Multimedia artist Antonia Wright didn’t start out wanting to be an artist. Even as a child, she dreamed of being a writer. Not surprising, given that her mother is the prolific Miami-based novelist Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, best known for her Lupe Solano mystery series.
“I always wanted to be a writer for National Geographic. I liked the idea of traveling all over the world. In undergrad [at the University of Montana], I focused on journalism and creative writing. But I realized quickly that journalism was not for me. I wanted to embellish. That led me to short stories and poetry,” Wright says over the haunting, creaking, atonal music that floods the Locust Projects gallery space in the Design District on a rainy afternoon.
The music, by experimental acoustic bassist Jason Ajemian, accompanies Wright’s new solo show, a powerful reenactment of one of the most — well, spine-chilling events in her life. “Under the Water Was Sand, Then Rocks, Miles of Rocks, Then Fire,” which runs through Oct. 8, is as much a reflection of Wright the writer as it is of Wright the visual and performance artist.
Standing here in a darkened gallery just a couple of days before the Locust Projects opening, watching the video piece that is the central focus of her show, Wright recites a little poetry for a couple of visitors: “Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice…”
And it’s not hard for the mind to run immediately to Robert Frost. Up on the screen, Wright, ablaze in a billowy red-and-orange costume, trudges across a frozen Lake Champlain in Vermont, then plunges below the surface.
“I thought a lot about ‘Fire and Ice’ when I was working on this. But I also thought about that other famous poem of Frost’s, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ You know, ‘The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. ... ’”
She was 15 when she blithely walked across her first frozen lake in Massachusetts, where she attended high school. Suddenly, the ice broke and Wright fell in. Suddenly, like Frost, she contemplated death.
“I remember feeling like, this isn’t actually happening to me. This is just something that I’ve seen before, maybe in a movie. I was scared, because I tried to crawl out of the water and back onto the ice but the ice kept breaking and I kept falling back in. I felt like I would never get out, but I also went into survival mode. I kept punching at the ice, moving through the water. I punched my way to the edge of the lake. Bu there were these thick bushes. I thought, ‘Now how do I get out of this?’”
Wright didn’t tell her parents, or anyone else, about her harrowing experience. She suffered symptoms of hypothermia in silence.
“I thought I would get in trouble. The lake was a water reservoir and you weren’t supposed to be out there. I didn’t tell my mom about it until last winter when I was leaving for Vermont to make this video. She freaked out. ‘You fell in a frozen lake? What were you doing on that lake?’ I had to say, ‘You can’t get mad at me for something that happened 20 years ago. I think the statute of limitations has run out.’”
Even so, the body remembers. And Wright has been drawn to recreating that moment of physical shock in her work for years.
In 2008, after Fidel Castro ceded power and his brother Raúl was elected president by Cuba’s National Assembly, Wright made a 14-minute video titled “You Make Me Sick.” In it, she smokes an entire cigar without taking a breath, which leads to her having a coughing fit and to stepping away from the camera frame a couple of times to retch.
“It was commentary on this regime that is very toxic and has forced itself on the people of Cuba for decades,” says Wright, who lives near the Miami River with her partner, artist Ruben Millares, and their 8-month-old son, Otis.
In 2013, she performed “Suddenly We Jumped,” a piece addressing misogyny, at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. She enlisted 12 people to catapult her into the air using a sort of fireman’s trampoline, so that her body could break panes of glass suspended high above her, a figurative and literal glass ceiling.
She got cut by shards of glass, but “not too badly,” she says.
Then there was the time she covered herself in 15,000 bees to perform tai chi.
“I got only one bee sting,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m trying to relive the experience of falling through the ice in my work. But I know I put myself in these risky situations because what I’m feeling has to be transmissible to the audience. My work is a lot about empathy, which is something we often lack. I find I can be apathetic sometimes. I read the news and I go, ‘Oh.’ But do I really get the whole scope? We find distractions, and we delude ourselves into thinking we’re able to be detached. But we’re really not.”
Wright went to The New School in New York for an MFA in poetry, which led her to enroll in New York’s International Center of Photography. That led to a successful career as a visual artist who fuses poetry, performance, photography, video and sculptural work, often in commentary about the body, usually her own body, especially her body in peril.
“I don’t use a lot of literal writing in my art, but I approach all of my work like poems. I think about the way poems shift. About symbolism, imagery,” Wright says.
At New School, she was in charge of organizing readings. “And I went to five a week. When poets read their work I would get so much from the experience, much more than you get from reading the work on the page,” she says.
“I had such a response to the performative element of poetry that it led me to performance art. But all that remained of the performances afterwards were these crappy grainy photos that were just an afterthought. Then I decided, why do I have to make the photography secondary? Why can’t the photography be on the same plane as the performance, with no hierarchy between the two?”
The Locust Project show leads audiences through a maze of night-blooming jasmine, light-manipulated to give off its perfume even when the sun is out.
“I wanted the show to heighten the senses, to allow the audience to have a physical experience, too. There’s the smell and the sounds. And the sense of walking through a dark wood.”
At the center of the gallery is the video of a solitary Wright walking across Lake Champlain. She prepared by taking ice baths. There were also repeat visits to the “arctic plunge” pool that is part of hydrotherapy offerings at the Standard Spa in Miami Beach. Underneath her fiery costume, she wore a wetsuit. And standing by in case anything went wrong were a couple of ice divers.
“It was freezing at first. It was below zero. The water, when I went in, had this rich green color. It was so windy and loud on the surface. But in the water it was so quiet and actually warmer,” she says.
“But as we were leaving, the ice started making these deep booming sounds. The ice divers who were with us started acting a little strange. They said, separate right now; no two people should be within 10 feet of each other. We got our things and we walked slowly back to the shore. But that’s the element of chance that is always in my work.”