Twenty years ago, Antonia Wright was walking on a frozen reservoir in Massachusetts when she fell through the ice. The teenager clawed her way out of the water — and kept the ordeal a secret.
"It was actually illegal to walk on it because it was the water source for this town. I couldn't tell anybody what happened to me because I was scared I was going to get in trouble," she recounts. "And I had hypothermia for like a week afterward."
Wright recovered from the frigid fall, but the memory of that sensory shock has remained. Her art career has led her from her native Miami to Manhattan, Barcelona, Brussels, Havana, and other locales, creating performances that are often designed to shock, physically or socially. She has launched herself through literal glass ceilings, crashed into walls of books, practiced tai chi poses while covered in bees, and sobbed on street corners.
But her new show — "Under the Water Was Sand, Then Rocks, Miles of Rocks, Then Fire," opening Saturday at Locust Projects in the Design District — is different. Though previous works have referenced major events and issues — for instance, a 2011 performance titled Deep Water Horizon in which she rolled nude down a muddy street in response to the BP oil spill in 2010 — this show is not a response to a societal problem. It's drawn from within, from "reflection and personal experience." For Wright, bringing that out meant re-creating her harrowing plunge two decades ago.
So, on an afternoon a bit more than two weeks before opening day, Wright stands in front of a large hanging panel that displays a looping video of herself as an intense figure wreathed in fiery-hued fabrics, sinking through the frozen white surface of Lake Champlain in Vermont.
This isn't a camera trick; Wright actually submerged herself in the icy lake. For Champlain, she trained herself to transcend the shock of the water — doing Kundalini yoga breathing exercises, taking ice baths, and looking up ice swimmers. "[One swimmer] does this mental training on how you can survive underwater in ice water for long periods of time," she says with a laugh. "I love this kind of stuff — like mystics who put needles through their hand, and people who walk on fire."
And when she and her costume slid from the windy, subzero air into the green water of Champlain, she was ready. "It was so beautiful," she says. "Just pure quiet, just beautiful."
Compared to the sublime experience she's described, the planned exhibition is a menagerie of sights, sounds, and smells, as varied as the influences she's channeled into it.
The gray boxes hanging around the room are planters, awaiting dozens of potted night-blooming jasmines. Wright says she occasionally encounters the fragrant plants when she's running at night; she plans to flip the plants' day-night cycle using lamps and a curtain, creating a pungent maze by day, the plants "performing" around her filmed act. At 5:30 p.m., the video will stop and lights will come on, changing the fading evening suddenly into the beginning of a new day.
"There are... a lot of dualities in the show... like above and below, day and night, light and dark, life and death," Wright explains.
Another striking juxtaposition: At the center of Locust's exhibition room — amid gray boxes suspended with wires, the reverberations of the rigging team's drill, and the piercing shriek of a scissor lift — Wright is as totally in charge as her ice-bound figure is helpless.
For the Locust show, she's had planning and setup help from artist friends Daniel Joseph; Lee Pivnik, a student at Rhode Island School of Design; Michael Kocherhans, also known as Buda, an installer with the Margulies Collection; and her partner, Ruben Millares. For the ears, Wright tapped experimental jazz musician Jason Ajemian to create an ominous score that will rumble and creak along with the video as if capturing the experience from inside Wright's costume. But the creative decisions are Wright's to make.
"I feel like I'm pushing more and more in terms of what I can do with my body," she says. "Usually, I never wear things like this in the work... I try to strip out any information. But because it's a reenactment, I'm wearing this costume; there's audio, which never really happens in the work... I've played with color a lot." The list of departures from her previous work is long, Wright says, "which I think is kind of fun. I still can't believe I made this — like, wow, this is so unlike my normal style."
In another city, Wright says, she might have felt pressured to stay in her own lane. But Miami has been a supportive environment for the artist, she says, ever since she returned in 2008, after studying at the International Center of Photography in New York, to find artists thriving despite the recession.
"I found it to be... a good place to grow as an artist," says Wright, who now lives in Little Havana. "The art scene was growing around me. I think people are really excited to... support artists in Miami."
She's taken advantage of opportunities to put on solo shows at Spinello Projects, which now represents her; the Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Screening Room, among others. She likes the mental exercise of planning "an entire space" and the freedom to display things her way.
"There are [fewer] rules," she explains. "When I'm in Paris, sometimes... it's like, I'm constantly being told, 'Oh, that's not how it's done.' And I'm like, 'Why?' You know? Like, do whatever you want!
"I have a different type of sensibility, you know? Just do it; there's a will, there's a way; make it happen! I think Miami has that [attitude]."
Locust is a smaller venue, but Wright and executive director Chana Budgazad Sheldon both see it as a prime space for trying something new without the pressure of art sales or admission fees.
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"We're doing programming that is coming from the artist's voice," Sheldon says, sitting in her office beneath framed posters from Locust's "Art on the Move" exhibition. "Often we're looking for projects that are taking chances and... really representing a shift in the artist's practice."
Sheldon says Locust, founded in 1998 as one of the first galleries in Wynwood to convert a warehouse into an art space, has played host to bold breakthrough exhibitions and more incremental shows — "steppingstones" that help the artist build a "really, really good" next show. Wright "was always on our radar," Sheldon says, and she eagerly awaits the culmination of months of conversation and weeks of construction.
"It's amazing," Wright says, watching her creation take shape. She looks forward to watching other people fall into it.
"Under the Water Was Sand, Then Rocks, Miles of Rocks, Then Fire"
Saturday, September 10, through Saturday, October 8, at Locust Projects, 3852 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-576-8570; locustprojects.org. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.