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A screeching sound pulsates on an electric guitar. The music in artist Nikita Gale’s video Descent (2018) resembles the first thrums of a warm-up—the way an instrument seems to clear its throat and announce itself before the song begins. Through a cacophony of distortion, echo, and feedback, the artist’s voiceover recites a quiet, matter-of-fact story about the fraught nature of her own last name and the politics of naming. She discloses a secret even those close to her do not know: Gale is a commonly used middle name on her mother’s side of her family and not her legal surname. She is Nikita Gale [name redacted]. A loud bleep drowns out her last name whenever she utters it.
Gale’s erasure of her last name is a gesture of patrilineal refusal, a technique of evading association with a father whose contact is infrequent and unwelcome. A surname signifies a code, a means of identification in order to update an administrative file. If naming represents order, casting off a name is then a form of resistance, and in a sense, of hiding, or disappearing and slipping through the cracks. She posits a new mode of expression in not simply adapting her own name, but in refusing to make this self-given name her legal name. While naming is highly personal, in the end, it is all garbled bureaucratic verbiage anyways. While in her video Gale speaks both at length and out loud, she mixes her voice with raucous sound; there is a contradiction in her work between positions of noise and of silence. Where making noise is so often the typical course of resistance—free speech, picketing, even screaming or crying out—here Gale insists on the power of silence.
Likewise, the surrounding sculptural forms in the exhibition—metal grates, steel screens, cement, foam, and terrycloth structures—allude to silencing, dissent, resistance, and themes of impenetrability. Household objects used for sound blackout surface in Gale’s sculptures. Tangled bath towels, cement, twisted foam—familiar objects often affixed to walls to drown out noise—dangle of Descent Movement I and II (2018). These odd pieces recall both a laundry line in their verticality and a fenced of, private location. Though not restricting, one feels enclosed within this field of grey and metallic objects. Surrounded by pieces that meditate on the idea of sound and its amplification or muffling, the work becomes a sharp study in opacity.
Nearby Descent Screen (2018) is a metal barrier that bisects the sculptural works on one side of the room and the blaring video on the other. The group of sculptures in this outlined zone have a tendency to droop, to lean—a choreography of metal bars and jutting microphone stands, encircled in a space that is at once a stage with life-size speakers, a prison cell with bent bars, and an alley of hanging laundry lines. Most striking are the foam earplugs patterned into the holes on a metal bar grate, a Morse code rendered with the material accoutrement of silence. Jammed into this grate, these plugs allude to the messages, names, and rules that the artist refuses both to abide by and to hear. The earplug is a way to drown out that noise, to turn toward one’s innermost refection and thoughts.
Gale performs an unusual feat in amplifying silence, dwelling in places where it seems there is no noise at all. In her video, she considers her abandoned last name, asking “what difference does it make to know that something has been dropped if you never knew it was there to begin with?” Her disinterest and her deliberate deafness speak to the oppressive weight not simply of her name and the patrilineal system of naming, but to the weight of history. Using sound dampening objects in her sculptural works, she endeavors to drown out the stories and the pain of the past, her own name among them. The loud video bleep rings again, another redaction, another use of powerful silence.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 14.