For her second install titled Rowing in the desert, Yili created a sculptural video piece presented on the floor, a monitor playing a looped video, set in a patch of sand, and serving as document to a site-specific performance.
The video featured a static view of red sand hills in an undisclosed desert. Set deep in this backdrop with a blue sky overhead could just be seen a small figure in a kind of white canoe paddling in vain.
It forms part of Yili’s Sisyphus series. I liked to imagine that this sand had been brought back from the desert, in a kind of cultural exchange: my boat for your sand.
As a stand-alone work this created an understated image of absurdity, futile struggle but of beauty. The presence of the monitor as object and the collision of those two worlds was strangely poetic. The off-axis position of the TV brings to mind a beached boat or shipwreck which makes me think of Rodney Graham’s short film Vexation Island (1997) – a futile ground hog day where Graham plays a shipwrecked sailor in repetitive loop of being knocked unconscious by a coconut. The symbolism of an unfathomable, infinite natural environment in contrast to a delicate human existence juxtaposed in both works.
In the crit it was discussed that the journey and story of the work had many more very rich seams to explore than presented in the final piece; Yili had made the boat by hand, transported it to the desert where it had been towed to location by camels, so there was a lot of context left out of this installation and exploring ways to show that would be valuable. For instance a multi-screen display, or documentary approach akin to Broomberg & Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died. However, there is also a gentleness to the project here that could be lost.
It reminds me of He You’s work where he documented the failed attempts to launch his land-mapping raft. And indeed similar references came up in the discussion including Bas Jan Ader- an artist lost at sea trying to cross from the US to England in the smallest boat ever (1975). And Roman Signer’s Kayak (2000) where the artist was towed down a road in a canoe.
There is a similarly deadpan approach that unravels the way we look at everyday objects and circumstances
Knowing that this work is made in North Africa so close to the Mediterranean positions it amidst the context of migration. The futile effort of rowing in the sand and getting nowhere and the inherent danger of such journeys are simultaneously hinted at.