James Casebere, Blue House on Water #2, 2019, ink-jet print, 69 1⁄2 × 48 7⁄8".

James Casebere, Blue House on Water #2, 2019, ink-jet print, 69 1⁄2 × 48 7⁄8".

James Casebere

It is no accident that utopian philosophers situated their ideal societies on islands, which in the imagination appear to provide both security and solitude. But if such isolation is often portrayed as blissful—as with Taprobane in Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1602), for instance, or the tropical paradises that Western tourists fantasize about—it can also represent something terrible: Devil’s Island, Alcatraz, or Homer’s Aeaea, where the sorceress Circe dwelled. 

James Casebere’s “On the Water’s Edge” featured a collection of photographs of colorful stilt houses, each an island unto itself. The prints, all the same size, show buildings with hardly any texture. Their windows are unglazed and without curtains, and the interiors seem to contain no furniture, in fact nothing that would provide even a modicum of comfort. In the text accompanying the exhibition, the artist explained that he conceived these buildings as places of refuge during an environmental crisis. If visitors paid attention, they would have seen that some houses were too close to sea level not to be flooded. Others lacked access, making it impossible for anybody to seek refuge there. Despite their unreal appearance, Casebere’s constructions truly ex-isted, albeit in the form of models; the artist took photographs of them, which he digitally edited. He initially achieved the texture of the water using a transparent resin.

The buildings Casebere depicts are rather absurd and impractical, and this was what I found interesting about his proposal—never mind what he said about the environment or, in the same statement, social distancing during the present pandemic. The aesthetic of these shelters alludes to seaside structures such as cabanas or lifeguard stations: pragmatic constructions that offer, amid the vast expanse of public space that is the beach, a small piece of privacy. Some isolated, others forming small neighborhoods, all surrounded by water, they seem to shout, “Fluctuat nec mergitur!” ([She] is rocked [by the waves] but does not sink), the proud motto of the city of Paris, often used after the latest jihadist attacks. “I suppose . . . I am trying to create an updated image of an ideal lifestyle through architecture in harmony with nature,” wrote the artist in the show’s press release. But Casebere’s buildings engage in a resistance that is simply obstinate, belonging to things that are useless or fantastical. Thomas More imagined Utopia as having been created by its inhabitants cutting off the isthmus that connected it to the mainland. Their houses were all alike and the land was divided equally, following the efficient rules of logic—an order maintained for the sake of creating a perfect society. Casebere’s island houses, in their irrationality, demonstrate the opposite: a civilization in collapse.

Microstates such as the Principality of Sealand in the North Sea are the (perhaps ironic) updated versions of these “floating utopias.” The micronation is an abandoned offshore antiaircraft platform where someone has proclaimed himself monarch of a state that no official government acknowledges and that subsists by appointing counts and dukes for a modest fee. Undoubtedly, “On the Water’s Edge” was a more sophisticated exercise where we still saw the influence of the colorful volumes of Mexican architect Luis Barragán, to whom Casebere has dedicated recent projects. The photographer’s constructions—elegant, bare, empty—imparted a sense of seclusion and melancholy. Despite the bright colors and the neatness of the depicted structures’ design, they are hermitages: close to shore but far from people. They reminded me of a verse by Cuban poet Virgilio Piñera: “The curse of being completely surrounded by water / condemns me to this café table. / If I didn’t think that water encircled me like a cancer / I’d sleep in peace.”

Translated from Spanish by Michele Faguet.