Antonia Wright shows no fear when it comes to her art. In videos on display in her new show at Spinello Projects, "You Make Me Sick: I Love You," she practices tai chi while covered in a swarm of 15,000 honey bees, smashes through panes of glass in the nude and utters desperate screams underwater.
"When I make work," she says, "I just jump and don't know where I'll fall."
Her sprawling exhibit, which runs through May 3, marks Spinello's most ambitious gallery exhibit to date and features a notable bounty of video, photography, and sculpture. The first full-scale survey of Wright's work created in the past decade not only encompasses both floors of the capacious Spinello space but also spills over into the neighboring Butter Gallery and Projectraum.
Her work explores the vulnerabilities of the human condition and provokes thoughtful introspection. "Ms. Wright's recurring interest in using her own body as her principal tool enables her to undermine the boundaries of gender politics," curatorial adviser Tami Katz-Freiman observes. "She challenges social conventions via an extreme physical or emotional action and to test the endurance of her viewers."
The 34-year-old Wright was born in Coral Gables and raised in South Miami in a distinctly creative environment. Her mother, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, is a successful novelist and mystery writer, and her father, John Parke Wright, is a businessman with a penchant for painting.
At a young age, Wright displayed a talent for poetry. By age 12, she had become fascinated with reading her work in public. After attending grade school and middle school in South Florida, she went to high school in Boston. She then moved west and graduated with a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Montana. Next came an MFA in poetry from the New School in New York City and study at the International Center of Photography. In 2008, she returned to Miami, where she began combining the written and the provocative.
By the time Wright arrived back home, America was mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She says the lengthy conflicts inspired her. "What happened in Iraq really affected me, and look at what's occurring in Syria and the Ukraine now," the tall brunette reflects. "Just because people become scared by aggression doesn't mean they have to attack."
While speaking, she unconsciously flips back her hair to reveal streaks of gray that recently began encroaching on the dark tresses that frame her piercing blue eyes. At Spinello, evidence of what might have caused the prematurely white locks can be found in two of her newest works. One video, simply titled Be, investigates notions of peace and aggression. It shows the artist hosting 15,000 honey bees while practicing tai chi in a North Florida orange grove. She wears sheer ballet tights while a swarm of the buzzing insects covers her torso, appearing as if clad in a fur corset.
"The video is a metaphor for how to remain peaceful in the face of danger," the artist explains. It was first shown last year at the Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles and is making its Miami debut at Spinello. Wright took tai chi lessons in Broward and later traveled to an ashram in India for intense meditation classes. "To prepare for the experience, I learned tai chi, which is a martial art, from a sensei named Master Ogi. Later, I traveled to Madurai in southern India to the Sivananda Ashram, where I spent several weeks meditating to get in the right frame of mind for the bees to relax on my body."
Wright says that when she arrived at the orange grove to film her performance, the beekeepers prepared her by placing three queen bees on strategic parts of her body. "Afterward, the rest of the hive began flying to my body and fighting with each other to get closer to the queen bees, leaving tiny scratch marks all over my body. It was a strange experience, and the bees felt really amazing and hot as they clung to me while I continued through the 16 forms of my Yang tai chi sequence," Wright recalls. "I was stung only once, when they were being removed by the beekeeper."
Another video that commands attention was inspired by Suddenly We Jumped: Breaking the Glass Ceiling, a performance piece she staged at Vizcaya this past December during Art Basel. For the project, she worked with partner and longtime collaborator Ruben Millares and a team of engineers to create a soaring structure with several thick glass panes suspended at various intervals up to 20 feet off the ground.
Wright then donned a helmet and futuristic garb and had herself catapulted through the glass. The performance, she says, was meant to question a misogynistic world and the military industrialization of warlike nations. She has re-created the experience in an arresting video in which she appears nude while exploding face-first through sheets of movie glass. "Safety is not an accident," Wright says. "It takes up to two years sometimes for me to make a video that's four minutes long."
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In addition to displaying these visually stunning confrontations with her physical self, Wright's show also includes early work. There's a 2008 video titled You Make Me Sick (from which her show takes part of its name), in which Wright wears olive-green military fatigues while smoking cigars until intoxicated.
"I made that the day Fidel Castro resigned and passed over the government to his brother," she says.
A visit to her epic exhibit at Spinello will leave viewers certain Wright is both insatiably curious and fearless. It will also inform them of her ascent as one of South Florida's most original and provocative talents.