Using a simplicity of means, Whitney Ramage achieved a magnitude of results in her recent exhibition “DisEmbodiment.” In her masterful installation A Prayer for Every Day You’ve Been Gone, more than 1,800 white origami paper boats seemed to float across the polished wood floor of the gallery. Inspired by the loss of a close friend, Ramage began a meditative practice of folding a delicate boat each day. The process enabled her to transition from grief to acceptance—a universal challenge when facing death and loss.
An equally intriguing installation, By the Long Labor of Tides, explores the unavoidable “breaking” that happens to all humans and the wish to “unbreak” things, thereby healing them. Ramage began with 27 glazed and decorated dinner plates, first smashing and then painstakingly reconstructing them. Framed against a long wall of tautly stretched organza, these repaired works hovered in a liminal space. A line of mounded broken shards sat on the floor below the suspended plane of plates. Dinner plates evoke domesticity, and part of the import of the piece is its inference to the domestic violence and quiet oppression suffered by women. By the Long Labor of Tides presents decomposition—inevitable in life—as well as the deeply human impulse to reconstruct and make whole again.
In the poem “Ode to Broken Things,” which inspired Ramage’s work, Pablo Neruda writes: “May whatever breaks/Be reconstructed by the sea/with the long labor of its tides.” Ramage’s long labors of meticulous, repetitive actions in both the boat and plate installations are a personal way of integrating life experiences and societal concerns with her continuous art practice, which transforms them into luminous works of art.
Ramage’s work is not devoid of humor. The central sculptural element in both To Wrestle the Angel and Sepulcher or Grotto consists of an aluminum cube that equals the volume of the artist’s body. In the video To Wrestle the Angel, Ramage struggles unsuccessfully to overcome the buoyant cube as they float together in water. Her futile actions are at once funny and mesmerizing. She likens her battle to that of Don Quixote fighting windmills, noting that whether a life dilemma is actual or imagined, the struggle is real.
In Sepulcher or Grotto, stone-filled translucent wedding favor bags (again adding up to the volume of her body) hung against a wall, with the aluminum cube sitting in front of them. It is astonishing to reflect on the difference in perception when the 1.76 cubic feet of space occupied by Ramage’s body is expressed in these different ways: as hanging stones, the volume of an aluminum cube, or her actual body in space. Inevitably, metaphysical questions arise about whether the “self” is limited by its physical form or extends as far and wide as the consciousness that inhabits that form.
All of Ramage’s work revolves around such existential questions. Each of the small, hinged “book” sculptures in Volumes I-VI contain casts of her hands within the covers. Ramage sees touch as the most basic perceptual tool—all sculpture emerges from its cave of inspiration through touch. A peripatetic philosopher-artist on a continuous journey of exploration and wonder, Ramage takes on fundamental, and unanswerable, questions about the human condition, living the process fully as it becomes transformed into art that then continues to inspire more questions.