Immigrancyby Arden Cone
SAMSØÑ | SEPTEMBER 8 – NOVEMBER 11, 2017
Samsøñ’s current group exhibition, Immigrancy, is a thoughtful send off for a prominent Boston gallery that is closing its doors—but not going away—after nearly fourteen years in Boston’s SoWa arts district. For the duration of the exhibition, Samsøñ’s wall space has become a sounding board for twenty-six artists speaking as, for, or about the voiceless migrants of the world. All have experienced a loss of homeland at some point in their life, and each has reflected upon what it means to be a transient, free-floating being. The gallery is a forum for these thoughts.
Come December, however, Samsøñ will lift its roots from United States soil and touch down nowhere. The conversation that Immigrancy ignites is welcome to continue, but the four-walled venue in which to put it will have gone away. Samsøñ will be a cultural entity without a nation, an émigré in its own right.
With so much to say, director and curator Camilø Álvårez has placed a substantially heavy hand on the show’s execution. The creative intention expressed through each curatorial decision fits with the meticulously designed programming one expects to see from Samsøñ. Immigrancy is an additive show; Álvårez has elected to keep the exhibition in flux throughout its duration, inserting new works of art at will throughout the nine-week period.
Because the works are placed high and low, the entire gallery space is activated. On the floor throughout the gallery are six sculptures by Andrew Mowbray, each based on the shape and size of a standard milkcrate but varying in materiality. The top of Milkcrate #6 (2016), for example, is made of cement and bricks, with its sides being of the original plastic crate. Milkcrate #5 (2016) is made of found plywood with the lattice milkcrate pattern stenciled in silver spray paint on each side. The resulting wooden cube, covered in this design, appears as though it is surrounded by a downsized chained link fence. It encloses a sixty‐nine square inch plot of the gallery floor, metaphorically trapping viewer inside or outside of its confines.
Three small C-print photos by Carlos Martiel are hidden around the gallery. One, hanging inches above the ground, depicts the artist’s bare feet between strands of barbed wire. A second rests high on a ceiling beam, completely inaccessible, while a third—this one at eye level—hangs on raw plywood set at an acute angle from the wall. All three document Segregation, an October 2015 performance piece carried out by Samsøñ’s collective, sübSamsøñ. The curatorial placement mirrors the ethos of the performance itself, in both cases frustrating the viewer with inaccessibility.
Glenn Ligon’s enormous 71 × 49 inch archival pigment print, Untitled (2016), depicts an oversize page—worn, torn, and dirty—from James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village” (1953). The print’s ink captured the gummy smears of a tar-like substance that had leeched oil into the original parchment. The page, and, assumedly, the book, haven’t been cared for or protected, but handwritten notes in the margin suggest that it has been extensively thought over. “Use this,” a handwritten annotation in the margin reads. Underlines beneath phrases and brackets around sentences evidence the fact that Baldwin’s text is being taken: used, quoted, or appropriated for another purpose.
Immigrancy opens up questions about what a migrant is, understanding that not all border-crossers move willingly. Ligon’s and Martiel’s photographic prints are subtle, drawing associations to America’s history of forced migration without depicting the shackles themselves. One only needs to look across the room, however, to find them.
Sitting on a table at the front of the gallery is an Ai Weiwei sculpture, titled Jade Handcuffs (9 serrates), (2012). The life-size restraints, cut from black stone, are a reproduction of those used during the artist’s arrest in 2011 by the Chinese government. Within the context of the exhibition, they speak to entrapment as a primary concern of the immigrant. The perfect realism of the sculpture cuts through the illusion of mobility that the word “immigrant” implies. The black color announces a dead end.
The artworks in this exhibition represent the condition of being a migrant and the feelings associated with it. Take exhaustion, for one. Picking up and leaving, which Álvårez will do next month, requires a certain physicality that is revealed through the many heavy crates and sculptural objects on the floor of the gallery. It’s as if they are begging to be lifted up and packed away.
ARDEN CONE is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.