AN ORGANISM IN RICHMOND: In the future we predict a large and significant living organism will begin to take shape at the corner of Belvidere and Broad … There are other organisms in Richmond, to be sure, but none quite like this one.
RICHMOND, Virginia — So writes Chicago-based artist Deb Sokolow in her pamphlet, “A Living Organism at Broad and Belvidere” (2017), commissioned for Declaration, the inaugural exhibition at Virginia Commonwealth University’s new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) — located at the corner of Belvidere and Broad streets. The pamphlet, available for guests to take, sits in a bin next to one of the two entrances into the ICA. It serves as an introductory statement reflecting the hopeful anticipation of a university, philanthropists, and staff, but also a larger city and region of onlookers.
The long-awaited museum, whose first exhibition features 34 emerging, mid-career, and established artists (all living, save for Felix Gonzalez-Torres), has been approximately 15 years in the making. Construction of the building began in June 2014. On opening day, Saturday, April 21, the museum welcomed 6,000 visitors.
Changes in leadership notwithstanding — the curator list cites Chief Curator Stephanie Smith, former director Lisa Freiman, Assistant Curator Amber Esseiva, Curator of Education and Engagement Johanna Plummer, and former curator Lauren Ross — there remains a cohesive curatorial vision to Declaration. Perhaps this is because that vision is one of change, diversity, and socially-minded activism predicated on fluidity of interpretation and the elevation of marginalized voices. The exhibition’s fluidity is partially informed by the ICA’s building, which was designed by New York-based Steven Holl Architects and inspired by writer Jorge Borges’s concept of “forking time,” from his short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941).
The over 40,000-square-foot building is in stark contrast to the surrounding architecture in Richmond. From the outside, it looks like a series of sleek grey rectangles — punctuated by floor-to-ceiling windows — stacked on top of each other, which converge on one end and fork out on the opposing side. Nearly one third of the building is an auditorium that cantilevers over one entrance. This compartmentalized exterior creates four long rectangular gallery spaces inside, and because of the large number of works included in Declaration, there is an overall crowded feeling to the exhibition with the exception of the top floor.
“We wanted to create an experience that would encourage people to move around the whole building and that responds to the architecture,” Smith explains. “We recognized that the architecture doesn’t support a master narrative; you don’t go through a sequence of galleries from start to finish to follow one line of thought. Instead, the building supports multiple perspectives.”
The organizers encourage visitors to think thematically rather than chronologically about the exhibition. It is quickly apparent that questions surrounding race and social justice are paramount. Curtis Talwst Santiago’s handheld dioramas offer intimate encounters with violence, from the executions of unarmed black people to the immigration crisis. Sonya Clark’s “Edifice and Mortar” (2018) is a handmade brick wall mortared with the hair of African Americans and stamped with text from the US Declaration of Independence; each brick’s verso has the Italian word schiavo, which translates to slave, impressed inside an afro, referencing the transcontinental and transhistorical issue of slavery.
Paul Rucker’s installation Storm in the Time of Shelter (2018) features 52 larger-than-life-size mannequins wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods in unconventional materials, including brocades, camouflage, or Kente cloth, next to vitrines that house newspapers, lynching photographs, shackles, and other ephemera related to slavery and white supremacy. Rucker explains that the material comes from “private collectors, eBay, estate sales, infinite auctions, [and] people donate them. I took another show, Rewind, across the country and people would see my work and they would give me things: derogatory things like postcards, sugar containers, sheet music, all kinds of things.” Titus Kaphar’s “Forced Out Of Frame” (2016) takes the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest as subject matter and obscures the final frame — like the protagonist herself — with a thick layer of tar. Tar is also the binder that obfuscates and secures the unclean bed sheets from a Virginian adult penitentiary in Levester Williams’s massive “Tar Ball” (2014). While works like these that engage issues of social justice take center stage, other themes — like time or placemaking and belonging — act as ancillary nodes throughout Declaration.
The erosion of linear time and the elevation of alternative models of measuring time can be seen in several works. Peter Burr’s multi-channel project with Porpentine Charity Heartscape, “Dirtscraper” (2018), intersperses an interactive website with video clips that eventually dissolve into grey static, while Noor Nuyten’s participatory “Let’s Meet at 3 O’clock – Another Uniform Time Act” (2018) invites visitors to wear a watch that has been set to a new time algorithm. One highlight in particular is Stephen Vitiello’s sound installation “whether there was a bell or whether I knocked” (2018), which plays recordings of people reading “The Garden of Forking Paths” in different languages. As the voices get louder, they form a cacophony of indiscrete utterances, highlighting non-linear time. The recording is mildly disorienting but gratifying as it encircles visitors — I only wish it was given a single large room, like the Tanks galleries at the Tate Modern in London. Objectifying time is also beautifully achieved with Cassils’s” Encapsulated Breaths” (2017), a group of hanging, blown glass orbs that contain the artist’s captured breath and resemble cartoon speech bubbles devoid of words. While visitors might consider the accumulation of language over time as evidence of increased communication, in Declaration, heaps of language instead circle back to moments of uncertainty.
The relationship between placemaking and belonging is another of the exhibition’s foremost thematic nodes. Amalia Pica’s “Strangers on Common Land” (2012), a series of photocopies wheat-pasted to the wall, shows two strangers linked across a piece of land, an attempt to visualize and consider the ties that bind people to one another and to particular places. Tavares Strachan’s pink neon light sculpture “You Belong Here (Flamingo II)” (2018) hangs on the exterior of the museum, beaming its welcoming message at passing cars. It beckons visitors while subverting commercial marketing tactics, critically questioning assumptions about who belongs in museums and culture’s potential role in gentrification.
As is perhaps inevitable with such a large show, there are a few missteps in Declaration. To activate the entire building, works like Autumn Knight and Nontsikelelo Mutiti’s “The La-A Consortium, Waiting Room” (2018), GWAR’s “Declaration of GWAR” (2018), and Cheryl Pope’s “#Yell_Yell” (2013) are tucked away in corners of the museum. It makes sense for “The La-A Consortium,” a set of pamphlets, branding, and products that lead deliberately to nowhere. But Pope’s roped-off work is inaccessible, and as for the campy GWAR diorama, one wonders: if Richmond wasn’t the heavy metal band’s hometown, would it have merited inclusion?
There is also the perplexing addition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (1989/1990), two identical stacks of white paper, one with the words, “Nowhere better than this place,” and the other reading, “Somewhere better than this place”. It seems disparate from the other works, which were recently created or commissioned specifically for Declaration. Yet “Untitled” also seems perfectly suited to this exhibition; it has a timeless quality that offers a wonderful coda for visitors to reflect upon the current moment and their sense of belonging in the world.
Declaration provokes its audience with challenging art that foregrounds provocative social questions, but it also carefully advances related, underlying themes. Some may accuse the curators of being too politically heavy-handed, but what then is the role of art-making in the 21st century? Is it one of dialogue and communication that challenges people to reconsider their belief systems? Moreover, if art cannot create spaces for these types of conversations, where will civility and discourse about difficult issues live? Declaration is just the beginning of the conversation at VCU’s new museum. Now comes the test to produce subsequent, evocative exhibitions that are as fearless and thoughtful.
Declaration continues at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (601 West Broad Street, Richmond, Virginia) through September 9.