If These Stones Could Sing at KADIST, San Francisco

Review

If These Stones Could Sing at KADIST, San Francisco

By Connie Zheng March 27, 2018

As debates about the removal of Confederate monuments came to a head last August with the violent clashes around the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, artistic inquiries into how public monuments occupy space and codify particular power structures are timelier than ever, and necessary, as the United States continues to grapple with its history of violence and the narratives that have been elided over time. In that sense, the group show If These Stones Could Sing, currently on view at KADIST in San Francisco, offers significant promise—and falls somewhat short of that promise—as an exploration of how power is encoded and activated in both public spaces and the individual bodies that comprise a body politic.

View of entrance to exhibition. Courtesy of KADIST. Photo: Jeff Warrin.

If These Stones Could Sing brings together works from Milena Bonilla, Public Movement, Arin Rungjang, Shitamichi Motoyuki, Emilija Škarnulytė, and Sriwhana Spong, artists based across Asia and Europe. The concerns of these artists, tethered to the regions where they live, are apparent throughout the show, which is strangely devoid of references to US conversations about public monuments, despite a brief mention of Confederate statues in the exhibition catalog. In shifting away from a US-centric narrative, curator Marie Martraire seems to ask viewers to focus on the broader “potential for corporeal postures, gestures, and movements to individually address, acknowledge, and make sense of a troublesome collective past embodied in public monuments,” while bringing these conceptual considerations into a more intimate, embodied space.1

Shitamichi Motoyuki. Sakhalin, Russia, from the Torii series (2006–12); C-print; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of KADIST. Photo: Jeff Warrin.

One feels this intention immediately via the striking design of the exhibition space. A large, airy atrium suddenly shifts into a narrow passageway that is painted an autumnal earth color and acts in productive tension with the tightness of the corridor. Two enigmatic photographs from Shitamichi Motoyuki’s Torii series (2006–12) quietly beckon the viewer down the hall, into a dark, crypt-like space. There are no wall labels or texts; one simply feels as if they are descending into a mausoleum.

View of exhibition space. Courtesy of KADIST. Photo: Jeff Warrin.

The room this corridor leads to is pitch-black, save for three projection screens that anchor the space from floor to ceiling. Video works by Milena Bonilla, Sriwhana Spong, and Emilija Škarnulytė light up each screen in no particular order, creating an eerie sensation of quiet surprise, like a conversation with ghosts. This chamber then opens into the final room in the show, which is arranged like a small, intimate theater. Here, viewers sit with a single-channel film by Arin Rungjang and a framed graphite rubbing by Milena Bonilla.2

Emilija Škarnulytė. Aldona, 2013; single-channel HD video; 13:00 min. Courtesy of KADIST.

The Norway–based artist Emilija Škarnulytė’s Aldona (2013), a thirteen-minute single-channel video, stands out in particular and feels like the centerpiece of the exhibition. Beautifully shot and almost completely devoid of dialogue, Aldona traces the artist’s grandmother during her daily walk through Grūtas Park in Lithuania. The camera follows the visually impaired Aldona as she gropes along statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist leaders, before returning home to carry out a series of basic domestic tasks. Aldona is successful not only in its creation of a poetic meditation on how the body can become a vehicle through which to integrate past and present, but also in its symbolic use of site. Grūtas Park is home to eighty-six Soviet-era statues spread across thirteen hectares of forest, and is organized according to their role in Soviet activity (examples: “Totalitarian Sphere” and “Death Sphere”). Located in this site, Aldona acts as a quietly disturbing and richly layered exploration of how recontextualization can help us to remember the bloody past without allowing it to overtake our present history.

Arin Rungjang. 246247596248914102516… And Then There Were None, 2017; single-channel HD video, color, sound; 46:26 min. Courtesy of KADIST. Photo: Jeff Warrin.

If These Stones Could Sing is a tightly curated show, populated with many gorgeous images circulating within a muted aesthetic and theoretical frame. Individually, each work arouses curiosity; collectively, they form a rarefied, highly conceptual front that feels occasionally divorced from the realities of the violent histories embedded in the monuments that are their subjects. How can a show that was purportedly “organized in the wake of recent events in the US that have made us reconsider who and what we commemorate"3 fail to include a US narrative, particularly one that directly addresses the centuries of systemic violence committed against Black and Indigenous communities in this country? In this sense, the nod to Confederate monuments in the exhibition brochure feels like an afterthought. Considering the potency of the pain still presently experienced by many in this country regarding America’s glorification of colonial settlers, Confederate “heroes,” and politicians, this omission feels like a missed opportunity.

If These Stones Could Sing is on view at KADIST in San Francisco through April 21, 2018.

Notes

  1. From the exhibition statement written by curator Marie Martraire, KADIST, San Francicso.
  2. The work of the Tel Aviv–based “performative research group” Public Movement cannot be seen anywhere in the exhibition space—it manifests only as occasional live performances. The next performance is scheduled for April 21, 2018, the final day of the exhibition.
  3. From the exhibition page, http://kadist.org/program/if-these-stones-could-sing/.

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