Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2018. The Institute for Contemporary Art, Virginia Commonwealth University. Pictured (L to R): ICA staff member Caroline Legros and VCU student Natural Lyons participate. Photo: Rob Carter.
On ViewInstitute for Contemporary Art | Virginia Commonwealth University
April 21 – September 9, 2018
As the title suggests, Declaration, the inaugural exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), Richmond’s first institution dedicated solely to contemporary art, is a statement about its mission as a socially engaged agora, primed to respond to today’s issues. In this group show, wide-ranging in both scope and practice, of over thirty nationally and internationally known artists, works by Betty Tompkins, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Tania Bruguera, Marinella Senatore, and others, converge and, so to speak, converse. At the same time, Declaration announces the ICA’s local import, highlighting VCU’s notable art faculty—e.g. sound artist Steven Vitiello and materials artist Sonya Clark—while featuring artworks such as Paul Rucker’s Storm in the Time of Shelter, 2018, an installation that includes KKK propaganda and fifty-two mannequins in Klansmen outfits made from colorful fabrics, that engage Richmond’s fraught past (thrown into high relief by the recent controversy over removing Confederate city monuments). There is even some comic relief courtesy of hometown Grand Guignol heavy-metal group Gwar, featuring an absurd display of life-sized disemboweled preachers and politicians. Declaration’s metaphor of a cultural meeting place was also a response to the architectural conceit of the ICA building, the Markel Center, which impacted many of the exhibition’s artworks both in idea and appearance.
According to the building’s architect, Stephen Holl, the inspiration for the shape of the Markel Center, which stands apart from the rest of Richmond’s buildings in its translucent skin and bold, deconstructivist profile resembling a freeway interchange from overhead, was Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the “garden” turns out to be a novel whose transits take place in time rather than space. The outer structure of the center has a main body, a three-story tower whose longest axis Holl associated with the “plane of the present.” Branching off of the tower are three long galleries that Holl conceived of as the “galleries of forking time.” The uppermost gallery sits at the top of the tower, where a great curving wall describes “an intersection in torsion.”
On the second, commissioned as a direct response to Holl’s design, Stephen Vitiello’s 18-channel sound piece whether there was a bell or whether I knocked (2018) includes voices reading aloud from The Garden of Forking Paths in different languages spoken by characters in the story. The effect is quite musical, with distinct lines floating, like melodies taking shape in the harmonic progressions of a symphony, on a billowing chorus of voices and sounds that escape distinct interpretation. Remarkably, the algorithm to the sound sequencing is designed so that the number of permutations will never be exhausted. The piece could run on ad infinitum and never repeat the same progression—a brilliant conceptual mirroring of the premise of the Borges story, in which a garden-cum-novel branches indefinitely through time.
On a literal level, the Markel Center sits at both a temporal and physical crossroads. Sited at the edge of the booming VCU campus, an institution that will undoubtedly continue to shape Richmond’s future, its entrance looks out onto one of the corners of Jackson Ward, a neighborhood historically home to a prosperous African American community that fell into decline during desegregation, but is now undergoing gentrification. In appreciation of Jackson Ward’s role as a center of Richmond’s black community, visiting social practitioner Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. created Passin’ on to Others (2018), a set of letterpress prints covering a wall in the main entrance that faces the Jackson Ward intersection, with quips like, “the higher the hair, the closer to heaven,” taken from patrons of black-owned barbershops and salons in Jackson Ward and elsewhere in Richmond.
In the first gallery off of the main entrance, Sonya Clark’s Edifice and Mortar (2018), another commissioned artwork, similarly examines black hair as an identity marker. Standing about 3 feet high in the middle of the first gallery, the installation connects the Roman Empire to American history, arguing that both civilizations were built on the backs of slaves. Its design is an inverted American flag, with a reflective blue square at bottom left and thirteen stripes comprised of rows of brick. The bricks are marked with an Ancient Roman crescent stamp reconfigured as an afro with the word schiavo (Italian for “slave”) spread across it, referencing the fact that slaves made much of the brickwork in Richmond’s antebellum architecture. The mortar between the bricks contains black hair, emblematic of all that crushing labor. On the front of the bricks appears the line, “All men are created equal with certain inalienable rights,” penned by the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The implied destruction of black bodies flattened to clumps of hair paired with the overwhelming hypocrisy of Jefferson’s screed makes for a profoundly disturbing and effective work.
View of Beverly W. Reynolds gallery on the first floor in the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. Photo: Terry Brown.
A focus on social justice continues throughout many of Declaration’s seventy entries. An homage to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Emirate artist Nidaa Badwan’s project 100 Days of Solitude (2014), represented here by four self-portrait photographs, documents her 100-day seclusion in a 100-square-foot room to protest ongoing violence in her home in Gaza. Her images are full of color and movement, suggesting a rich inner experience in spite of the boredom that such self-imposed isolation would normally bring about. In Code 4, 2014, Badwan sits at a sewing machine with piles of cloth stacked around her. She looks engaged and occupied making clothing, seemingly removed from the turbulence raging around her just outside her room. A Canadian by way of Trinidad, Curtis Talwst Santiago’s sardonic miniature tableaux staged in jewel boxes present scenes of suffering. Deluge, 2015, comments on poorer countries’ vulnerability to economic and political instability. In it, a long dinghy packed to the gunwales with refugees looks ready to capsize into the churning, gray waters surrounding it.
With 33-foot high ceilings, the fourth gallery, taking up half of the third floor, is the most impressive of the Markel Center’s interiors and, aptly, houses one of the exhibition’s most outstanding works. For the opening, Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s presented an iteration of his performance and installation The Mending Project (2009 – 2018). Lee sat at a long table mending clothes donated by participants to the project; the clothes that he finished mending were then folded and stacked at the far end of the table. Each mended piece of clothing had a brightly colored thread, mostly orange or red, leading up to spools randomly spaced high up on the east wall. In the day, under the strong natural light from the gallery’s exposures, the threads shimmered along their arcs to the vibrant array of spools.
Beyond its delicate poetry, The Mending Project’s implication that art has the power to heal through shared purpose made a strong case for the validity of Declaration’s vision of a meeting ground where artworks could point out ways to transcend mental and physical borders born of violence, neglect, and injustice. Kennedy’s Passin’ on to Others was another such work, suturing through gentle interventions the rents to the social fabric of Richmond’s black community resulting from desegregation. Each artwork, one global in scope, the other local, but each very much tied to the present, proposes in its own way a future path forward. To carry out the promise of Declaration’s fresh starts, the ICA will have to deliver on its promise to make it not only a venue for global art but also a space to represent and engage the city’s greater community with its difficult past. To that latter goal, Declaration is a credible first step.