Lifelines of time drawn in the sand

Ripples run across a ridge of sand, like wrinkles of time over an arched spine. Gnarly knees of an ancient tree meet transient tidal etchings reminiscent of roots. Tiny black holes and pellets of grains are scattered on the sand. Apparitions of light break through salty crystallisations in blue darkness. Time materialises on the porous skins of earth, bark and paper in a multitude of rhythms.

Edges are always the most diverse in ecologies. As liminal spaces they are also in ceaseless formation and transformation. The boundaries of belonging and becoming shapeshift as their coordinates get drawn anew, often with a leisurely pace of predictable cycles yet at times with the abrupt force of a fault line. In the contact zones between the land and the sea, or below and above the ground, the constant worldmaking across multiple scales of time and space becomes tangible. When looking closely with intimate attentiveness, myriad kinds of worldmakers may reveal themselves, like those in the photographs of Maria Ångerman. With “fingery eyes”, her work feels the contours of the surfaces where different critters, communities and ecosystems meet and greet each other. Taking time and letting the gaze linger, those who are usually passed by as mute and minute begin to tell their tales and steer us through this sandy world of theirs.

Ångerman’s work transports the viewer to the brackish, porous boundary between the river and the sea, where fresh and salty waters and a range of directionional flows enmesh. Our gaze lands on the sand dunes that, in their incalculable grains, are material witnesses to the complex past and present of colonial exploitations. Here and now, the extraction focuses on the rare earth mineral zircon, which is also treasured by geologists as a time machine allowing for measured journeys back to moments in deep time. Ångerman, however, directs attention elsewhere amidst these shifting sands.

Sand is anything but inert. It is neither one nor still, but rather an infinite multitude of minerals and matters, pasts and futures, coming together in singular moments on their passages through the present. Sand has already been part of both mountains and seabeds, and travelled by ocean and air currents across vast distances around the globe and through aeons of time. Sand is also home to immeasurable forms of life. The sand dwellers tirelessly move grains around, while many of them traverse freely across the lines separating different realms, to the underworld and back, or between the mediums of water, air, and earth. To these lifeforms, the anthropocentric distinctions hardly make sense, no more than the notion of sand as lifeless.

Ångerman’s work invites the viewer to also step and see closer. Gently, it urges us to follow the trails of worldmaking, the traces of events and encounters revealed by the receding tide, the flotsam gathered on the beach, the roots holding lives and deaths together, and the patterns left by the wind as it carries nutrients across the ocean or expands the desert beyond its degrading edges. The photographs focus our attention on the diversity of life-sustaining relations that are not solely gathered and dispersed on the beach, but form the very sand beneath our gaze. This is not nothing, a terra nullius to conquer and exploit. The work invites the viewer to tread cautiously on the soft surface of the sand that is like one’s own skin, an organ that weaves our entangled fates together. The passing lines in the sand, like those on a human hand, connect us with the past and guide us in the present. Finite lifelines embody infinite times.

In the book the grainy images appear in their materiality as the skin of the print. The images turn into conduits for attention beyond themselves. Touch forms a bond across distances. Holding the images of fragile acts and events of worldmaking with haptic vision, tips of fingers following them through the pages in folds and turns, the viewer becomes part and partial in the lifelines drawn on the imaged and imagined shores, sands, and surfaces. Navigating the numerous possible directions and orders of unfolding narratives, a palpable sense of obligation of care emerges alongside curiosity.

Ångerman’s work gathers observations on the beach: remains of extractive exploitation and consumer culture alongside shells of sea creatures and a range of organic material in varied stages of their singular cycles of transmutation. These morsels of matter out of place are carefully arranged, centred in their own frames alongside others. Yet this tentative order does not follow nor aim at the predetermination or stability of taxonomies, but rather evokes unlikely likenesses, affinities and alliances. Contemporary orders of knowledge and technologies, and thus their projected futures, are built on distinctions and dissections of various kinds, species, or types. This dream of control over boundaries is proving to be a fatal illusion. Contagions, fusions, and entanglements, it is these messy meshes that make life possible and haunt the systems of sense-making.

The photographs capture fleeting moments of presence, making visible a visceral sense of both age-old and emergent kinships. The images encourage reading of the marks in the sand as messages left there for us to trace before the tide of time washes over them again. Resting on the sand, the fragments of temporary forms are about to continue their transformations. They are in themselves emergent assemblages in the making, like the gradual geological formation of rocks and their inevitable grinding down into particles of sand and, ultimately, into novel constellations again.

Out of this collection of momentary materialisations, a novel community of intimate strangers emerges in Ångerman’s collages. These figures might seem at first glance like familiar formations of matter and meaning, but turn out to be quite peculiar in all their proximities. The categorical divisions between manmade and natural, like that of life and non-life, falter here. Warriors, grievers, oracles and one-eyed poets appear as mythical creatures in the present, proposing to act as shepherds in the storms of our own making and the yet-unnamed, indeterminate futures haunted by attachments to unfathomable pasts. They warn of the naivety and arrogance of human belief in mastery, and call for action against the messianic march of progress to the end of time. They urge us to learn to mourn, while gesturing beyond binary views towards alternative imaginaries and narratives of times to come. As speculative figurations and experimentations searching for possible ways of living within these unknown becomings, they remind us that “things exist through an effort of mutual attention.”

Taru Elfving

1 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 5.
2 Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse. Parables for a Planet in Crisis (John Murray, 2022), 204.
3 Susan Schuppli, Material Witness. Media, Forensics, Evidence (MIT Press, 2020).
4 Jan Zalasiewicz, The Planet in a Pebble (Oxford University Press, 2010), 47.
5 Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015), 28.
6 Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies. A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016), 28