Once She Dries: An Ode to Coral

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Nancy Cohen, Segment of handmade paper loop that circles the gallery. Wire, thread and handmade paper, 80” x 140” x 46,” 2022. Photo credit: Maddie Orton

In the fall of 2019, Meagan Woods, an interdisciplinary artist working in dance, theatre and costume design, attended an arts/science event at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada where she was an MFA student. She was both alarmed and inspired by what she learned about the critical condition of coral reefs around the world caused by climate change. In response, she assembled a team consisting of four colleagues in the MFA Interdisciplinary Arts program and a New-Jersey based visual artist to create what eventually became an innovative, experimental opera/installation called Once She Dries. Besides Woods, the collaborative includes pianist and composer, Casper Leerink; filmmaker, photographer and installation artist, Xinyue Liu; violinist and composer, Kourosh Ghamsari-Esfahani; musician and actress, Amanda Sum; and sculptor and installation artist, Nancy Cohen.

Once She Dries is a complex project comprised of: an original score featuring voice, piano and violin; a libretto; three video projections that contain moving images of corals and other underwater footage as well as text, the score and the libretto; a room-size, undulating, hand-made paper construction that spills onto the walls and floor and alludes to the wind, water, storm and concrete depicted in the opera; and coral-like sculptures on which audience members can sit and become part of the installation itself. Each of the project’s interdisciplinary components complements the story expressed in the opera. and together create a lyrical, abstract, and moving depiction of a science-based phenomenon currently impacting our ocean ecosystems.

Film still, video image with libretto text, 36” x 48.” Photo credit: Xinyue Liu

At heart, Once She Dries is a love story with three characters: Coral, who loves Cloud; Pantheon, (a concrete structure) who loves Coral, and Cloud, who is non-committal. In Act I, Coral is in a state of duress – her life is ebbing. She calls desperately to Cloud but Cloud is not there. The connection between Coral and Cloud references the scientific condition that occurs when corals begin overheating and release a pheromone-like bio-chemical that triggers cooling cloud formations. Eventually Cloud comes and Coral is revitalized. At the end of Act I, a violent storm rips Coral from the seabed and onto the shore where she is lodged within Pantheon.

In Act II, Coral calls to Cloud to “take me from this concrete prison” and argues with Pantheon who wants her to stay. As she dries from lack of water and begins to deteriorate again, Coral signals Cloud again who brings on a second storm in Act III. Washing back into the sea, Coral is embedded into broken remnants of Pantheon and becomes a flourishing reef. The symbiotic relationship between Coral and Pantheon alludes to both the positive and negative aspects of concrete – the world-wide, concrete manufacturing industry that has killed coral reefs and contributed to 8% of yearly carbon emissions, as well as its potential for facilitating coral reef revitalization that scientists are now exploring.

Detail of submerged concrete sculpture that supports reef revitalization. Photo credit: Global Coralition

Meagan Wood’s poignant libretto is enhanced by Amanda Sum’s haunting voice and the musicianship of Kourosh Ghamsari-Esfahani and Casper Leerink, whose score and instrumentation are equally compelling. It was Ghamsari-Esfahani who suggested that the collaborative consider creating an opera rather than another art form when he pointed out the melodramatic nature of the story. Unlike classic operas, though, all of the characters in Once She Dries are non-human and sing in the vast landscapes of sky and sea rather than in the confines of a restricted, manmade environment.

From the beginning of her planning process for a video that would incorporate images, libretto and score, Xinyue Liu wanted to create an immersive space in which the viewer is participating alongside the characters. For this reason, she decided to develop three, distinct 30-minute videos that would be activated at the same time but in different locations, and that would work together seamlessly to tell the opera’s story. Using footage of coral reefs, scuba divers and other underwater images that purposely appear as if they come from home videos taken in the 1950s, Liu successfully refers both to the idyllic past when coral reefs were not endangered and to the future when their fate is uncertain.

Nancy Cohen, Sculptural seating with bleached coral, paper and wire on aluminum frame, 24” x 32” x 25,” 2022. Photo Credit: Maddie Orton

Nancy Cohen’s 42 foot long, hand-made paper construction contains the blue, green and gray colors that evoke the changing conditions of the sea and sky. Created at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center artist residency with the assistance of Meagan Woods, the piece is as mesmerizing as the landscape it depicts. Her three large sculptures, also constructed from paper and wire as well as aluminum frames, were purposely made with seating so that visitors could engage directly with the installation.

Many contemporary artists are addressing the negative impact that climate change has had on coral reefs. For example, ceramic sculptor and ocean advocate, Courtney Mattison, creates monumental ceramic installations that reflect both the astonishing beauty of coral reefs and the tragedy of man-made behavior threatening their fragile existence. What makes Once She Dries stand out from other projects on the same issue is its interdisciplinary nature, its innovative narrative and its diverse team of artists who have collaborated to produce an elegant ode to coral.

Once She Dries premieres at the SMUSH Gallery in Jersey City, NJ, with an opening reception on Friday, March 3, 2023 from 6 – 9 pm. It runs through Sunday, April 2.

About the writer: Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, eco-artist and arts writer who has exhibited widely throughout the United States. Since 2011, her practice has focused on water in the context of climate change. Her recent work recasts ancient myths – in which water plays a pivotal role – into visual narratives that reflect upon contemporary society. For the past five years, Fishman has written a monthly column, called “Imagining Water,” for the international blog, Artists and Climate Change, which highlights artists of all disciplines around the world who are working on global water issues and climate change.