The Gods of Gala Porras-Kim

The Gods of Gala Porras-Kim

Her work reframes the way we might understand the seemingly intractable tensions between curating, colonialism, and cultural exchange.

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Chaac is frail. Centuries without proper oblation have drained the Mayan rain god of his power. Across the Yucatán, the sacred cenotes, or sinkholes, where his worshippers once presented offerings of gold and jade and human remains are now swimming with tourists. Most of his relics were dredged from the water decades ago and taken to the metropoles, where they’re exhibited as artifacts to apostates—if not hidden away entirely in secure, climate-controlled facilities. The deity who oversaw the natural cycles of life is now curtailed and well-contained.

In a former industrial area of Brooklyn, yards away from the monstrously polluted Newtown Creek, the artist Gala Porras-Kim constructed a shrine made from copal resin, a ceremonial incense. This altar to Chaac anchored Porras-Kim’s exhibition “Precipitation for an Arid Landscape” at Amant, an intriguing new exhibition space in East Williamsburg. As part of her project, Porras-Kim instructed the gallery staff to harvest rainwater and add it to the copal at regular intervals. Three other shrines, located at Gasworks in London, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies in Cambridge, Mass., are similarly cultivated; each is an ad hoc shrine connected by rain.

Working primarily with ritualistic objects that hold enigmatic, often magical meaning within dispossessed cultures—especially the pre-Columbian civilizations of her native Latin America—Porras-Kim, who was born in Bogotá and lives in Los Angeles, subverts acquisition practices and exhibition paradoxes in ways that reaffirm aspects of art once deemed un-exhibitable by museums. While working as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Porras-Kim began collecting dust from the archives of the university’s Peabody Museum. The Peabody was the first American anthropology museum, founded in 1866 by an archaeologist named Edward H. Thompson, who became a consul in Yucatán after arguing, without ever visiting the region, that Indigenous Central American civilizations descended from the lost city of Atlantis. Compelled by this delusion, Thompson purchased the land around the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá and spent several years looting ancient offerings and skeletons from the sacred cenote.

When, in 1897, Mexico outlawed the export of antiquities, Thompson smuggled them to Cambridge in diplomatic luggage. After the Revolution, the Mexican government seized his estate, and a friend of the archaeologist wrote an embellished account of “Don Eduardo” Thompson’s discoveries called The City of the Sacred Well. The book infuriated authorities, who sued Thompson in Mexican courts. Amant notes that “the case against Thompson was eventually dismissed over technicalities, but the affair severely blemished the Peabody’s reputation.” Then, in the 1940s, the Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City requested that Harvard return the objects to the region, but, with a few token exceptions, the Peabody declined. Years later, in 2021, Porras-Kim briefly considered suing the museum again on behalf of Chaac. Today, Amant says, “Harvard University is under no legal obligation to repatriate the Peabody Museum’s Sacred Cenote collection.” And that is where they remain today. “As such, the case for repatriation of the Chichén Itzá artifacts is primarily an ethical question.”

In 2019, Porras-Kim began drawing the Mayan artifacts that Thompson excavated. She also mixed the dust she’d collected from the Peabody with copal to construct her altars. Around the altar at Amant, a series of drawings depicted objects arrayed neatly on shelves: jade ornaments, intricately worked gold jewelry, pottery reconstructed from shards, vessels shaped like animals and ancient gods, weapons lined with rows of obsidian teeth. Once removed from the water, the artifacts began to deteriorate, eventually requiring the intervention of conservators; many are now badly damaged. At the Radcliffe, Porras-Kim’s drawings depict grisaille textiles, and her works at Gasworks, which came from a similar project, depicted funerary objects from Egypt and Nubia currently held by the British Museum. The Peabody helped the artist supplement her exhibition with a small library of documents from Thompson’s work and a brief film of an excavation at Chichén Itzá.

Each work reveals an artist deeply attuned to the ways curating practice encodes historical consciousness. As Porras-Kim said in a recent discussion with the art historian Martha Buskirk, she sees her work as a way of allowing these dispersed objects to retain their institutional lives as historical artifacts while also restoring their religious connection. Working within the confines of institutions that serve as the custodians of cultures they may only nominally represent, Porras-Kim shows that it’s possible to retain the meaning of such objects after they have been removed from their cultural context, to animate them once again.

On some level, Porras-Kim’s strategy is one of didactic brute force: Her exhibitions require a lot of reading. In lieu of tombstones and wall labels, Amant provided a modest pamphlet with short essays on each project’s relevant history. Some works would be difficult to comprehend without the literature, which I can’t help but see as a rejection of default institutional principle—informed by decades of formalist practice, museums tend to assume that all art can be taken in at a glance. Her exhibition at Amant opened with a series of 12 graphite drawings called Asymptote Towards an Ambiguous Horizon (2021)—a title that seems to acknowledge the futility of archaeological endeavor. Each drawing, redolent of Vija Celmin’s meticulous illustrations of the desert ground and night sky, depicts the archaeological site at Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic city in present-day Turkey that predates the invention of agriculture. Over the ruins, Porras-Kim portrays the sky as it would have appeared at two-hour intervals 12,000 years ago, while an enigmatic audio track mixes recordings of archaeological reports with the sound of the wind. The gallery notes that Klaus Schmidt, who led the site’s excavation from 1995 through 2014, “argued that religion, and not agriculture, was the primary glue binding people together” into communities. One temple, Schmidt proposed, was constructed to worship Sirius, the Dog Star. This alchemic reproduction of ancient sky and present ruins suggests the impossibility of comprehending the past.

A multipart work titled Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements for the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacán (2019) includes two facsimiles that Porras-Kim made of greenstone monoliths that were extracted from the largest temple at the ancient Mesoamerican city. Superficially the monoliths resemble Minimalist sculptures by postwar American artists like Carl Andre and Richard Serra, and the burnished brass recalls their mirrored and gilded contemporary counterparts. Alongside the sculptures is a framed letter addressed to the INAH, in which Porras-Kim acknowledges that, while the original purpose of the Mesoamerican pillars remains unknown, they likely “served an important function relating to the rituals that took place at the pyramid.” The sun pyramid has undergone extensive reconstruction since the early 20th century, and in her letter Porras-Kim offers to donate her monoliths to the archaeological site, “seeing as the function of the stones, or the audience of these internal sites, might not have been an earthly one.” At Amant, these sculptures were accompanied by a burnished brass sculpture, titled All Earth Energy Sources Are Known to Come From the Sun (2019), that comes to life when struck by sunlight, as well as a massive charcoal drawing of undulating black that depicts the sun as seen through your eyelids. This last work was offered as a diagram accompanying her proposal that illustrates how the monoliths would have appeared in the darkness of their internal site. Restoring these monoliths, she writes, “could be a first step to acknowledging the potential disruption of the ritual caused by the extraction of these stones” and “to somewhat cover your bases with the forces greater than us who might care.”

A second mischievous letter is addressed to Alexander Kellner, the director of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, which was destroyed several years ago in a fire. The 200-year-old science museum’s loss is incalculable. Among its holdings was Luzia, the name given to an 11,500-year-old skeleton, among the earliest intact human remains. Luzia’s bones were destroyed by the fire, though some have since been recovered and parts of her skeleton reconstructed. Porras-Kim’s letter, which she titled Leaving the Institution Through Cremation Is Easier Than as a Result of a Deaccession Policy (2021), proposes the fire be seen as an act of cremation. Next to the letter, she includes a tissue bearing an ashen handprint: “This tissue with ash from the fire might be the closest thing to a cinerary urn to hold her cremains until you might try to see her personhood, and she stops being merely an object in the collection.”

It’s something of a shibboleth in museums that objects from the past offer evidence of shared humanity, and it is therefore valuable to preserve them and make them available for study and reflection. This holds true even for so-called “ethnographic” objects, and it is why museums will insist on their right to retain and display objects obtained through colonial violence. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that the Peabody Museum “holds the human remains of at least 19 individuals who were likely enslaved and almost 7,000 Native Americans” within its collection. A report drafted by the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections—which was formed last year and includes scholars such as Evelynn M. Hammonds, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Philip J. Deloria—found “that skeletal remains were utilized to promote spurious and racist ideas of difference to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures.” And yet the committee decried the draft report’s publication, saying it “puts in jeopardy the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community.” Appeals to the cool-headed engagement of a default audience are a common justification for the continued institutionalization of colonial projects. The British Museum, which owns “shrunken heads” and bodies extracted from the British Empire’s territories, issued a 2019 report that found “the vast majority of museum visitors are comfortable with and often expect to see human remains, usually skeletons, as parts of museum displays.” Setting aside the tautological reasoning of what visitors “expect” to see in the archives of a settler nation, Porras-Kim, in a deceptively simple manner, points to the paradox at the center of this principle. In collecting and exhibiting human remains, museums strive to give their audience an image of a common bond, but representing a culture as a corpse means it will never be animate and therefore never be fully understood.

One of her works at Gasworks mocked a profound and easily rectifiable lapse: the artist suggested the British Museum reorient a fifth-dynasty sarcophagus from Giza so that it faces east, toward the rising sun, in accordance with ancient Egyptian burial custom. Her concern is that removing objects from their original sites disrupts their specific functions; ancient Egyptian funerary objects were considered eternal accompaniments, and therefore one should take care when moving the dead. But a greater underlying principle of her work is that no object, once the culture shifts, can retain the entirety of its original significance. Of course, deaccessioning—the practice of removing objects from museum collections, often to restore them to heirs and descendant communities—is fraught and filled with conflicting (and often not retroactive) international legislation. One of the most pressing ironies, for Porras-Kim, is the fact that the civilizations from which these objects have been extracted were often altered and brutalized by colonialism, if not exterminated through genocide. While the National Institute of Anthropology and History, for example, has legitimate claims to Mesoamerican patrimony by virtue of proximity and heritage, Porras-Kim has expressed wariness at the idea that ancestral objects be relegated to secure storage facilities controlled by a country that was founded centuries after they were made.

Some of the most forceful and critical art now being made attempts to reconceive institutional responsibility to the public entirely. Many such projects are investigative or research-based. Individuals like Rayyane Tabet, whose recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art traced the excavation and seizure of nearly 200 Syrian reliefs by a German archaeologist, and collectives like Forensic Architecture, who visualized the cozy relationship between the weapons manufacturer Safariland and the Whitney Museum during the latter’s 2019 biennial, reveal how the ideologies guiding the acquisition and exhibition of objects are so contagious that they become retransmitted through public display. Their forebears are numerous—the genre of “institutional critique” stems from artists like Hans Haacke whose visual polemics lambasted the politics of museums and donors, which rarely match their progressive posturing, but even more straitlaced artists, from Gerhard Richter to Elizabeth Price, have exposed how archives encode political consciousness by determining which images are preserved as media. Still, in a time when Haacke can be the focus of lauded museum retrospectives and trenchant critics like Tabet, Forensic Architecture, and even Porras-Kim regularly appear in Whitney Biennials, the genre’s most pressing question becomes whether collaboration between institutions and their critics renders the latter impotent.

The modest display of Porras-Kim’s project at Harvard’s Radcliffe opens an interesting set of problems. Her art can’t entirely escape the established pitfalls of institutional critique and other projects of this nature, and the familiar inquiries arise. By reanimating dormant objects, do artists provide distance for administrators who’d rather not face the messy reality of restitution: protests and lawsuits and press coverage and reduced holdings? Does reenacting the ritualistic aspect of cultural objects absolve museums of their responsibility or guilt? With these forlorn objects reified in the realm of art, can museums have their cake and eat it too?

But what if we take Porras-Kim at her word? When artists subvert institutional doctrine to give voice to the people who originally produced images that have been excised by museums, they change the nature of what museums ultimately conserve. I don’t see any reason to believe that, when the artist writes that the audience of her work is supernatural, she’s being remotely glib. Her shrine to Chaac is more than a simple metaphor—more, even, than a work of art, as a Western museum-going audience might define the term. Though Porras-Kim’s work is dressed in the visual language of contemporary art, it points to the soulless and solipsistic worship of modern gods with feet of clay—form without function, art without belief. In classic trickster mode, Porras-Kim’s joke is deadly serious and may not even be a joke at all.

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