For Los Angeles artist Gala Porras-Kim, the labels, shelving, and object tags that accompany artifacts in ethnographic museums are the stuff of site. At the Hammer Museum in 2016 she culled the collections of the UCLA’s Fowler Museum and proposed hypothetical histories for pieces whose so-called tombstone data—date, provenance, place of origin—is unknown. She then created facsimiles of each, in the forms of delicate drawings and sculptures, for Made in L.A. In a current solo show at Amant in Brooklyn, Precipitation for an Arid Landscape, Porras-Kim’s reworking of institutional cataloguing and display pervades once again.
This is one of the first exhibitions for Amant, which comprises four minimally-chic, one-story buildings on a block in East Williamsburg. The exhibition spans two, with one featuring old and new projects and the other housing an installation that emerged from the artist’s recent research in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard.
Grounding the installation, in the building with previous projects, are two framed proposals addressed to museum officials, their formal presence announced on letterhead. For Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements for the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan (2019), the artist writes to the National Institute of Archeology and History in Mexico. She asks the director to replace a stone monolith that was extracted from a Mesoamerican sun temple with a replica she provides (it hulkingly perches on a pedestal alongside the letter). Porras-Kim concludes by stating that the audience for this sacred site may not be an earthly one, and the harm of dismembering the temple for the purposes of exhibition is incalculable to humans. The other typed letter, Leaving the Institution Through Cremation Is Easier than as a Result of a Deaccession Policy (2021), addresses the director of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, where a fire in 2018 destroyed almost all its collections. That blaze damaged a skeleton named Luzia, whose remains are the earliest evidence of human life in the Americas. Scientists have proposed re-constructing what was left of her, but, in a similarly poetic manner to her 2019 proposal, Porras-Kim counters this plan, suggesting they treat Luzia like most humans and lay her bones to rest. A framed imprint of a charred handprint acts as the affirming signature of Luzia’s specter. Porras-Kim employs institutional language as her form, and within its confines she enacts her left-field, phantasmal propositions. The letters visualize the concept of disruption from within, or the idea that institutional change is most effective when using prevailing museological conventions.
In Precipitation for an Arid Landscape (2022), Porras-Kim centers the century-long conflict around the removal and ownership of Mayan objects and human remains from the Chichén Itzá cenote, a sacred sinkhole on the Yucatan peninsula. A free-standing cylindrical armature made of frosted Plexi operates as a reading room, with a green table holding copies of correspondence. These letters, which curious viewers can rifle through, address the amateur American archeologist Edward H. Thompson’s initial digs and pillages in 1904, the subsequent donation of the objects to the Peabody at Harvard, and the partial repatriation of artifacts to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City in the 1960s and ‘70s. I spent 20 minutes rifling, enough to give me a sense of the politics of the dredging.
Porras-Kim, a precise and primary draughtswoman, has hung seven to-scale color drawings of the over 5,000 objects from the cenote in the Peabody’s possession—gold and jade jewelry, ceramic pots, stone figures. These have been arranged linearly on drawn representations of the white, pristine shelving found in archives. They also encircle a second free-standing sculpture that resembles a museum bench, whose copper-colored top is made of a crackling organic material. This is copal, a sappy resin often burned during Mayan ceremonies and what was largely pulled from excavations of the cenote. An occasional drip of rainwater hits this surface from a tank hidden in the ceiling, meant to—as the wall label notes—“create a reunion of the collected objects with Chaac, the Mayan god of rain.” In the fashion of this ritual, gallery attendants light copal, and its incense, combined with the sound/presence of the dripping, offers the slightest sense of disruption to the sterile ranks of objects lining the walls.
Those subversions don’t agitate the powerful appeal of Porras-Kim’s ordered drawings, which resemble the clean white interfaces of webpages with commodities ready for clicking. The visual draw of these objects brings up the question of whether they—even in an artist’s re-imagining—can ever truly be liberated from their museum confines. After all, Porras-Kim’s installation is not a proposal to throw them back in the sinkhole, but to recast them in a different museological, white-cube context and, despite enacting an alternative future for these artifacts, she seems attracted to the ordered, methodical ethos of museums. Her regard for that structure feels refreshingly consonant to the conversions around decolonizing institutions, which teeter between denunciation and appreciation for the places where many critics of museums still attribute their first transcendent experiences with visual art.
How to rematriate is the central question concerning uprooted artifacts. Curator and scholar Clémentine Deliss uses the term “orphaned” to describe the collections in the German ethnographic museum where she worked, whose histories lack information about the origins of each piece. When this information is lost, where do the objects go? Some have been treated with such toxic chemicals that they cannot re-enter the human world. (Unable to touch the noxiously-treated sewing bags taken from her own nation of Alutiq people, artist Tanya Lukin Linklater sang to and choreographed a score for dancers to enact around the bags—her ancestors—in the collection storage facility that reside in UC Berkeley’s collections, for her 2019 video work, An amplification of many minds.)
The visual order in Gala Porras-Kim’s drawings evades these challenges. As these stunning renderings of the Peabody’s collection themselves enter art collections, can this dysfunction really be relayed? Or will the complexity of the Chichén Itzá treasures’ past, like the histories of so many contested objects, get lost in the shuffle.