Installed on the wall facing the entrance to ‘Sun Splashed’, Nari Ward’s largest survey to date, is We The People (2011). Its title – the opening words of the US Constitution – appears in outline several metres high, in that document’s original calligraphy. On closer inspection, the letters’ negative strokes reveal themselves as myriad shoelaces hanging limp from holes in the wall like threads from a torn tapestry. The longer I spent with the work, which at first seemed like just another cute optical trick, the richer it seemed. By isolating a familiar phrase, Ward defamiliarizes it. Transmuting its words into objects – mass-produced, throwaway, anonymous, but also intimate, singular, graspable – he fixes the viewer’s focus on their supposed referents: this ‘we’, this ‘people’, are as real and various as the dangling fibres on the wall. Foundational myths, big rhetorical concepts and grand ideological ambitions: in Ward’s work, these things are reducible to their material. It’s as if, for Ward, claims are only as good as the paper on which they’re printed.
Like the den of a compulsive hoarder, the boundary of the room-sized installation Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping (1996) is formed of discarded homeware, bound by fire-hose fabric into a barrier of crate-like blocks. In the middle lies a shallow trough of sand mixed with salt – a substance that, according to folk wisdom in Jamaica (where Ward was born) the devil can’t pass over. An awning over the entrance to the work is strung with bottles of a soda brand called Tropical Fantasy – another nod to Jamaica (the show’s title is also drawn from a tourist-oriented music festival held on the island) and to the way cultural identities can become a kind of packaging that appeals to international consumers.
As each of these particular elements show, Ward’s materialism can bear different inflections – at turns melancholy, shamanistic or Warholian. But what resounded most throughout the exhibition was the talismanic importance the artist gives to things, substances, matter. Indeed, for one of his most significant early works, Amazing Grace (1993), the artist mimicked the actions of a vagrant scavenger, collecting 300 abandoned prams from the streets of Harlem (where he has lived since the 1990s) and chaining them together in a derelict fire station. That work wasn’t re-staged here, but the related pieces, Savior (1996) and Crusader (2005), featured. In each, an individual trolley is reconditioned as a ceremonial chariot, bedecked with coloured clothes, plastic bags, oil cans and even a chandelier. Magnificent and absurd, agile and conspicuous, they are grandiose relatives of the overladen carts of homeless people, seen in Miami as well as in Harlem. Ward’s tributes to those roving inventories speak clearly of a condition in which no place is permanent and anything may be taken away, so things must be kept on hand and readily mobile – something which applies equally to the day to day reality of the homeless and the historic experiences of African-Americans.
When Ward loses touch with that mobility, his work can become clunky and inert: Glory (2004), created during the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, repurposes crude oil barrels into a tanning bed-cum-iron maiden, its core lit with fluorescent strip lights and painted with a monochrome American flag. This, in turn, is surrounded by a perimeter fence slung with towels, while a tape machine plays a word tutorial for talking parrots. Even for a work addressing the bombast of the Shock and Awe era, Glory feels like overkill.
Yet the artist is capable of more delicate, minimal assemblages, too. Rock, Booked, Scissor, Vice (2010) comprises a copy, assaulted by the titular blunt instruments, of Black’s Law Dictionary: a canonical legal text whose title stems from the surname of its first editor but is redolent of the injustices suffered by people of colour in the US and elsewhere. A video work installed nearby, Fathers and Sons (2010), depicts an African-American police officer and his two sons reciting their Miranda rights onstage, the audio garbled. At moments, the boys anxiously finger the brocade and badges of their father’s uniform – turning the body search (a mainstay of police harassment) back on the instrument of power. The tactile nature of this grim scene points again to Ward’s commitment to proximate material: a belief that truth is accessed at the end of our fingertips, which seems key to both this exhibition’s manifest strengths and intermittent excesses.