KANSAS CITY, Missouri — It is safe to say that the United States is in the midst of a deep crisis of identity, fueled by nationalism, fear-mongering across the political spectrum, and denial about the legacy of migration. Worlds Otherwise Hidden at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City features work by three artists who materially and abstractly tackle notions of blended culture and identity. The aesthetic commonality of works by Nevin Aladağ, Kimsooja, and Nari Ward, and the overlap in their separate practices of using found objects, creating chance combinations, or cultivating a layering of symbol sets to represent complex definitions of self, create a cohesive exhibition full of inviting surfaces and subtle implications.
Upon entering the gallery space, visitors are greeted by three towering snowman-shaped figures, rendered by wrapping up long, narrow strips of orangey upholstery foam into giant yarn-ball forms, stacking them, and studding them with a decorative bedazzling of discarded battery canisters, Sprague Electric Company resistors and capacitors, and mango pits. These are three pieces from Ward’s 2011 “Mango Tourist” installation. They stand as sentries to another 2011 work, “We The People,” which immediately draws the focus to the back wall of the main exhibition room, with the eponymous phrase in Old English lettering demarked by arcs and fringes of hanging shoelaces sprouting from holes in the wall. The finished letters are legible at a distance and stand several feet taller than the visitors directly in front of them. The size of the works in this room create a sense of bodies, both figurative and politic, which exist at beyond-human scale, and by extension, radiate a kind of passive menace. There are no overt suggestions that the faceless “Tourist” figures mean harm — whether they are themselves the tourists, or they represent a kind of monolith-as-destination-point for tourism, or perhaps the discard engendered by tourism as an industry — or that the “We” in “We the People” intend to exclude you, the individual. However, Ward’s work instigates neither a sense of ease nor welcome.
From this entry point, a visitor can either float left to navigate works from Ward’s 2015 Breathing Directions series, including the nine-panel floor piece, “Ground (In Progress)” — with the patina on the copper bricks in a much more darkened state than in the original presentation — and “Breathing Panel: Oriented Right” (2015), one of Ward’s abstracted takes on a symbol with functional and historic implications. The symbols, which Ward encountered in a church in Savannah, Georgia, were created by punching holes in the floorboards, which enabled the escaped slaves once concealed beneath them to breathe — though not to breathe easy. Ward walked the copper surfaces of the panels in this series, so even as the work now hangs on the wall, it suggests the floor, the hidden history that lies beneath the facsimile.
If one can withstand this breathless passage, the lefthand gallery contains a flag show by Kimsooja — a re-presentation of her 2017 “To Breathe — Zone of Nowhere” installation, commissioned by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. Thirty double-image flags hang in an irregular geometry that mirrors the lines of the oddly-shaped gallery, billowing slightly in an artificial breeze. Displayed vertically, the light penetrates the translucent polyester of the flags, which allows the visitor to view the symbolic narratives presented by the flags on both faces simultaneously. Stars offset Arabic script; circles eclipse stripes; a dragon weaves around an inset Union Jack. These national symbols are at once easily identifiable and complicated, forming a perfect visual metaphor for mixed-race and bicultural identity — the sense of looking for the diverse strains of one’s heritage in one’s own blended image, of finding distinct aspects that can no longer be considered separately from one another.
Rounding out the trio of artists, in a gallery to the right are three sets of works by Nevin Aladağ — a triptych of patchwork canvases titled “Social Fabric” (2017), pieced together from bits of carpet; a pair of “Makramé” (2011/2014) rendered in wire cable; and a three-channel video, “Session” (2013), which captures the incidental music created by random interactions between percussive instruments and objects in an environment, like a sprinkler or rocks tossed by cars from a roadway. All of Aladağ’s work is incredibly deft in its combination of materials, letting these inanimate objects come to life as proxies for human interaction.
Like all the works in the show, Aladağ seems to feel no need for individualized figuration. After all, we are bound to identify with our cultural signifiers, whether flags or everyday objects. There is no need to customize the message for the individual. Worlds Otherwise Hidden not only reveals the identities that have been forced to the margins or exist in the interstitial spaces between cultures, but also shows the very seams by which we, as individuals, construct our cultural identities.
Worlds Otherwise Hidden continues at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (4420 Warwick Blvd. Kansas City, Missouri) through September 2.