This review was first published, in two parts, in the Jamaica Monitor (now the Monitor Tribune) of June 28 and 4, 2022. It is reproduced here with more photos and a few minor changes.
Part 1: The Exhibition
Laura Facey’s latest solo exhibition, The Laboratory of the Ticking Heart, was on view from May to late July 2022 at Ormsby Hall, 3 Victoria Avenue, in downtown Kingston. I had the opportunity to view it twice: the first time on the day before the official opening, while the final touches were being put to the initial installation (as I was traveling the next day), and the second time after the exhibition was re-curated and reinstalled.
The Laboratory of the Ticking Heart presents work that was produced between 2018 and 2022 and includes large and smaller wood sculptures, as well as large pastel drawings and small hand-touched prints. It draws from several recent bodies of work, such as the Sanctuary: Land of Look Behind (2018) suite, which alludes to the contested historical and present-day significance and politics that surround the Cockpit Country and involves an urgent call for its conservation.
The gigantic, 25 feet tall Zinc Walking Tree (2018), one of several such Walking Trees, stands outside Ormsby Hall, near the main entrance, and provides an intriguing and inviting connection with what is on view indoors, while also juxtaposing the hard geometric urbanity of the building with the organic, natural forms of the tree. The sculpted form of the tree and its title, however, also refer to the iconic urban structure of the zinc fence. It was Rex Nettleford, I believe, who said that Kingston is a city with a rural underbelly, and Zinc Walking Tree also alludes to complex interconnectedness of the rural and urban in Jamaican life, which has shaped much of its social and cultural life, and its conflicts and tensions, historically and in the present.
The exhibition however grants centre stage to a group of newer sculptures and large drawings that feature the human heart, represented in formal shorthand but with the essential anatomical characteristics provocatively recognizable. The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by Laura’s grandmother, Jullia Rypinski, and speaks to the volatility and contradictions of the human heart, as the symbolic site of our emotions. The central group of three large guango sculptures, The Three Graces: Laboratory of the Ticking Heart (2022), have the enigmatic, ceremonial presence of ancient sacred sculptures and ask, according to the accompanying text, whether we are creating or destroying by how we express our feelings, a fundamental existential question at the individual and collective level.
Another work in this group, Memorial: Guide Their Way Home, Altars of Our Hearts, Our Children, Our children’s Children (2021), of which seven of ten parts are shown in the exhibition (the full work will be shown in the upcoming Kingston Biennial), speaks about the intergenerational traumas that have shaped Jamaica. The work consists of carved plinths on which, to quote the label, “hundreds of wooden hearts” are displayed, some of them blood red, others blackened and even charred. This installation is simultaneously stunningly beautiful but also has a troubling, violent quality to it, with inevitable references to sacrifice and genocide. While the wall text calls for healing and letting go of past trauma, the messages conveyed by the work itself are far more conflicted and tormented, leaving one to wonder whether reconciliation is in fact possible.
Dealing effectively with space and scale is a major curatorial challenge in exhibitions where large and small works must co-exist, and this is even harder in a space which is more suitable for large-scale interventions. This is not only a matter of strategizing the works effectively in that space, but also of making wise selections. Less is almost always more when it comes to art exhibitions and this is where the exhibition, at least in its original layout, had some problems. There was just too much to see, without a well-choreographed structure that reflects the logic of the work and the space. There was also too much staging, for instance, with the coloured theatrical lighting and the greenery that was being attached to the platform on which the Land of Look Behind suite was initially shown (which, I was told, referred to the camouflage traditions of the Maroons). The two small rooms to the either side of the stage were even more cluttered with the smaller sculptures.
Part of this may have to do with the fact that The Laboratory of the Ticking Heart is also a sales exhibition, as there may have been a desire to offer work at different sizes and price points. The small prints that were mounted in different sections of the hall seemed quite redundant from a curatorial perspective, however, and could have been made available to the public in a portfolio, and the smaller sculptures could have been included more selectively. Last week’s re-installation of the exhibition suggests that these curatorial issues were recognized. The reorganized installation I saw on my second visit is indeed a vast improvement, with greater clarity and oversight, and makes much better use of the formal dialogues between the large sculptures and drawings, and the expansive, formally and historically resonant space.
The tendency to over-stage is however also evident in the rather lengthy, visually intrusive exhibition texts, and its insistent calls for reconciliation, unity and healing are rather preachy. The work itself speaks a far more visceral, contradictory, and multi-layered language and I wish that it would be allowed to speak for itself, with less explanatory interference. There is only a thin line between explanation and justification and the exhibition texts at times shade into the latter. If there is anything I would like to say to Laura on that count, it is to have more confidence in the magnificent, if complicated, sensory, emotive, and allusive power of her work, to trust her artistic voice and intuition, and her formidable technical and imaginative skills, and to embrace the social and cultural tensions and contradictions that surround her art, and her person, as part of the very dynamic that produces the work.
Part 2: Ormsby Hall
Laura Facey’s Laboratory of the Ticking Heart exhibition also drives home the potential of, and urgent need for, cultural spaces such as Ormsby Hall. Having seen emerging Jamaican artist Nadine Hall’s MFA exhibition at the University of Miami Gallery in the Wynwood Building, I cannot help but imagining it at Ormsby Hall, which would be the perfect homecoming for Nadine’s powerfully resonant work and the personal and cultural narratives it represents.
There are, at the present time, very few spaces in Kingston that can accommodate contemporary art projects of any larger scale. This lack of a supporting infrastructure contributes to the “brain drain” that is presently affecting contemporary art in Jamaica as there is too little to support our young artists and to motivate them to stay in Jamaica, especially at a time when there are significant opportunities elsewhere for Caribbean artists.
Few artists have the sort of resources and influence that made Laura Facey’s exhibition at Ormsby Hall possible, but her high-profile intervention is also an important vote of confidence in the site and may have opened the doors to new possibilities. While there are plans for the building to be turned into a business facility, associated with a large company that operates at other locations in the area, many have now recognized the immense potential of Ormsby Hall as a cultural space and there are several public calls, and two active petitions, for the building to be saved and turned into a cultural centre.
The Ormsby Memorial Hall, to use its full name, is named after the Reverend Stephen Ormsby, rector of the St. Michael’s Church, and opened in 1930. For many years, it served as a performance space, where music recitals took place and where it is said that musicians such as Bob Marley and Don Drummond practiced. Many also remember it as a site for Sunday school. It is a space with well-established roots in the downtown community, loaded with significant cultural memories. I first visited Ormsby Hall in the mid-1990s, when I headed the MultiCare Foundation Visual Arts programme, when one of the partners in the programme, the Ormsby Hall Primary School, was housed in the building. The school moved out in 2010, after which the building fell into disrepair.
Ormsby Hall is a large, well-proportioned, and open space, with great acoustics, a raked floor, and a performance stage, which many possibilities for art exhibitions, music, dance and theatre performances, and other cultural activities. It is an architecturally distinctive example of the modernist Art Deco style which was popular in Downtown Kingston at that time and a part of a still under-recognized but important aspect of Jamaica’s architectural heritage. While it obviously needs termite treatment and other repairs, I was told that the building is structurally sound and that restoring it is entirely feasible. There is more than enough land space to add studio and rehearsal spaces at the back that could, among other things, support an arts residency programme. It is, furthermore, located along a major public transport route, and there is ample space for parking, and as an open, single-floor structure with multiple doorways, it could be retrofitted easily to become disabled-accessible.
Ormsby Hall is indeed well positioned to become the sort of accessible, multi-purpose cultural space Downtown Kingston so urgently needs for the plans for a vibrant, socially inclusive, and community-based Art District are to become a reality, and for our contemporary arts to be supported by the infrastructure they need to thrive and to engage local audiences. If that happens, it should come with a well-considered financial plan, not only for the restoration and operations of the building, but also to allow visual and performing artists to use it at an affordable, perhaps grant-supported cost. It could be a real game-changer in the Jamaican art world.
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