out to be touched, whereas the seascape and beacon they represent are part of a distant world receding into the past, miniaturized, ornamental, and enshrined behind glass. It is all the more surprising and unsettling, then, that this world speaks to us, that a cry for help emerges among these maritime props of Romanticism to accost us, individually and collectively, articulating an “I” and a “we” and gesturing toward a multitude known only as “they.” Without explicitly referring to the role that the sea plays in current political debates and humanitarian concerns, Porritt touches on the moral discontent that is part and parcel of aesthetic distance as the foundation of art.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.