The art installation opened to feverish worldwide coverage. Even with pre-purchased tickets parceled out through a lottery system, a constant line snaked for hours outside of the warehouse. People from around the globe flew in to New York and then covered the remaining distance by bus, cab, and rental car to the formerly abandoned stretch of dilapidated Spring Creek shoreline. They walked away awed, or inspired, or shaken.
Think pieces, blog posts, and PhD theses about the work sprung up like mushrooms. Critics raved and scoffed, extolled and lamented. The artist herself, as usual, said nothing. Sister X kept her identity unknown and had offered few clues other than a desire to be identified with female pronouns. Her past political works were varied and global. Her projects had been ramping up in intensity each year for the past decade. Early works, like murals of missing indigenous women’s faces projected onto Canadian landmarks, had given way to even larger-scale projects, like thousands of photos of embracing same-sex couples air-dropped over Nigeria.
But those were just a preamble. “Human Tide” was unlike anything Sister X, or any other artist, had ever attempted: a massive warehouse had been filled with 7.7 billion miniscule plastic figurines. Each was about twice the size of a grain of rice, each formed in the shape of a human being. One to represent every person on Earth.
The staggering endeavor had required years of coordinating, an army of volunteers, millions in Kickstarter funds, the revival of a shuttered 3-D printing factory in Michigan, and countless nondisclosure agreements. Earth’s population amounted to about twelve semi trailers’ worth of the small-scale figurines. Not content to let visitors gape at the spectacle from behind velvet ropes, Sister X had taken it a step further. She gathered all the pieces into the specially converted warehouse and then pumped water in to create a slurry of miniature humans for the real humans to wade through. “Human Tide” represented a commingling on a species-wide level—humanity set adrift without the physical and societal borders of nations, communities, or even family units.
Visitors were fitted with waterproof waders and measured against a line on the wall to make sure they were tall enough that no water would slosh in. The installation allowed sixty people at a time in half-hour windows. Inside, the room was cavernous and startlingly bright from row after row of fluorescent lighting overhead. A walkway followed the perimeter of the space just above the water, which filled the rest of the warehouse like an enormous swimming pool. Dozens of orange-waderclad attendants watched from the walkway like vigilant lifeguards. Visitors moved slowly through the water, which came up to waist level on most. The soft lapping sounds of people’s movements blurred and echoed around the space, and the air hung with the stale chemical smell of old pool toys.
The tiny buoyant figures clotted the water, saturating it as deep as the eye could see. Most visitors walked with their arms outstretched in awe, fingertips grazing the surface. Those who cupped their hands and brought some of the water closer to their face saw that the figurines were a variety of skin tones. The distribution of skin tones and other characteristics was designed to mirror the real-world population. Some figures, representing infants and children, were smaller. Ages 65 and older had gray hair. The figures even had miniature penises or breasts (and some had none or both).
Afterward, visitors said that moving through the exhibit felt a bit like wading through stew. Most visitors admitted that they hadn’t come close to grasping what 7.7 billion actually meant before that day. Many felt incredibly small, even as they moved like Gulliver through a parting sea of Lilliputians. One woman who flew in from Finland was interviewed with tears streaming down her face. She said she now knew how God felt, if, after setting the great flood in motion, he had let himself take a quick stroll around Earth to inspect his terrible handiwork.
The sheer scale of humanity caused a few unexpected reactions. One man was removed after he began throwing handfuls of tiny humans at the other visitors and laughing hysterically. At various times, a visitor would panic and either freeze in place or bolt for the exit. Others refused to leave. Many white people in particular left with a deeply shaken perception of their prominence on the global stage. The experience was linked to career changes, nervous breakdowns, international treatises, and hate crimes.
The installation ran for five months before the tragedy. The woman lived in the same neighborhood as the warehouse, and it was later determined that she didn’t even have a ticket. How she got into the warehouse at all is still a subject of debate and finger-pointing. And then no one realized she had disappeared until the headcount of people exiting didn’t match those entering, when it was already too late. Somehow none of the attendants or other visitors had noticed when she quietly slipped under the surface.
Afterward, the installation was closed prematurely and the water was drained. The truckloads of tiny humans were shipped away to an unknown location where it’s rumored Sister X is having them melted into a giant sculpture of a vulva that will tour the world’s waters on the deck of an ocean liner.
The warehouse remains empty with its doors chained shut, although it still attracts a steady trickle of art lovers and the morbidly curious drawn by its history. There’s not much to see unless you walk up to the entrance. There, some entrepreneurial spirit has installed a machine the size of a mini fridge. Feed it $5 and it will 3-D print a tiny human figurine from a screen of possible options—your own take-home piece of humanity. True, it’s not exactly authentic. But it’s not very costly, easy to carry, and as close as many people will ever get.
Kelsey Rexroat is an editor and writer based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, the Cortland Review, the Jellyfish Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Litro Magazine.