Gasworks, London, 27 January – 27 March 2022
Imagine being a ghost, hanging out in an afterlife all meticulously planned and set up for your comfort, with dried foods, pets in urns to keep you company, some jewellery and a few model boats. Then things start disappearing from your spectral sitting room, and all of a sudden you find yourself stuck in an anodyne, over-lit hallway somewhere in the middle of the British Museum for the rest of your undead life. Such are the problems explored here by Colombian artist Gala Porras-Kim through a set of drawings and installations which prod at the unthinking outcomes of museum conventions around collection and storage. Ancient Egyptians had many ideas about what happened after death, though anthropological display in far off lands was not one of them. Several of Porras-Kim’s works offer solutions of sorts: the large pencil drawing Sights beyond the grave, 2022, depicts a desert landscape, creased in such a way that would enable it to sit propped up around a small funerary statue of a nobleman named Nenkheftka, currently on display at the British Museum. In his spectral disorientation, the drawing is meant to provide the small gesture of comfort of a familiar view. The sculpture Sunrise for 5th-dynasty Sarcophagus from Giza at the British Museum, 2022, is a full-size Styrofoam replica of the coffin, with a semi-circle marked out on the ground indicating a roughly 50º rotation. Ancient Egyptians buried their dead facing the rising run in the East; Porras-Kim’s work simply proposes that the museum take this into account in its display – at the very least, as a gesture towards the context from which it was taken, but perhaps even as a matter of access to some kind of afterlife.
The show, titled ‘Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing’, provides a survey of possible approaches to augment and alter museum practices: spiritual interventions, musical interpretations, alternative storage suggestions and fungal propagations. Porras-Kim’s practice offers a form of institutional critique that seeks to widen the spectrum of institutional care beyond simply preserving a physical object. Her works ask that museums begin to consider themselves as spaces that serve a range of purposes: as a patchwork of active mausoleums, as stewards of a panoply of afterworlds, as host to all kinds of other nonhuman lives, as well as the institutions themselves being material remnants of empire. The large colourful ink drawing A terminal escape from the place that binds us, 2021, is a marbling of bright oranges and greens, swirled with eddies of black and elliptic pools of brown. A typed letter from the artist to the director of the Gwangju National Museum in Korea describes the drawing as an attempt to divine the desired resting place from a set of human remains kept in the museum: ‘The actual place remains illegible to us,’ she admits, ‘and might not even exist on our planet.’ The point, though, is to at least try and ask. A smudged black handprint on a crumpled white tissue sits in the next room; the title of the work is from a line in the accompanying letter, this time to the director of the National Museum of Brazil, Leaving the institution through cremation is easier than as a result of deaccession policy, 2021. After fire struck the museum in Rio in 2018, it was believed that the fossil of the ancient human ‘Luzia’ was destroyed, though conservators are currently attempting to reassemble the skeleton from the remains found in the fire. Porras-Kim proposes the imprinted tissue, made from ashes of the burnt museum, as a replacement: perhaps the burning of ‘Luzia’s remains was for the best – a final release.
What emerges from the works gathered here is a sort of museological holistic revival – vastly important in implication but not without a wry, slightly nerdish humour – Porras-Kim asks the museum, and its audiences, to return and confront the unknown, and to open up to the possibilities hidden therein. It feels like a new-age rejoinder to the figure of the globetrotting anthropologist. To the misplaced cry, ‘That belongs in a museum!’, as heard in the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the artist proposes instead: ‘That belongs in a meta-contextualised art display!’
Now imagine being a mould spore: you and your family have been happily hanging out on the damp corner of a box stored in the museum’s basement, just sharing the space with a few bits of granite. Then someone swabs you out into the light, and places you on a massive expanse of sugared cloth to feast and replicate upon; then you are sealed into a Perspex box and hung out to dry on display in a small art gallery. Mould extraction, 2022, is a large cloth, wildly patterned with concentric circles of hairy, grey-green fungal growths. While it does highlight the unseen side of the museum and what else might be flourishing there, its newly entombed presence here seems to question how much Porras-Kim replicates the logic of museum displays, their hierarchies, focus and finality: what lives, hidden or forgotten, what do we continually sacrifice in order to stand in front of these artefacts? Gathering a set of instances from what are now Egypt, Brazil and Korea also re-enacts some of the sweeping global overreaching that created these museums in the first place. Which isn’t at all to say Porras-Kim shouldn’t be doing this work, but that questions of where and how such actions should be undertaken still hang over the show, and that perhaps its strongest implication is as algorithm and model – as an ideal form of audienceship, and how we should all be demanding more and making more esoteric use of these spaces. So, please, go: go hassle your local museum today, rattle and liberate their displays to all possible wild and invisible knowledges.
Orignally published in Art Monthly, No. 455, April 2022