Correspondence #18

10 Jun 2021
Amie Siegel, Asterisms, 2021, 4K multi-channel video installation (detail). Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

Throughout the process of constructing the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, its curatorial team, participating artists and guest authors will send out letters with open dialogues that directly and indirectly reflect the development of the exhibition. The text below was written by the artist Amie Siegel.

All my writing is perhaps, in the end, Voice-over. A disembodied, off-screen intonation. A performance cut away from a sound-proofed booth. Associations recited at a cool remove. Declaration, utterance, proclamation, record, testimony—communiqués from the other side. These fragments (correspondences?) accumulate, wash up upon one another, tidal, each element consuming part of the prior passage when pulling away.

 Their delivery has the character of an accompaniment. Moving alongside, the mind focusing and refocusing with each statement. They are allusive backstory. But this voiced script is almost always abandoned in the end, left out of the final work, jettisoned in favor of the twilight of the implicit.

 The text, this recitative, survives— a vivid, pulsing thing, just not in tandem with the world to which it refers. It must be out of synch, out of time, never “playing” to, or directly with, the artwork itself. Maybe it, too, is a pseudomorph. For by the time the artwork is complete—what is left of its protolithic properties, its original embodiment?


In the beginning of the third millennium, Emirati developers began creating artificial islands in the Persian Gulf to increase coastline for luxury villas and resorts. The sand used to form the islands was not taken from the vast desert beyond Dubai, as desert sand is too fine, but dredged from the sea floor. A boat moves close to the site, pumps sand from the seabed, then propels it up into the air, a great arc thus cascading down to form an island. This process is called “rainbowing.”

In the dredging and redepositing of sand, the quintessentially crystalline waters of the Persian Gulf have become clouded with silt. The sand expended to build up the islands is gradually falling back into the sea from where it came. The Sisyphean task of building the islands back up while they slowly sift away is now routine maintenance.  

* * *

 At the Louvre Abu Dhabi—whose gleaming white structure is sunk sharply into the turquoise waters of the gulf like a fallen spaceship—the interior vitrines are giant glass trapezoids adrift on the stone floor. Several “like” objects from dissimilar cultures are displayed together in each case, a fantasy of earthly cohesion that eschews the varied beliefs, behaviors, practices and expressions unique to their source communities.

 Outside, under the enormous spongy metal roof, the museum’s cube-like spaces present large exterior displays, boutique windows hosting works of art. A sculpture, a large painting— each placed alone, facing out, like a silent mannequin behind glass, while viewers stroll on the other side, glancing in and around.

 In this region of the world, almost everything is presented as a luxury product—whether a pair of designer stilettos propped on velvet in a brass display case at Level Shoes in the Dubai Mall, or the artworks displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi—all are staged as luxury goods; commodities to own, to display. Each object, whether painting or sneaker, competes to be the holotype of its species. The Ur specimen. The exemplary masterpiece. Recently the museum mounted the exhibition 10,000 Years of Luxury, as if to confirm the sense of art and material goods as equivalent, interchangeable aspirational objects.

* * *

The Arabian horse is prized for its history, purity, elegance and endurance. Arabians have a distinctly concave or “dished” profile, with large eyes, a broad forehead, and a “teacup muzzle”—one so delicate, it is said, it could drink from a teacup. One of the oldest human-developed horse breeds, Arabians were fed dates and camel’s milk by the Bedouins when there was no water or pasture. Prized mares were often brought inside family tents for protection. Arabian horses regularly command prices in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars at Bloodstock auctions.

  * * *

In mineralogy, a pseudomorph is a crystal system consisting of one mineral but retaining the appearance and shape of another, which it has replaced. The external contours, or ‘habit’, of the mineral and its dimensions stay the same, but the original mineral undergoes a complete chemical substitution by the subsequent mineral, molecule by molecule. Calcite after Argonite, Scalopite after Siderite… They are “false forms” in which one mineral species mimics or exhibits traits of another.

* * *

The wind’s ability to shape the earth’s surface—eroding, transporting and depositing materials, makes it one of the paramount sculptors of our terrain, and the principal shaper of desert landscapes. Sand particles can be held in suspension in the atmosphere indefinitely, supported by upward currents of air. Saltation is the downwind movement of the particles in a series of jumps or skips. Windblown sand moves up the gentle upwind side of a dune by saltation or creep. Sand accumulates at the brink, the top of the slip face. When the buildup of sand exceeds the angle of repose, a small avalanche of grains slides down the slip face. Grain by grain, the dune moves downwind. 

Ninety percent of the UAE’s surface is sand dunes. Sand dune migration and Aeolian deposits are a primary contributor to desertification. As the climate shifts, temperatures increase and rainfall lessens, the degradation of arable land  quickens. 

* * *

A Bedouin story tells that Allah created the Arabian from the south wind, using only his voice, proclaiming, “I create thee, Oh Arabian… On thy back, I set a rich spoil and a Treasure in thy loins… I give thee flight without wings.” Another version has Allah saying to the wind, “I want to make a creature out of you. Condense.” Then from it, he made a Kamayt-colored animal and said, “I call you Horse; I make you Arabian…You shall be the Lord of the other animals. Men shall follow you wherever you go… you shall fly without winds; riches shall be on your back and fortune shall come through your meditation.”

A different account puts the origin of the Arabian in the time of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. In this story, the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) descended from Heaven and awakened Ishmael with a “wind-spout" whirling toward him. The Angel then commanded the thundercloud to stop scattering sand and rain, and it gathered itself instead into a prancing, handsome creature—a horse—that seemed to swallow up the ground. Though he did not appear, Ishmael recognized the angel through his voice. The Bedouins bestowed the name "Drinker of the Wind" to the Arabian horse. 

* * *

In our current geological interval, physical characteristics now include an entirely new geology— the proliferation and global dispersion of novel crystalline minerals and rocks, including fly ash and plastics, and the many ‘technofossils’ produced from human-made, synthetic materials.

 Plastics are now understood as a distinctive component in the strata of our earth. Already evident in terrestrial deposits, they are also becoming widespread in marine sedimentary deposits. It is the development of different plastics, and the artefacts (‘technofossils’) they are moulded into, that enable fine time resolution within the Anthropocene, and many of these anthropic rocks have long-term preservation potential when buried. They will likely exist far into earth’s future, long past mass species extinction.

"Dead zones” of coastal and open marine waters will plausibly become more frequent and widespread, due to increasing anthropogenic runoff, as well as water stratification caused by warming seas. In such settings, plastic material might remain preserved in sediments over prolonged geological timescales. In contrast, in more aerated marine environments, if the plastics degrade after a few hundred years, there could result a new type of highly porous limestone with voids or pseudomorphs mirroring the shapes of leached plastic technofossils. 

* * *

The Tropic of Cancer crosses the emirate of Abu Dhabi south of Liwa, just as the sand gets redder and starts to form the mountainous dunes of the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass. 

The taller the sand dune, the older it is. The large dunes of Abu Dhabi, up to 60 meters high, record sand movements that stretch beyond the last glacial period over 19,000 years ago. Near Liwa, where dunes reach 150 meters, alternating periods of wind transportation and dune cementation have preserved sands that were deposited up to 141,000 years ago.

Twice a year, at noon, along the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is directly overhead in the sky, causing any object—tree, camel, oryx, sand dune, geode, horse—to lose its shadow.

* * *

For centuries, Bedouin tribes tracked the ancestry of their horses through oral tradition. The Bedouin developed several strains of Arabian horse, each with unique characteristics, traced through the maternal line only. Horses of the purest blood were known as Asil and crossbreeding with non-Asil horses was forbidden. Purity of bloodline was very important, and the Bedouin also believed in telegony: if a mare was ever bred to a stallion of "impure" blood, the mare herself and all future offspring with any stallion would be "contaminated," and hence no longer Asil. 

This complex constellation of bloodline and strain was an integral part of Bedouin culture; keeping careful track of the pedigrees of not only their best mares, but also the breeding details of their camels, Saluki dogs, and their own family and tribal histories. 

* * *

Images of sand dunes photographed by the International Space Station as it repeatedly passes above the Persian Gulf area enable researchers and scientists to track sand migration and dune movement in the region.

A global inventory of sand dunes, comparing these satellite images from space over time, identified five different types of dunes. The most common is crescentic, a dune shaped like a crescent moon by wind blowing from one direction. The linear dune, longer than it is wide, features a prominent ridgeline. The dome dune is a rare circle or oval, coalescing at the far upwind margins of sand seas. A parabolic dune is U-shaped, but its crest points upwards and has arms trailing behind it; the longest arm recorded at 12 kilometers in length. The star dune is a complex dune with several arms that radiate from a pyramid-shaped mound formed by multidirectional winds.

* * *

Sound does not travel in space. The vacuum of outer space has zero air. As sound is simply vibrating air, space has no air to vibrate and, therefore, no sound. If there is an explosion outside a spaceship, the astronauts inside hear nothing. Asteroids, supernovas, shooting stars and burning planets are similarly silent in space. Radio is a form of electromagnetic radiation and, like light, can travel through the vacuum of space. It has been predicted that radio waves, which can carry the human voice, will outlast earth itself. 

Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (METI) is concerned with creating and transmitting messages to aliens in the form of radio waves. A primary METI desire is to overcome the great silence of the universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the message “You are not alone”. A voice divorced from its source, traveling in space. 

However, the farther radio waves travel, the more their signal weakens. It takes eight minutes for radio signals to reach the sun from earth and four years to Proxima Centauri, our nearest star. It will be 100,000 light years before the waves reach the edge of the Milky Way. By the time the human voice might be heard by our closest neighbors, it is quite likely they will be alone. Or at least without us.

Amie Siegel (1974, Chicago, IL, USA ) works variously between film, video, photography, performance and installation. Recent solo exhibitions include Medium Cool, Blaffer Art Museum, Houston; Winter, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Strata, South London Gallery; Ricochet, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart; Double Negative, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich; Provenance, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Her work is in public collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern; Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Siegel has been a fellow of the DAAD Berliner-Künstlerprogramm and the Guggenheim Foundation and is a 2021 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award recipient. Siegel lives in New York City.

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