Photos | Christopher Nitsche
Christopher Nitsche’s “Liminal Ship II” is a highlight of the Mobile Museum of Art’s current exhibition of his work.
Want to see what it’s like to travel years in the space of 33 feet? Visit the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive), head to the second floor’s Mary and Charles Rodning Gallery and set sail for past and future all at once. That’s where artist Christopher Nitsche installed “Liminal Ship II,” his own bit of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” perfectly suited for a port town.
The Savannah College of Art and Design instructor began using the seafaring form for his artistic expression about 20 years ago. The attraction began in part because he was so far from the tide.
“My wife and I were living on six acres of high desert scrub in western New Mexico. We were around the 7,700-foot elevation within the San Mateo mountain range,” Nitsche said.
The geographic distance from a ship’s literal association liberated his interpretation.
“It’s taken on so many characteristics over the years, a really satisfying form to explore, the idea of a ship as ‘a carrier of things,’” Nitsche said. “It could be spiritual or it could be actual.”
This version — in place until Dec. 9 — is outright otherworldly. The slim gallery is a converted corridor between the west and east wings of the museum and in its darkened environs is this work’s inner journey.
The hull is piecemeal. Brilliant scarlet light radiates from its interior onto the ceiling above it, while the cracks between its wooden scraps scatter luminous shards across the floor.
Nitsche said the wood is repurposed debris from hurricanes Matthew and Irma. Some he collected, while other pieces came from a “lumber boneyard.”
“There was a lot of fencing, other kinds of household wood that was being disposed [of],” he said. “I picked through and collected a lot so that’s why there’s a lot of stockade fencing wood that you see in the installation.”
Intermittent open segments allow a glimpse of its interior and cargo. Tied in black wire and floating within are toy figures, stuffed dolls, feathers, flowers, wooden alphabet blocks, bottles, sunglasses, broken pottery and pencils, tools, computer keyboards, dental pliers, reading glasses, musical instruments and numerous other odds and ends.
“Some of that was accrued over time for mixed media sculptures with lots of different components, toys to game parts to household objects,” Nitsche said. “I’m a bit of a pack rat. Sometimes I flea market a bit to see what I can find but most everything in there are previous accruals initially intended for other pieces, but repurposed for this.”
Thankfully for Artifice the gallery was quiet, so any personal connection or reflection was mostly unbroken. As I neared one end and spied some children’s storybooks, the faint sound of kids’ voices — audible bleed from an adjacent child-centric show — drifted into earshot. The ship’s cargo felt representative of a lifetime’s memories and experiences. The ghostly giggles rippling through the room completed the effect.
The red light was apt, its color tied to the visceral, the sanguine, the inner life both physical and mental. The artist had other aims.
“With neon and LEDs, red creates a very dense light,” Nitsche said. “You may notice when you’re looking inside the piece, it almost has a flattening effect or unworldly effect. Liminality basically means ‘transition from the known to the unknown,’ so I wanted to create an ethereal unknown within that particular space.”
Originally intended for a far larger room, another original concept would have taken longer to build, but that’s not out of reach for the artist. Nitsche has had two other museum pieces in the last year — at Jacksonville’s Alexander Brest Museum and Gallery and at Savannah’s Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. The latter of those featured a 75-foot hull through which visitors walked.
“Liminal Ship II” worked for the best in the more intimate Mobile gallery. One unforeseen element added to its experience.
I sat on the ledge opposite the installation to absorb it in welcome solitude and noticed an almost inaudible rumble and near-rattle coming from the installation. A careful listen identified it as mechanical and from beyond the wall behind the installation, probably part of the air conditioning system so vital to museums in a humid region.
But it provided more. Motor-like, it felt symbolic of time’s oblivion and relentless motion, propelling everything onward. If we’re the vessels we’re so often called, then there’s little choice but to plow through the seas we face, whether smooth or stormy.
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