Evelyn Rydz’s Floating Artifacts, at the Aidekman Arts Center, is presented as a part of SMFA’s larger project, The Ocean After Nature, which examines the human effects on the ocean. Rydz’s collecting, cataloging, and display of the “floating artifacts” is an ongoing process in which our collective fascination with the open water and our tangled relationship with it is explored.
Upon entering the space, visitors are greeted by a clothesline hang of photographs adorning walls—all the same size, containing the same subject matter—while a freestanding wall displays videos across three screens. There is an element of repetition cleverly reflected in the way the artifacts in the videos float gently, and the visitors cycle through the images. There is also repetition of the images themselves; colors, shapes, textures all reappear without a clear pattern, removing any sort of pressure to take in the exhibition in a preferred manner. Linear narrative takes a back seat as the layout gently suggests we slow down and look closely. Some images possess a hint of familiarity. Perhaps a color or shape primes one’s memory of sea glass found on a walk on the beach. Yet the gallery setting and meticulous documentation of these objects move us from the sandy shore to a more sterile environment for the purpose of observation.
Admittedly, this show reminded me of a child-like fascination with the ocean; its scale and its ability to transform objects over the course of days, months, even years. A five-year-old boy I once looked after prided himself on his sea glass collection. Every time he went to a beach, he would search feverishly until he found small pieces of “glass” to add to his collection. In some cases, he would find beautifully-colored remnants of glass objects now completely transformed from their original form.
Floating Artifacts #5, a jagged magenta object inscribed with cracks and other scars from its journey reminded me of the boy’s collection. Though we do not know what larger object it once belonged to, Rydz’s careful attention to this object mirrors the care she provides this project overall. Consequently, Rydz builds on the idea of innocently collecting debris from the beach. She layers thoughtfulness and greater knowledge of human impact on top of the wonder of collecting what the ocean has returned.
Rydz’s play with scale allows viewers to consider the ethereal aesthetics of these artifacts, which are visually reinforced in the video of literal floating artifacts playing across three screens. The magnification of such small fragments also asks us to ponder the size of our own impact we have on the ocean. The artifacts’ importance is amplified through the larger-than-life presentation coupled with the uniform, dramatic black backdrop. We are prompted to imagine the sheer amount of material cast into the ocean.
Rydz has compiled evidence of our existence and now asks us to closely examine the work done unto it. She removes any and all context, and in its place, allows viewers to project their own interpretation.
On the other side of the video wall is the exhibition’s Think/Make Space where, according to the brochure, “viewers are invited to investigate remnants of our contemporary lives” by placing specimens underneath a microscope. They can then record observations by using the typewriters to write on labeled index cards. The artist presents herself as a researcher and we are encouraged to play the role of research assistant.
This participatory act, in which the distinction between artist/viewer and collector/observer are blurred, once again motivates us to slow down and look closely. By furthering Rydz’s documentation of these objects, we expand and evolve the knowledge base and histories of these materials. The choice of using a typewriter to record observations is charmingly outdated at first glance, but anyone who has spent time researching in college libraries and archives knows that—at the mercy of multiple forces—time moves slowly in these spaces.
This choice to include visitors in the show reinforces the idea that the impact we have on the oceans is collective. The act of observation reveals that the waters treat the debris we burden it with indifference—it will change, with or without us. In Floating Artifacts, Rydz places the transformative power of the ocean on display. As travelers, visitors, and occasional occupants of this watery space, we must remain keenly aware of the ocean’s power and force.
Evelyn Rydz: Floating Artifacts is on view through May 21 at the Aidekman Arts Center at Tufts University.