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It was raining in Nebraska. Through the phone, I could hear her car’s wipers marking time as Gala Porras-Kim drove back to Los Angeles from Cambridge, where she’d been a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard. Her residency had been cut short by COVID-19. There had been time, though, to develop a new project based on the collection at the university’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Certain of these objects included those dredged from the Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá—a giant natural pool surrounded by steep cliffs in Mexico’s Northern Yucatán Peninsula—by an American diplomat in the early 20th century. “In [his] letters that I was looking at in the archive,” Porras-Kim explained, “there’s all of these references to rain. For example, ‘It was raining so hard that we couldn’t actually get anything today,’ or like, ‘Sorry, my handwriting is so bad because the water is destroying my hands.’” On other letters, the weather had splattered and melted the ink. Thus, even the colonial archive has its poetry: the cenote was the site for Mayan rituals—sacrifices of jade and gold, pottery, and other ritual objects, as well as human beings, to Chaac, the god of rain.
The story of how many of these objects came to be at the Peabody at Harvard is one of legal sleight of hand. Although the contents of man-made structures like pyramids were protected by the state, the diplomat argued that if he purchased land in Mexico, he would own whatever artifacts were buried underground or in natural formations, including what remained in the cenote. (He also smuggled hundreds of objects into the United States in official diplomatic bags.)
The original purpose of such objects is one thing; another is the shape of law, of policy, and the way objects are classified. Porras-Kim sees both aesthetic and legal conventions as almost sculptural parameters that structure the lives of the objects themselves. Her work puts pressure on these systems of classification, conservation, display, and knowledge—the contradictions that arise are already present in museum collections. Porras-Kim doesn’t answer these questions so much as push them into the exhibition space; a playful, open-ended revisionism ensues.
Take her project for the 2016 edition of Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum, for which the artist selected and displayed a range of objects from the Fowler Museum’s anthropological archive that remain unclassified: artifacts in limbo between their original purpose and their inclusion in any potential future encyclopedic context. Animal parts, pottery shards, and textile fragments appeared on blue cloth on a long white pedestal, often accompanied by the Fowler’s own terse, sometimes baffled notes. In 2017, Porras-Kim gave a similar treatment to LACMA’s Proctor Stafford collection, a group of ceramics classified broadly as “west Mexican.” Because the museum is strictly an art museum, the ceramics are somewhat arbitrarily considered not archaeological or religious objects but works of art. The artist gave them another kind of bureaucratic shorthand, separating them into three groups based on the modern Mexican states where they were found (Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit). She then drew the objects arranged by size, adding another layer of arbitrary categorization. The subjectivity of her own classifications is part of the point. “Maybe I should have talked about latitude and longitude,” she said. “Maybe I can write in the directions that the piece gets renamed whenever the state gets called something else.” The goal is not revisionism in an accurate, definitive sense, but rather a revision of a certain declarative authority to include the beautiful fact that there are things we do not, and will never, know.
At times, Porras-Kim seems to revel in the unfixity and shortfalls of our systems of knowledge. For her recent project for the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Porras-Kim addressed La Mojarra Stela 1, a glyph-covered Mesoamerican monolith that was discovered in a river in Veracruz, Mexico in 1986 and, so far, remains completely untranslated. In lieu of a linguistic, syntactic understanding of the carved text, Porras-Kim offered three alternative ways to make meaning from the mute stone. In the first, she performed an idiosyncratic, formal analysis, using color-coded transparencies to separate the markings by shape: circles, squares, squiggles. In the next, a replica of La Mojarra Stela 1 was attached to a panel covered in graphite marks, as if regarding itself in an obsidian mirror. And in the third, titled La Mojarra Stela incidental conjugations (2019), a drawing of the glyphs arranged in written order was accompanied by a rotating, water-filled disc containing plastic cutouts of the same symbols; as they tumbled, the two layers of glyphs aligned, or not, in meaningful ways— or not. The piece may seem like a parody of the self-serious discipline of anthropology. Indeed, especially at first glance, it shares some of the didactic qualities of the systems it critiques. This ambivalence would make for odd science but is completely appropriate for a work of contemporary art. Porras-Kim embraces the unknowable unknowns of anthropology as the formal unknowns of an artistic method of making meaning.
Porras-Kim’s interventions also refract the concerns of contemporary collections and museums. Part of her objective, she told me, is to challenge museums to live up to their missions. This is especially vital when a museum deals with living artists, as is the case with her recent project at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). “All the museums, they all have different personalities,” she said. “MOCA is supposed to be ‘The Artist’s Museum.’” (It was founded by artists in 1979.) “I wanted to know, how much agency do actual artists have over their work in the collection?” The project she organized at MOCA, which was originally scheduled to be on view through mid-May, is part of a series called Open House, in which the museum invites artists to guest-curate exhibitions from its vaults. Her approach shines light on the peculiar exigencies of maintaining and displaying artwork that, unlike looted pre-Columbian gold, comes to a museum collection with the artist’s directions. Some conservation issues, such as how to preserve the cellophane cigarette packages in a work by Chris Burden or the rotting polyurethane in a work by John Chamberlain, seem like provocations from the artists themselves. Others are semantically tedious, like a single, spare pink fluorescent bulb for a Flavin piece—installed at MOCA in a non-Flavin fixture with the caveat that it is, emphatically, not a work of art. Porras-Kim imagines the project as a conversation with the museum staff, an expression of their anxieties over applying best practices to such indeterminate objects. She mentioned an idea for a future piece that she would address to “an audience of one,” a conservator, working to preserve her imagined artwork a thousand years from now.
Art is a long game, as they say, and a lot can change in a millennium. Porras-Kim pointed out that laws and religions and cultural distinctions (between anthropology and art, say) draw their efficacy from belief: they are, in some sense, forms of consensus reality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of human remains. In 2017, she took part in a project called the Berman Board, with fellow artists Fiona Connor, Neil Doshi, and Michala Paludan. Connor had been gifted a handful of objects from a range of cultures, assembled haphazardly by an amateur collector and displayed for decades in his home. For their collaboration, Porras-Kim focused on one piece in particular: a decorated, shrunken head. “I had this head,” she told me. “What could I actually do with it?” First, she called a coroner. “And then the coroner was like, ‘is it a victim of a crime?’ And I said, ‘possibly, yes.’ Because you know, probably it was. And then they said I had to call the police.”
Repatriation is an especially complex problem since the movement of cultural artifacts crisscrosses national, spiritual, legal, and museological lines—not to mention the temporal limit of the human lifespan—and puts those jurisdictions into direct conflict. When Porras-Kim explained that it was a shrunken head, not fresh remains— classified as an object, not a person— she was directed instead to a research museum. This bureaucratic exercise resulted in a handful of documents in file folders in which Porras-Kim detailed a number of possible options for burying, repatriating, or otherwise placing the head. She hopes to make future investigations on a larger scale about remains in museum collections in Brazil and South Korea. In some sense, repatriation of looted remains can never be properly, fully accomplished. Time has moved on, and the folks who should be consulted are dead or missing. But there are other, less official, more artistic solutions. The goal, said Porras-Kim, is “basically to try and figure out how to contact the afterlife,” and ask the dead “where they would rather be, other than in the museum.” (I offered that part of the difficulty is that you can’t just call up the spiritual coroner. She replied, “Oh, yes you can.”)
As for the Peabody’s collection of objects from the Cenote Sagrado, Porras-Kim is planning another artfully incomplete denouement. Originally, she wanted to return the objects to the cenote—the idea was to argue that the rain god Chaac still owned them, and to litigate on his behalf using both spiritual and material laws. Now, she imagines a symbolic repatriation: maybe, said the artist, she will make copies, possibly out of ice. As they melt, the repatriation will be both artistic, a metaphor, and meteorological, a physical intervention in the water cycle. Viewers will watch as Chaac’s objects return to the rain from whence they came.
Travis Diehl has lived in Los Angeles since 2009. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2013) and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Art Journalism (2018).
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 20.