A child stumbles upon a seashell on the beach, presses it against their ear and with intense wonder, discovers its void-like resonance. This appears to be the sound of the ocean, giving the impression that life at sea is recorded within the exoskeleton of a perished mollusc. The implication is an affirmation of life, mainly human life – which is similarly expected to linger in a shallow corpse that has lost its denizen (treating the death like a palpable presence or fearing the spectres that haunt human remains). In this way, the conch’s cavity becomes a ghostly fissure, a hole that breaths delirious panoramas of permanence. In other words, it is an instrument that bridges the mundane with the fantastical. It is also a source of comfort, as it perpetuates the hope that a fragment of being can remain in the material world long after death. However, like the wailing of a siren, this orifice can seduce with marvellous tunes or repel with nightmarish shrieks.
Lucreccia Quintanilla, A Steady Backbeat, Materials; Sand, clay, gouache and two sound compositions played through broken phones and amplified by the clay conches.
Indeed, while this sound is in fact rather uncomplicated (one’s own body and immediate surroundings resonating within the conch), its banality reveals a more frightening disturbance. It undermines the value of life, framed by the myth of the seashell: where even that of a mollusc is worthy of being contained, preserved and communicated to the world. In a cruel reiteration of nothingness, a ‘google search’ reveals this sound to be trivial bodily noises commonly blocked by the consciousness of the listener (a hand doming the ear produces a similar effect). Thus, the seashell is more reminiscent of an acoustic mirror than a recorder, as it bears an existential reflection.
Lucreccia Quintanilla sets a sculptural soundtrack to this encounter with her exhibition A Steady Backbeat (2017), currently showing at TCB. The work consists of two main pieces, that like a pair of headphones (or narcissus gazing at its double), face each other on the gallery floor. They are clay sculptures of seashells-cum-speakers containing tracks playing on iPhones trapped in the shells. These objects, like real conchs, are found resting on piles of beach sand arranged in circular formations over the gallery floor. To experience the work one must either pick up the sculptures and press them against one’s ear, or kneel and press one’s ear against the sculptures – conjuring the familiar beach ritual. However, unlike the David Lynch-esque whoosh typically found in natural seashells, these works emit an engrossing beat that, if etiquette and opening wine permitted, a drunken artist could even dance to.
A Steady Backbeat also incorporates a text written by the artist, which provides a valuable insight into the genesis of the work. In effect, Quintanilla explains that as a child, she believed “stars were tiny windows” that allowed celestial light to shine through. The artist proceeds by relating this notion back to pre-Columbian beliefs, particularly the Mayans who believed the stars to be eyes. Mythologies such as these, provide Lucreccia Quintanilla with a departure point to think about the endurance of the indigenous gaze in the face of colonization and its ongoing cultural influence. Seashells, as the artist suggests, have seen these civilizations prosper, collapse and transform.
Indeed, turning a postcolonial ear on the acoustics of a Pacific conch reveals a haunted reflection, as Latin America is a region that has notably suffered a disruption of history inflicted by the “conquest”. To listen to the postcolonial bodies that emerge from this pandemonium is to gaze at a nebulous enigma: a genealogy that has been purposely annihilated to dominate and colonize. The shell, as an acoustic mirror, becomes a vortex where pyramid debris, burnt codices and the echoes of disciplinary whippings spiral into the unknown. As that which precedes the 16th century in Latin America, is largely a void.
Quintanilla’s seashells trap this audible emptiness: favouring “a steady beat” and eschewing the ethereal hiss commonly associated with stereotypical vacuums. To understand how a beat could enhance a sense of nothingness, one can turn to the horror film Under The Skin (2013), where Scarlett Johansson consumes her victims in a black, viscous abyss. In that inter-dimensional catacomb, a sparse beat renders her ravening with a ritualistic impulse. The aural backdrop of this scene, like A Steady Backbeat, may seem perplexing – as the engulfing impact of the beat suggests a state of fullness. However, it is also a sound that connotes shallow cultural spaces, such as raves, dance clubs and booming cars. Sites where consciousness dissolves in a sexual embrace or a chemical high in which the mind, like dim lights, seeks to shut down.
Thus, it is appropriate to employ an iPhone as a medium in A Steady Backbeat, as its electronic technology evokes the dynamics of a nihilistic dancer, who dances all day long only to crash at night and eventually, shut down forever.
Rhythm is also closely associated with the Latin American body, allowing for an insight into how these subjects are signified. This cacophony of meaning is contained within the clay skeleton of Quintanilla’s sculptures, unleashing a ritual of active listening that conflates pre-Columbian mythologies and Dj-ing. The latter is an appropriate metaphor for miscegenation, since it involves mixing tracks to produce a new hybrid song. Perhaps Lucreccia Quintanilla sets the organic medium of clay against the hipster technology of Apple to ponder on how much of this blood intermingling has been manufactured to create a racial hype.
While listening to the sound work, I pictured the track names glowing on Quintanilla’s iPhone screens(most likely possessing pragmatic titles not meant to be seen). The idea of this systematic interface incidentally reminded me of colonial diagrams and their classification of castas or racial types – often cataloguing bizarre terms such as ‘half-cast’, ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ (the latter sounding more like a self-pitying drone band than a racial identity). The grotesque eugenics scene in the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), in which the Chief Protector of Aborigines nefariously lays out a policy to breed out non-whiteness, also came to mind – since this moment illustrates how miscegenation can operate as a tool to achieve colonial goals and define the borders of an ‘ideal’ body. However, A Steady Backbeat ultimately struck a more intimate chord. Evoking fleeting moments such as the hopeless feeling of staring at my own vacant face on the fractured screen of my iPhone, where a pair of dark mestizo eyes browse an eclectic playlist. Searching for an unknowable ‘beat’.