Debra Scacco’s The Narrows is a timely show at Klowden Mann that uses multimedia art to examine the changing immigrant experience and liminal spaces found, created, and realized on the journey to the United States.
Scacco researched this project in the Ellis Island archives, beginning with a residency there in 2012, as she began tying her own personal connections between her family’s Italian immigration story to the larger historical narrative. With her art, she questions the immigration process, the changing roles of race, whiteness, and ethnicity, and the ever-present linimality presented in traversing borders and nationalities.
The Narrows features a variety of work united along the theme of immigration, politics, and power. The show is named after the water separating Brooklyn and Staten Island, which saw more than 12 million immigrants between 1892-1954. On the largest gallery wall, 29 etched glass sculptures hang, perfectly spaced, representing the 29 questions that were once featured on the immigrant entry exam. These are small, intricate pieces that are symbolic of Scacco’s ability to transform large and complex themes into powerfully, packed works of art that make an immersive experience for viewers.
With these works, Scacco transcribed the audio recordings from personal audio narratives of 29 immigrants. She transcribed them by hand onto paper sketches, using incredibly delicate and minute handwritten font to spell out their stories. With these stories, Scacco created specific patterns forming the shapes and currents of water inspired by photos she had taken of the water between Ellis Island and Manhattan.
These drawings, which are not shown in the exhibit, were part of the artistic process from which Scacco made the glass etchings. The patterns were etched into 29 relatively small glass panels (roughly 12 x 8 inches) and then they were fitted to custom mirrored cabinets. Scacco used darker, bronze mirrors not only to reflect the worded water currents, thus creating the appearance and three dimensionality of rippling water, but also to darkly reflect us, the viewers, so that we are physically immersed in the art, in the water, and in the immigrant experience.
In the corner across from the wall of mirrored etchings, an impressive sculptural interpretation of Ellis Island’s unforgettable “Stairs of Separation” hovers as if levitating, from the ground all the way up to the ceiling. Hung from a teak plywood frame, this sculpture (aptly called Architecture of Separation) is a suggestion of the stairs, largely composed of near-to-invisible embroidery thread and fishing wire. It is hard to described how this sculpture works, but it does so beautifully and powerfully.
The light threads and wires are measured precisely, geometrically forming the rectilinear shapes of the three-laned staircase. The light catches these lines in such a way that they are visible and otherworldly. You can not only see the stairs, but you can also see through them. The lines that stretch from floor to ceiling recall the great bridges of Manhattan in addition to the Verrazano Bridge that now goes over “The Narrows” for which the show is named. But besides the imagery of bridge architecture they suggest, they also seem to conjure a web-like presence: one that might trap or reject you — and this feels quite purposeful in its metaphor in regards to the the stairs’ history.
On Ellis Island, the “Stairs of Separation,” was the common name for the three-aisled stairs where immigrants were directed after processing. Three outcomes were possible here: one could gain immediate entry, one one could be detained, or one could be denied entry with immediate deportation. Through Scacco’s recreation, through immigrant descriptions of the stairs, and through the nickname for the stairs themselves, it is impossible to see Scacco’s sculpture without picturing the ghosts of families, couples, and friends torn apart by flimsy stairway railings as they were sometimes sorted into different lanes, separated (as Scacco’s title suggests) by this architectural divide.
The Narrows also features a replica of one of the puzzles used to weed out “undesirables” and prohibit immigrants from entering the United States. This criteria was based on “feeblemindedness,” as stipulated in the Immigration Act of 1907, a precursor to the Johnson-Reed Act. Her sculpture, Puzzle for the Feeble-minded (Feature Profile Test), reflects the underlying belief in racist pseudosciences at the time, as these types of puzzles were developed to supposedly only grant the smartest immigrants passage to the United States. As Scacco’s press release states, “feeblemindedness was an unquantifiable guideline, often providing justification for discriminatory inspection practices.”
The last part of the show is in a quiet and dark back room. A looped video features footage of water passing beneath the boat on the journey from Ellis Island to Manhattan. The video is overlaid with archival audio of interviews from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, featuring the voices of immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the 1920s, recalling their momentous and sometimes harrowing journeys to the U.S. These are powerful and emotional reminders of both the cost of immigration on the traveler and their family, and of the toll of immigration on those who are excluded and separated from family now. The interviewees remind us of a history that is necessary, timely, and beyond relevant—of our nation’s immigration laws, policies and prejudices; of the architecture granting obstruction or entry in the U.S.; and more personally of the lives, loves, and locations people gave up to journey to an unknown place, often alone as outsiders, and of course, as dreamers.
The Narrows is currently showing at Klowden Mann through February 17, 2018. On this closing Saturday, 2/17, there will be a Catalogue Release Party and Closing Event from 4-6pm.
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of her work, visit eclaire.me.