On ViewThe Arts Center at Governors Island presented by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
June 12 – October 31, 2021
In The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE, on view at The Arts Center at Governors Island until October 31 (in partnership with Pioneer Works), Onyedika Chuke presents new iterations from his decade-long ever-expanding body of work, The Forever Museum Archive. Unveiled for the first time in 2011 at his alma mater Cooper Union, the archive includes an assortment of art and non-art objects, hand-made sculptures, texts, and moving images. First conceived as an essay during an extensive trip in Libya in 2011, the artist explores structures of power, systems of oppression, and modes of operandi that guide modern society. Each iteration, showcased at “site museums”—including the American Academy in Rome, Extenso in France, the Verbier Sculpture Park in Switzerland, and several locations in New York City, including the Drawing Center and the Socrates Sculpture Park—has urged viewers to reexamine their suppositions about our world. In this version, Chuke links history and society through the feet of Hermes, the severed head of Hercules, and clips from Ameican History X (1998)—the cult classic film capturing the zeitgeist of Southern California neo-Nazi culture.
Entering the exhibition space, a labyrinth created by the angular shapes of a series of Quaker pews guide the path of the exhibition. Moving through the labyrinth, one sees the connections Chuke draws between far-reaching references, from classical sculpture to American film to the broadcast of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” War on Drugs campaign. Chuke even includes an Italian oil painting by Fabrizio Chiari, Death of Saint Anne (ca. 1615–95), which depicts the death of the grandmother of Christ. Hung sideways and retitled Forever Museum Archive/The Untitled/The Death of Saint Anne_Fabrizio Chiari, Circa 1615-1695, Chuke changes the orientation of how the work is positioned and thus interpreted and experienced.
In Forever Museum Archive/The Untitled/Hermes_and_Reflection Pool_Blue_Circa 2020 (2021), the feet of Hermes are rendered in visceral flesh tones and surrounded by a pool of blue water, into which soapy water is filtered through small tubes and injected daily. The tubes are filled with liquid Corcraft soap, bringing to our attention the inhumane use of prison labor: Corcraft, an entity within the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, “employs” the incarcerated for as little as 16 cents per hour.
Installed in a separate room, a large, water-filled plastic bag is flanked by three television screens. On either side are edited versions of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, while a clip from Edward Norton’s infamously violent murder scene in American History X—minus his swastika tattoos—plays in the center. The timed videos center on the effects of the War on Drugs and the continued drug use, abuse, and criminality present in American society. The large plastic bag, rendered to resemble a police evidence bag, takes on an eerie quality, dominating the exhibition floor. Does it denote a dime bag of weed or crack cocaine, a Ziploc bag, or a holder for incriminating evidence? The work’s ambiguity is used to recontextualize how everyday objects are tied to culture and society.
For the past decade, Chuke’s practice has pushed the boundaries of conceptual work, mold-making, sculpture, and the concept of a “site specific-installation,” using the exhibition space to further explore the premise of The Forever Museum Archive. The reappropriation of objects and spaces in The Forever Museum not only amplifies this project, but also shifts the ways in which we contextualize the physical spaces we inhabit. Who holds power and how that power is wielded influence our understanding of what is real and not real, of who matters and what is rendered meaningless. In challenging the way we see, the work expands our understanding of the history in which we are living and actively creating by reframing ideologies to reposition our perspectives of long held beliefs regarding power, equality, culture, and the function of art in our society.