Outside of Louis B James Gallery is a normal Lower East Side scene: a small bodega blaring reggaeton, people walking while texting, the wafting smell of $1 pizza. But through the heavy glass door artist Martin Roth has created a portal to another country, another ecosystem, a whole other world. The gallery has been completely filled with rubble and dirt, making a rocky terrain of destroyed cinder blocks and barbed wire you have to climb through like an abandoned construction site. All outside sounds are drowned out by a methodical, repetitive whirring, a dull siren that eccos off the walls.
Even the small downstairs room has been flooded with three inches of water and smells faintly of mud. It’s a scene of destruction, maybe of war, but before thoughts can get too morbid, a flutter of color, or a ripple in the water catches your eye, and the installation comes to life. Among the rubble, which has been transported from the board of Turkey and Syria by the artist, Untitled (Debris) houses a hoard of vibrant parakeets, rescued from a shelter for abandoned pets, as well as a number of giant toads that were being sold in Chinatown for food.
Roth recently visited the Middle East hoping to find a way to represent this place of turmoil that is so prevalent in the news but still seems so distant here in the United States. “We see so many images of this place but I wanted to somehow make it real,” he tells The Creators Project. “Bringing the rubble here was strangely simple, it didn’t even have to go through customs, a lot easier than for a human to leave the country. We only had to pack it in suitcases. And now that the dust is here, it gets on your shoes, and you bring it home.”
Having to traverse the arena makes each viewer an active participant in Roth’s journey, and draws an immediate, physical connection to an otherwise foreign place. Roth sees the installation like a cross section of environments, almost an evolution through stages of life. “It starts in the basement, in the wet, moist land filled with frogs,” Roth explains. The toads are a loose representation of the political term “boiling frogs” referring to the phenomena that frogs in a pot will allow themselves to be cooked alive if you slowly turn up heat. “I’m drawing on that political term,” he says, “but I’m not depicting it. The frogs were meant to be boiled, but they were not.”
The next level, the dry bed of rubble: I see it as a place of destruction, as burial mounds. But at the same time the rubble is a place for the birds to live. They use it as their home. The sound connects it all together,” he explains, referring to the recording of a Syrian refugee boy playing the harmonica, on loop. “I wanted to record a sound that was almost like a fly, to connect it with the frogs. It’s like a mantra.”
Roth is no stranger to using animals in his installations. He thinks of them as collaborators that he treats well, giving the birds and frogs a chance at a second life. When the installation closes the frogs will go to a friend’s pond while the parakeets will live in a sanctuary upstate. “I’m using them as a symbol for domestication,” says Roth of the birds, “but I also wanted to de-domesticate them. It took them two days to learn how to fly again now that they are out of a cage.”
Surrounded by the birds chirping on the ceiling pipes and flying around the rubble, the low rumbling of the frogs in the basement, there is a stirring of life in every corner of the gallery. Here the destruction seems less bleak than the images we see on the news, and in the stories Roth tells of the connections he made with people while traveling in Syria. There is life that is rising out of the rubble, a hopefulness that Roth shows through his work. “Animals show the human condition, It’s easier to speak through them.” He says, letting these creatures stand for all living things. “They are the ones that are in control.”
Untitled (Debris) will be on view until October 18th at Louis B James Gallery. See more information here.
To see what's going on in Syria firsthand check out VICE News: The Battle for Syria's South: