The Ship of Fools originated from various explorations of the concept of hell. A couple of years ago a few of my projects dealt with a construction of a hell environment, modeling it on the formal organization of Dante’s Inferno. I was interested in developing several layers within this environment, including the outer layer, the first circle in the Inferno—Limbo, with an attempt to relate them to my own world. In general the realm of Limbo, in Dante and other sources, is designated for people of good nature who do not deserve to go to hell, but, for various reasons, did not earn their place in heaven. I became interested in creating a space where people are in a constant state of discomfort due to their inability to adhere to a path, manipulated by their hopes, fears and weaknesses. The notion of people of good nature, suspended in a static, spiritual state, unable or unwilling to move forward intrigued me, as it seems to be a frustrating phenomenon in my own life as well as in those of my fellow humans.
A fascination with an oil painting attributed to Hieronymus Bouch (c. 1490-1500), called The Ship of Fools, triggered the actual project. This painting depicts a group of characters of various types, cramped on a small boat that is situated in a claustrophobic waterscape, which also exists in an extremely narrow picture frame. Those formal restrictions left no space for the vessel’s advancement, forcing the occupants of the boat into a suspended state of limbo. Most of the characters in Bouch’s painting engage in some sort of merry-making, unaware or uninterested in their journey. A makeshift construction of tree branches and strings supposedly replaces the boat’s sails and ropes. I began to imagine life as an ocean, where vessels symbolize our bodies and spirits sail thorough it on their journeys, but in a limbo zone the spirits are stuck, and so the boats, instead of moving forward, sail back and forth, in circles, or are at a total stand-still, unable to reach their destination.
Once the project was initiated I began a Google search for ideas and images, as well as researching relevant literature and discussing ideas with friends. This search lacked any judgment of right or wrong, true or false and accepted all material as valid resource and as a source of inspiration. A collection of notes and images were accumulated and organized in various files under the Meta name Ship of Fools.
I came across a few Google entries concerning Sebastian Brant’s book (c. 1492) The Ship of Fools, and some information about the popularity of the Ship of Fools model during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Instead of a narrative which tells a linear story, Brant’s manuscript is organized in short, one-page chapters introducing its characters. There is only one short entry that discusses the fact that those characters are on a boat, heading towards some form of a fools heaven. Brant’s manuscript inspired a specific organization of the Ship of Fools video where each fool aboard the Ship of Fools is introduced in a short video chapter.
While discussing the subject matter with a friend of mine he reminded me of Sartre’s play No Exit, which depicts a satiric and potent image of hell. This description worked very well with my already evolving idea of Limbo as it portrayed three personalities stuck in a small room for eternity, exposing their fears and weaknesses without apparent resolution. A number of Sartre’s ideas helped me define a few of the characters and the overall atmosphere aboard my Ship of Fools. The first is the mirror incident, where Estelle Rigault, a high society woman who caused her lover to kill himself, is shocked to discover that there are no mirrors in hell; she accepts the other female occupant offer to serve as her mirror. The second is when Garcin, a man who finds himself in hell because he deserted the army and cheated on his wife, is enraged because he realizes that “they did not leave him his toothbrush”. Those characters are concerned with what seems to be irrelevant, shallow matters, but in fact those are issues relating to major concerns of Western society regarding self-image and hygiene that I was interested in including in my project.
An important progression in my Sarah Gray Research project evolved when I decided that instead of defining the various fools on my own, I will engage other people in the process, asking my friends to think about the aspects of their own personalities that prevent them from moving forward. Once they characterize their own specific “fool”, they had to act their part in front of a video camera, on the deck of a boat. This decision made it more complicated in terms of control over the material, but made a more interesting exploration of a wider variety of perspectives. Working with other people, who are not necessarily artists, on the creative process also made it possible to move outside the limitation of my own ideas and create a broader creative attempt. This procedure lead me to consider this method in future projects, as I think that it relates to my research style, where I deliberately attempt to create a non-hierarchical research, where all perspectives and ideas are equally valid.
David Margolin, David Wallace, Elizabeth Letcher, Leif Granberg, Lee Whitefield, Michael Goodier, Paulette Zamora, Paul Grayson, Penny Jennings, Signe Brewer, Randy Sexton, Yariv Kainan.