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For the second incarnation of Open House, MOCA’s series of artist-curated collection exhibitions, Gala Porras-Kim thoughtfully chose 15 works whose fragility inherently complicates the institution’s role as a vigilant overseer of the physical history it collects. Risking atrophy, dissolution, fading, or decay, these objects collectively evidence the volatile relationship between material fallibility and the passage of time.
Comprising just a single, modestly-sized gallery, the intimate installation invites a complex conversation: how does an institution consciously accept an object’s mortality while also honoring its laudable goal of preserving works in perpetuity? Rather than lionizing grand historical lineages, Porras-Kim situates these objects by focusing on their shared corporeal qualities: all are impermanent, mutable bodies requiring tender care. This poetic framing imbues the exhibition with a startling sense of intimacy and vulnerability—and also proposes that historical impermanence is perhaps nothing to mourn.
Several objects function as indices for an act of destruction or a state of deterioration that has either previously occurred or imminently threatens. Resting on the floor, Wolfgang Laib’s Pollen from Dandelions (1978), a meticulous, paper-thin heap of terra cotta-hued pollen dust, initially presents as a monotone minimalist sculpture. Reaped from a specific breed of German dandelion, the work hinges on an exceedingly delicate ecological process susceptible to the violent disruptions of climate change. As the population of insect species—particularly bees—that fertilize the dandelion continue to wane, the pollen comprising the work could one day disappear.
Already a record of the past, the splintered, sculptural remnants of a piano brutally shattered by an axe slump against a nearby gallery wall. These remains memorialize Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s performance Henny-Penny Piano Destruction Concert (1966–1998), during which the artist butchered the piano in an effort to emancipate it from its imposed functional form. The actual work—a temporal performance symbolizing the liberation of a natural resource (oak) from its colonial prison (the piano)—proves immune to both collection and conservation; the piano, then, is a physical surrogate for a conceptual action. Ironically, as a collected object, its battered hull will be cradled and cared for by the museum as if it were the work itself. John Chamberlain’s non-archival sculpture Lo An (1966)—a roiling, organ-like mass of bloated polyurethane foam—faces a gradual, less violent decline. Currently discolored and flaking from its crevices, it will eventually cleave and blister as if shedding a brittle sheath.
While arguably seminal to the histories of conceptual art, performance art, and abstraction, the exhibition instead posits these objects as subversive reminders that artworks are as mutable and infallible as the bodies of their makers. An accompanying exhibition guide revealing internal institutional documents buttresses this idea. The conservation reports detailed within read like personal medical records tracing the minute agonies of ailing patients (Lo An is “unstable” and “deteriorating”; Pollen from Dandelions was, perhaps unsurprisingly, “damaged by a patron”). By offering a glimpse into the private lives of these objects, Porras-Kim makes the prospect of a work’s eventual demise suddenly feel viscerally intimate. Additionally, the revelation of these canonical works as somehow supple or weak contradicts the institution’s promotion of their muscular histories. Ortiz harnesses this. By using physical destruction as a vital form of historical reclamation, he capitalizes on the biting vulnerabilities of his material. To redeem the oak tree originally harvested for the piano, the artist had oak seeds scattered around the museum—suggesting that the death of one object (and its accompanying histories) ultimately ushers another to take root.
Open House: Gala Porras-Kim runs from October 7, 2019 – May 11, 2020 at MOCA Grand Avenue (250 S. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012).