SAN FRANCISCO — Does the internet help or hinder cultural transmission? How are long-distance family relationships maintained against a diasporan context? These are two questions that frame The Curved Body of a Pixel, a solo exhibition of work by artist-educator Kimberley Acebo Arteche at San Francisco’s Incline Gallery. Through the lens of personal experience, Arteche probes how geographic distance affects personal relationships and how, despite its speed and pervasive presence, technology ultimately fails to narrow wide experiential gaps.
The scene is relatable: family members with genuine but slightly awkward smiles posed before the camera. We don’t know these people, but we think we do because the trope is so ubiquitous as to be viscerally familiar. The three framed photos, collectively titled “Untitled (Preface)” (2019), introduce the exhibition, illuminating the perennial yet impossible desire to derive knowledge from photographic images. We may wonder who these people are. Arteche — a second-generation Filipino-American who grew up in Washington, DC — poses the same question.
Curator Lian Ladia capitalizes on the eccentric physical profile of Incline Gallery. Once a mortuary, the gallery’s successive, staggered ramps were used to transport human remains into and out of the building. Now, they comprise one of San Francisco’s unique art-viewing experiences. “Bodyless (4899)” (2019), the first of two large digital photographs, sits on the landing between the first and second ramps. A vivid pink floral print dress looks as though it is worn by a seated figure, but the figure is absent. Opposite the chair, an upright mirror captures the missing figure’s arm. Visually, the disembodied limb evokes memories of the dial-up internet age and how long it took for images or other data to download completely. The composition suggests a tantalizing hint of knowledge, partial and unfulfilling — particularly Arteche’s adolescent digital searches to connect with her Filipino cultural heritage.
The Curved Body of a Pixel reflects Arteche’s earnest work to understand the historical and contemporaneous cultural traumas and triumphs that mold her, from Spanish and American colonization of the Philippines, to 21st-century economically-forced migration. “Ta,too Project I and II” (2014) visualizes this intergenerational battle through self-adornment. Referencing Carlos Villa’s (1926-2013) 1969 project Tat2, Arteche digitally applies delicate Filipino linear patterns to her face and arms. The electric green lines appear superimposed on her skin, not absorbed as actual tattoos are. The series serves double duty; paying homage to Villa’s work as it exposed colonialist homogenization of indigenous artistic practices, and marking Arteche’s path into deeper understanding of her cultural roots.
Three pieces from the “Lahi Project” (2016) hold the wall above the third and final ramp. Roughly translated from Tagalog, lahi means “a group of people of the same lineage or heritage.” It suggests kinship and family ties — Arteche’s and numerous others — that are tested by geographic distance within a diasporan context. The term also encapsulates one of Arteche’s primary personal and creative motivations: understanding and honoring the physical, emotional, and generational labor of her female relatives and countless other Filipino women. The source images for these woven photo objects are the family photos that open the exhibition, here enlarged and pixelated. The faces of Restituta, Juana, and Florentina linger on the edge of visual perception, an effect intensified by how close to or far from an object a visitor stands. Arteche establishes a potent visual metaphor for trying to see and know her elders, despite the multiple filters that hamper her efforts.
Ascending the final ramp, our first glimpse of the hanging pieces requires us to look up. Observing the tapestries from below, we fix our eyes on the machine-made objects like we may gaze upon stained glass windows in a cathedral, searching for knowledge in enigmatic faces. We may see, for the first time in the context of an art institution, brown-skinned women as more than foreigners or anonymous individuals at work in a Western economic context that treats them as Other and undervalues their contributions. We may look up to them, as Arteche does, with a longing to know more. After descending the gallery ramps, how many of us will look again at the framed family photos that open the exhibition? Will our perception shift, taking into consideration the filters through which we perceive cultures that may not be our own?
The Curved Body of a Pixel, curated by Lian Ladia, continues at Incline Gallery (766 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA) through November 24.
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