In this exhibition, the artist examines works from ancient sites including the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico, and the Neolithic architectural site of Göbekli Tepe in Şanlıurfa, Turkey. As a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, Porras-Kim researched the collection of objects from the Sacred Cenote at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Producing meticulously drawn reproductions of items on shelves from within the Peabody’s collection, the exhibition also includes a topographical model, with sound, of the Göbekli Tepe surrounded by intricate graphite drawings of the site. A structure built in the center of the space acts as a documentation portal for visitors to learn more about the artist’s research.
It should be mentioned — her parallel solo show, A terminal escape from the place that binds us, at Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles, also makes use of drawing and sculpture to elaborate and build suggestions on the future conservation of objects. In addition, Porras-Kim is currently Artist in Residence at the Getty Research Institute.
I caught up with Porras-Kim to discuss her current research and outlook on the future of museum conservation practices.
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RICKY AMADOUR: Let’s start with Precipitation for an Arid Landscape. What prompted this title?
GALA PORRAS-KIM: In regards to the title, I was thinking about questions of conservation, storage, and how the practice of conservation is essentially maintaining the material properties of objects in collections. It was interesting to think through ideas of care, not necessarily of just material care, but objects that might have needs other than their original function. And further, how methods of caring and conserving things are against the original needs that the object might have.
And so Precipitation for an Arid Landscape is in reference to systems of storage. The arid landscape for me is the very dry storage place in which these objects inhabit. Specific objects in my show were Chaac’s [the Mayan rain god’s] donation objects or ritual offerings that were dredged out of the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá and ended up with the Peabody Museum. And so in a sense, these collected objects in the Peabody’s storage are now in an arid landscape that should’ve had water connected to it. With this in mind, precipitation prompts the question: how do we get water back into this arid place?
Gala Porras-Kim. All images courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Paul Salveson
AMADOUR: The entire space was really well done — the curation was phenomenal. At the opening I was really taken away by the drawings made with Flashe and colored pencil. How did you choose those objects, and where did those objects come from? Were they from different institutions or were they from a specific collection you had gathered?
PORRAS-KIM: So the project itself is actually three parts. The first part consists of seven, six-by-six foot drawing panels that feature objects from the Peabody Museum. The drawings are literally the objects that are existing in the catalog of the museum. And so they are works about how objects get cataloged in collections. If an object exists in storage, people don’t necessarily have access to it beyond the catalog. So in a sense, I wanted to draw what the catalog said [in order] to be able to see what that object might look like based on photographs and dimensions available online on the Peabody website.
The second part is this letter mediation with the Director of the Peabody — trying to figure out different ways that the rain might be able to get reunited with the objects. The project’s intention is not necessarily to be like, oh, it can’t exist in the collection the way it’s existing as a historical object, et cetera, but more like how can there be a compromise between this original function that was never supposed to end, because in theory, the rain is still around and those objects were donated to it.
The third part of the project is the Copal installation, which is one version in which the reunion might happen. It’s made out of Copal, which is an aged tree sap that was one of the main materials that was dredged out of the Cenote. It was then mixed with dust collected from the Peabody Museum. And every time it gets shown, the institution or place that presents the work is tasked with figuring out a way to get rainwater onto it. So in Amant’s case, they are collecting rainwater and making this drip that drips off of the ceiling. You know, that work was also shown at the Sao Paulo Biennale and in that instance they made a condensation cube. So the objects were always wet. The idea was that the institution would be prompted to participate in the reunion, because my work is not necessarily about deciding things, but more about making proposals for institutions to figure out their own thing.
AMADOUR: How do you choose the institutions that you go after, look at, or want to investigate?
Gala Porras-Kim. Installation view at Amant Foundation, NYC. Photo credit: Shark Senesac.
PORRAS-KIM: I work a lot with collections in Mexico. And so I am interested in how objects from Mexico exist in collections in the United States. I am very familiar with many of the major collections in Mexico, and the collection at Chichén Itzá is one of the major ones. I wanted to know about the origins of the legal steps that were taken to get the Cenote into the museum.
There is a documentation room that the curator and I put together for the show that chronicles all of the official papers that show the back and forth of how that was done from the beginning — from when the Peabody funded and supported Edward Thompson as the US Consul for Chichén Itzá . He bought the property where the Cenote was located and different regulations allowed him to dredge the Cenote and not open pyramids. Because the Cenote was naturally occurring he was able to dredge it, but not the pyramid because that was manmade. Much of the ways that those objects ended up with the Peabody has to do with the regulation that exists in contemporary times. And so the documentation room shows letters of the back and forth of the entire story and the trajectory of those objects from the correspondence between the Director of the Peabody at the time and Edward Thompson.
It also shows the back and forth communication twenty years later of the people who wrote about the collection and made exaggerated claims of what it was. Ten years later, somebody else gave an exaggerated claim, et cetera, et cetera. So when you follow the timeline, you can see how those individuals got to the Peabody and the influence that they’ve had has become mythologized or mediated, as well. And so, in a sense, the drawings on the wall are also my own mediation. The scale is pretty much what the catalog describes, but of course the colors are my own interpretation.
AMADOUR: The documentation room provided a moment of contemplation and gave a plethora of information for the viewer to engage with. I also wanted to discuss the other portion of the gallery where you made the time-lapse through a series of graphite drawings. Can you speak more to those pieces?
PORRAS-KIM: Asymptote Towards an Ambiguous Horizon was actually a work that was based on Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which is one of the oldest temples in the world. What I found interesting is that when it was discovered, it was dated to be 12,000 years old. However, the previously existing ice age was dated to be 11,000 years ago. What I really liked was the idea that finding one site would move an entire ice age 1,000 years earlier.
The works are about different interpretations of the site. And about how different interpretations of a site can be conflicting with each other, yet still exist together. You know what I mean? There’s a Zoroastrian interpretation about the site; there’s an interpretation about the site commemorating the first time the Sirius “Dog Star” popped out of the horizon; there’s a German archeologist [Klaus Schmidt] who tried to explain it. There are interpretations about how the wind is going through the site. And so those words are actually in the sound installation that is in the center of the room with a topographic model of the site — playing all of the differential interpretations. And then on the walls there are twelve drawings of the site every two hours throughout the course of the day.
The drawings are made in two halves. The top half shows what the sky looked like 12,000 years ago. That was made when I was at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University. I worked with an astronomer, and we went to an observatory where you can program the location, time, and direction of the site, and they will tell you the star configuration of it. And so I just wanted to know if in fact Sirius the “Dog Star” did come into the horizon — and in fact it did – but it was facing a specific way.
In the drawings, that sky is from the star formation from 12,000 years ago. The bottom half shows what the site looks like in Turkey today. And so the idea was that these two merged together would look very much like a normal landscape drawing. But in fact, they are two completely different timelines and they’re actually facing different directions. One is facing northwest while one is facing south. And so, the “asymptote” in the title is the idea that the horizon, where the sky and land meet, in the drawing is actually never possible because they are two completely different moments in time.
AMADOUR: What do you thinking of drawing as a medium? Because I see you’re using colored pencil, you’re also using graphite, and I think the way that you’re enveloping it with your practice is exceptionally methodical. Your work at Commonwealth and Council is also done in graphite, and you can really see your hand in it. These pieces come to life in a way that almost surpasses their objectivity to me. Could you speak on that?
PORRAS-KIM: Drawing is the medium I use the most because it’s one of the most interdisciplinary mediums. It exists as scientific drawing, architectural drawing or even handwriting, you know? It’s so time consuming that it really is a way of actually learning the subject, because there’s very little interpretation if you’re just trying to copy something. When you use drawings specifically as a medium, you have to look at so much detail that it actually slows down time and expands your learning. Drawing is literally a sort of a methodology for understanding a subject visually.
AMADOUR: I know you’re originally from Colombia. Are you interested in any of the Colombian artifacts and museums?
PORRAS-KIM: I’m not necessarily interested in specific cultures, per se, but I’m more interested in the institution, and of course the museum comes from a Western tradition. What I like to think about is how the filter of the institution is totalizing for everything within it. It doesn’t matter what type of culture it is for works to get accessioned into their collection. How works are cared for, conserved, or the way they might be displayed — it’s consistent regardless of where they come from.
AMADOUR: What is your take on pieces that are currently being acquired, and those to be acquired in the future? What do you hope could change with acquisition or conservation?
PORRAS-KIM: In terms of acquisitions, institutions have to deal with the question of space, because there’s very little deaccession policy. And so when you’re acquiring things and there’s a finite amount of storage, what do you do when there’s no deaccession policy? And so, in a sense, it’s thinking about, okay, in our lifetime they’re basically going to be able to find every single artifact that a person has ever made — because it only goes so deep and there’s lidar and lasers. And so what happens when everything that has ever been made gets found, and now what do you collect? How do you collect when the storage is already full? In terms of conservation, my hope for the future is more prioritization on material conservation, but also on what other parts might actually be important for each specific work. The majority of objects do need to be materially conserved, but there’s a specific sub category of objects that in their past life or context were never supposed to finish doing something — this infinity function is still happening today.
AMADOUR: Your work prompted me to think about the internationalization of collections — where collections in major institutions have an Egyptian section, a Latin American section, et cetera — and also how their original home countries want to repatriate objects. For instance, the Italians recently recovered Etruscan antiquities from the United States, and the Grecian government has asked the British Museum to give back the Parthenon marbles for their New Acropolis Museum. Have you been thinking about the repatriation of objects when it comes to your work?
PORRAS-KIM: Those are questions that are happening, of course, and they’re very important in terms of repatriation or deaccession. But I think that every object has to be viewed individually. It’s not that every object has the same trajectory, and so you can’t have a mass, like we’re going to try and fix it with one mass thing. You really have to see what the individual object was. Some objects were gifted properly and exist in the museum because somebody donated them. But then there’s the wide range of how those objects came into a collection, and they have to be seen independently.
AMADOUR: What and who inspires you? Are there any artists that you’re looking at, or are there any books you’re reading? Are there any ideas or thoughts you’re working through?
PORRAS-KIM: Right now I’m at the Getty, so I’m reading a lot of history books. In terms of artists, I like a very wide range of artists. My hero is Teresa Margolles, but she doesn’t necessarily inform my own work. I don’t necessarily think about artistic methodologies, but more about trying to figure out how archeologists, conservators, or scientists might be making their own work and the dilemmas they might have.
AMADOUR: What will be your next steps? Are you going to start looking at European museums now?
PORRAS-KIM: I think that all of these threads are very organic in terms of future projects, because you’re researching one and then there’s always a side idea that follows. Right now, the next thing, of course, is here in London, making work for my show at Gasworks that opens on January 27. It has to do with living things in the British museum — mold, plants, moss. Amongst these living things are people who have been reincarnated into objects. This was a baby idea in my past project.
In the future, I want to keep researching how policy gets made and unmade within the institution. So I’m always interested in talking to lawyers and policy makers, because the law is basically meta conceptual art. In conceptual art, it’s basically making the regulation for material and how it exists in a gallery or an artistic field. But the law is basically doing the same thing — they’re deciding ‘here’s how this thing should exist in the world’.
Gala Porras-Kim. All images courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Paul Salveson
Ricky Amadour is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and New York City. Amadour investigates landscape, architectural forms, and our relationship as humans to built and natural environments. They received dual BA degrees in studio art and art history from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture in 2018. For more information visit: www.amadour.com