Ashton Cooper on Cauleen Smith

In the prologue to her 1992 novel The Volcano Lover, a period piece set against the backdrop of Naples’s Mount Vesuvius, Susan Sontag describes the eponymous geological object as such: “It’s the mouth of a volcano. Yes, mouth; and lava tongue. A body, a monstrous living body, both male and female. It emits, ejects. It is also an interior, an abyss. Something alive, that can die. Something inert that becomes agitated, now and then. Existing only intermittently. A constant menace. If predictable, usually not predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous.” Sontag’s passage evocatively captures the fecund metaphorical paradox of the volcano, its poetic ability to transcend a multitude of dualities: man/woman, inactivity/eruption, destruction/creation.

The last of these dichotomies figured most prominently in Cauleen Smith’s exhibition “My Caldera,” which explored the metaphorics of eruption across several mediums, including sculpture, video, textiles, and poetry. While Sontag foregrounded the corporeal aspects of her subject, Smith used it to emblematize the passage of time and the meaning of place—most importantly, the reclamation of unmarked futures for people of color. The caldera is the massive concavity left in the wake of magma’s ejection: a new site full of possibility, forged from chaos. (Even the gallery’s moody lighting echoed a kind of calm-after-the-storm quality that the caldera represents). Smith claimed this rocky formation as her own, as we saw in the show’s title and a number of satiny sequined banners that filled the gallery—suspended from the ceiling and, in several instances, hung low to the floor, confronting the viewer—emblazoned with statements such as YOUR ROCK MY WORLD, YOUR PAST MADE MY FUTURE, and YOUR ROCK MY VOLCANO.

Volcano Manifesto (all works 2022), the chapbook that Smith released in tandem with the show, considers volcanic creation as a way to imagine new models of being and belonging outside of white supremacist models of possession. In it, she writes: “I do not know how to build a better world on the graves, blood and bones that litter the history of the continent that made me. But my Black ass needs a place to live. And friends! New islands are being made as we speak! Birthed from the hot molten core of the earth comes new land. This land, I declare, belongs to no one and because it belongs to no one it seems like the perfect home for people who have no where to go.”

The making of a caldera was captured in the show’s namesake piece, a lush video projected onto a large piece of fabric pinned between two walls in the gallery’s back corner. An emphatically material way of displaying a digital work, the installation echoed the banners that populated the room. The film opened with the cawing of crows. As images of an abstracted, heavily filtered smoking summit appeared, the sounds of a buzzy, doomsday metal soundtrack began. Composed of stills ripped from TikTok and then transferred onto 35-mm film, the grainy footage revealed the process of a volcano’s eruption, from the unleashing of steam and ash, to dome collapse and explosion, and then, finally, to the expulsion of lava. The symbolic bird at the video’s opening also appeared in seven of Smith’s banners. In one, the large corvid alighted atop a pile of ashen rock. The text on the work’s verso read, WELCOME TO THE AFTERMATH.

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