View of “Allora & Calzadilla,” 2022. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

View of “Allora & Calzadilla,” 2022. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

Allora & Calzadilla

During the fifteenth-century age of exploration, European sailors believed in a mythic island called “Antillia,” rumored to be somewhere in the Atlantic, just beyond the edge of existing maps. Conjuring this terra incognita, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s exhibition “Antille” examined the transatlantic ties that inspired French Surrealists. The installation Graft, 2021, blanketed the gallery floor with thousands of handpainted flowers, cast from recycled polyvinyl and modeled after the blooms of roble trees. Their pale crepuscular pink struck a sharp contrast to the high-noon yellow the duo adopted for an earlier iteration of the work at the Menil Collection in Houston. This shift in palette drew the work toward transformative states: nightfall, dawn, and shadow. There’s a fine line between abundance and excess, and the artists were careful to leave pathways through the hyperrealistic blossoms, which were exquisitely rendered in various states of florescence and decay. Between painterly sweeps of material and a disorienting odor of petrochemicals, the installation slowed visitors’ movement through the space. In fact, the artists here pointed to the act of walking itself, evoking a series of very specific hikes through the Martinique forest.

In 1941, a cargo ship carrying André Breton and an impressive roster of Surrealists—all refugees from Nazi-occupied France—arrived on Martinican shores, docking in Fort-de-France, a port that, as capital of the French colony, had just fallen under Vichy control. This troupe of intellectuals (among them Helena Benitez, Wifredo Lam, and Claude Lévi-Strauss) expanded its ranks when Breton, out to buy ribbons for his young daughter, came across Aimé and Suzanne Césaire’s journal Tropiques in a local shop. Breton immediately set out to track down the radical anticolonialist poets. When he found them, the Césaires invited the French artist and his companions for a series of walks under the lush rain-forest canopy of the Absalon Valley. Landscape was key to the Césaires’ thinking; the couple fully embraced the notion of walking in search of the marvelous, as the artists might have done that day.

Those walks inspired Allora & Calzadilla’s Penumbra, 2020, a sound and video installation that cast four fluttering silhouettes of foliage across the gallery’s walls and floor to mimic the effect of sunlight filtering through the Martinican rain forests. The position of the light was synced to that of the sun above the gallery. Collapsing the two geographies even further, the simulation was animated by the observed air currents of dominant easterly trade winds, as if transatlantic sea breezes were rustling the leaves, whose contours were created through a careful cataloguing of island flora. The work’s score, composed with longtime collaborator David Lang, relied upon shadow tones, the musical equivalent of an astral penumbra. The resulting sound is haunting, like birdsong just before the dawn.

Apart from the projectors that run Penumbra, there was no artificial light in the gallery. Inside, pupils widened as the artists orchestrated a return to the sensory through a careful layering of histories and geographies. By transporting the Césaires’ landscape to France, Allora & Calzadilla sought to evoke the spirit of Caribbean anticolonialism, opening up the space for silence, light, and movement.