Photograph of a figure that seems to be a rock, which is aglow with a multitude of colors, primarily red, yellow, blue, purple, set against a uniform dark background.

Unquiet Objects

UNQUIET OBJECTS foregrounds the naturalized but uneasy separation of cultural objects from human life and social reality. The exhibition explores what greater accountability towards cultural objects might look like, highlighting the value of objects as symbolic and material placeholders for subject positions, for cultures and their histories, and competing conceptions of the world. Works by ten artists and cultural producers engage with a range of related questions, encompassing the foundational complicity of art’s notion of discrete objects with an imperialist agenda, the agency of objects as portals into alternate worldviews, genders and subjectivities; issues of institutional restitution and reparations, as well as Quantum, metaphysical and supernatural understandings of objects. This reflection is extended by looking to the future of cultural objects in a world saturated by datasets and AI technology.

Lorraine O’ Grady’s iconic photographic works from Miscegenated Family Album refuse the disenfranchisement of cultural objects, insisting on the human lineages so-called artifacts embody. Christine Miller fabricates museological displays that draw out the racialized logic of mass-produced household objects from the recent past. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s film Undocumented: Unlearning Imperialism draws parallels between the forced migration of peoples and plundered objects, pointing to this imperial violence as the ideological basis of contemporary museological and curatorial practices. Itziar Okariz talks back to Modernist sculptures on display in an art museum, whose manifestations of dominant subject positions occlude other possibilities. Collectively these works test continuities between our categorization and treatment of (art) objects and the cultural, racial, and gendered modalities that sustain hierarchies in our social structures and institutions.

Unquiet Objects also seeks to make space for alternate conceptions of objecthood manifesting multiversal, Quantum, and spiritual understandings of being in the world at odds with post-Enlightenment rationalism. Testaments from Noah Angell’s oral history project Ghost Stories of the British Museum suggest that objects might have the power to contest the conditions of their display. Accounts of unnatural occurrences invoke modes of being that exceed the limits of sanctioned knowledge. The supernatural female/queer subjectivities of jinn creatures in Morehshin Allahyari’s She Who Sees the Unknown re-figure Middle Eastern myths as a portal to possibilities that exceed Western narratives. Melvin Moti’s film Eigenlicht evokes belief systems that insist on the living nature of so-called objects, as well as the findings of Quantum Physics, affirming the intelligence of matter and its internal systems of organization. Kristan Kennedy’s clay sculptures seem to arrest the return of objects to their fluid material origins.

The exhibition goes on to address the intersection of cultural objects and new technologies. Stephanie Dinkins’ ongoing project Conversations with Bina 48, teases out the AI-driven racial imaginaries of a “social robot” that claims to conflate subjecthood and objecthood. Morehshin Allahyari’s lecture-performance Digital Colonialism asks whether digital preservation is a conduit to the private ownership of cultural heritage. Aram Lee’s digitalized 3D rendering of an “unknown” object from an ethnographic display seeks to circumnavigate the transhistorical temporality of the object, activating new inscriptions to its body.

Artists: Morehshin Allahyari, Noah Angell, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Stephanie Dinkins, Kristan Kennedy, Aram Lee, Christine Miller, Melvin Moti, Lorraine O’ Grady, Itziar Okariz. 

Morehshin Allahyari (Persian: موره شین اللهیاری‎; b. 1985) is an Iranian-Kurdish media artist, activist, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She uses computer modeling, 3D scanning, and digital fabrication techniques to explore the intersection of art and activism. Her work has been part of exhibitions, festivals, and workshops worldwide, with venues including the New Museum, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Venice Biennale di Architectura, and Museum für Angewandte Kunst. She is the recipient of The Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant (2019), The Sundance Institute New Frontier International Fellowship, and the leading global thinkers award by Foreign Policy magazine (2016). Her 3D Additivist Manifesto video is in the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and she has recently been awarded major commissions by The Shed, Rhizome, New Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Liverpool Biennale, and FACT.

Noah Angell (b. 1980, US, lives in London) works through orally transmitted forms such as storytelling and song. He produces time-based works, including films, oral histories, and lecture-performances that encompass folkloric and working-class forms of knowledge, privileging modes of experience, and continuities that often evade historical records. Recent projects include For the Good Wind at The Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway, and Ghost Stories of the British Museum, an ongoing project garnering media attention worldwide. His first feature-length documentary film on acapella singer Connie B. Steadman, formerly of the Badgett Sisters, will be released in 2021. Previous exhibitions and performance of his work have taken place at The Freud Museum, London; Camden Art Center, London, CCA, Derry, University of California Riverside, CA, and Duke University, Durham, NC, among other venues.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Comparative Literature at Brown University, a film essayist, and curator of archives and exhibitions. Her books include: Potential History – Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019), Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012), The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), and From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (Pluto Press 2011). Her films include Un-documented: Undoing Imperial Plunder (2019), Civil Alliances, Palestine, 47-48 (2012). Recent exhibitions include Errata at the Tapiès Foundation, Barcelona (2019) and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2020), and Enough! The Natural Violence of New World Order, at the F/Stop photography festival, Leipzig (2016).

Stephanie Dinkins is a transmedia artist and professor at Stony Brook University, where she holds the Kusama Endowed Chair in Art. Dinkins’ art practice employs lens-based practices, emerging technologies, and community engagement to confront questions of bias in AI, data sovereignty and social equity. She exhibits and publicly advocates for inclusive AI at a broad spectrum of venues and is particularly driven to work with communities of color to co-create more equitable, values grounded artificial intelligent ecosystems. Dinkins is Artist in Residence at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, a Creative Capital Grantee 2019, as well as a 2018/19 Soros Equality Fellow, and a Data and Society Research Institute Fellow. Recent exhibitions include Feminist Data Visualization, Atlanta Contemporary (2020); Design for Different Futures, Walker Art Museum (2020-21), and Uncanny Valley, De Young Museum, San Francisco (2020-21).

Kristan Kennedy is a curator, artist, and educator. She is currently the Artistic Director / Curator of Visual Art at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). Recent exhibitions include Flat Fix, Halsey McKay Gallery, New York; Other Colors, Fourteen30 Contemporary, Portland; Eyes, Ditch Projects, OR; Sunday, Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, St. Augustine, FL; Kristan Kennedy Meets a Clock, Soloway, New York; Sleeper, OO, Misako & Rosen, Tokyo, and Tomorrow, Tomorrow, CANADA, New York. Kennedy is represented by Fourteen30 Contemporary, Portland, OR. She was the recipient of the Bonnie Bronson Fellowship in 2018 and is currently serving on the Board of Trustees for the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.

Aram Lee (b. 1986, Seoul) lives and works in Amsterdam. As an artist, her research-driven practice revolves around reinterpreting materials found within institutions, often seeking to relocate their role and purpose through performative events, film and video installations. Her work has been shown and performed at, among other venues, De Appel, Amsterdam; Framer Framed, Amsterdam; Tetterode, Amsterdam; Zuiderseemuseum, Einkuizen; Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin and the Bienal de arte textil contempornea, Guimares, Portugal. Recent artists books include From Pluto to Pyeongyang and back and Post Ghost Bust, Charles Nyples Lab (2019) and Landscape with bear (2019). She was an artist in residence at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, NL in 2018-19, and at the Goethe Institute, Marseille in 2019.

Christine Miller (b. 1990, New York, NY, she/her) is a conceptual artist and curator currently based in Portland, OR. Her work centers around racial imagery, products, and histories while simultaneously reframing her own cultural identity. In addition to her own work, Christine’s curatorial practice centers on bringing underrepresented contemporary artists to the front of the Portland art community and beyond. Miller holds BA from Hunter College (2013), and an AA in Textile Surface Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology (2016). She has been the recipient of various artist grants along with participating in select artist talks and grant panels. Miller is currently working on her curated magazine Black Playground – which features the work of ten Portland based artist and plans to continue expanding her portfolio of art publications.

Dutch artist Melvin Moti (b. 1977) primarily makes 35mm films, often shown in conjunction with photography, objects, and artist books. His work examines neurological, scientific and historic processes in relation to visual culture. Moti’s recent solo exhibitions include Museum De Pont (Tilburg, The Netherlands), Art Sonje (Seoul), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), EMPAC (New York), Pavilion (Leeds, UK), Harburger Kunstverein (Germany), CAC Vilnius (Lithuania), Madam (Luxembourg), Wiels (Brussels), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), and MMK, the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt. His work has been featured in the Triennale di Milano 2019, the 16th Istanbul Biennial, Yokohama Triennale 2014 and the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. His first feature film Dreamlife had its premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020.

Lorraine O’Grady (b.1934) combines strategies related to humanist studies on gender, the politics of diaspora and identity, and reflections on aesthetics by using a variety of mediums that include performance, photo installation, moving media, and photomontage. A native of Boston, MA and daughter of Caribbean immigrant parents, she served as an intelligence analyst for the US government, a literary and commercial translator, and rock music critic before turning to visual arts in the late 1970s. An active voice in the alternative New York art world, her work addressed feminist concerns and tackled cultural perspectives underrepresented in early feminism. She lives and works in New York, where a major retrospective of her work will take place at Brooklyn Museum in 2021.

Itziar Okariz (b. 1965, San Sebastian, Spain) lives and works in Bilbao. Her work questions the production of signs that define us, including the regulatory functions of language and normative behavior in public space. Perforated By, her two-person exhibition with Sergio Prego represented Spain at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019. Recent solo exhibitions include Las statues, Fundacion Oteiza, Alzuza (2020), Tabakalera, San Sebastian (2018); Kunsthaus Baselland (2017); and CA2M, Madrid (2017). Her is currently participating in the 13th Shanghai Biennale (2020), with other recent performances at Art Parcours ArtBasel, at BOZAR in Brussels, as well as such venues as MACBA Museum, Barcelona, and the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.

An installation view of two video screens mounted on a wall. The left screen shows a man and a woman kissing in front of a yellow background. The right screen shows two women kissing in front of a yellow background.

All the Strings that Bind: Patty Chang at Friends Indeed and Cushion Works

An installation view of two video screens mounted on a wall. The left screen shows a man and a woman kissing in front of a yellow background. The right screen shows two women kissing in front of a yellow background.
Patty Chang, In Love, 2001 (installation view). Two channel video, 3:28 min. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

“Between [depression and acceptance],” writes LA-based artist Patty Chang, in a short letter inviting visitors to her multi-media exhibition Que Sera Sera, “I would add in no fixed order: repositioning, integrating, shapeshifting, imagination, enchantment, trance, transmogrification, invocation, mystification, and bewilderment.” Pain is a single rupture, she seems to say, but healing is a thousand little threads quilting repair.

Illness, now, enforces isolation. Many of our loved ones have visited hospitals alone, or even died, in quarantine. It’s heart wrenching to watch Chang stand beside a hospital bed in the video In Gait Remains (2017), holding her baby, singing to herself, the child, and to the resting body—her father on his death bed. You can see the pathos of the body, how it can be consumed, loved, or lost. How parts of it leave us all the time. Chang summons something akin to an image-memory, an impossible present. She reminds us of what life once was in a foreclosed other time, in the past.

The works on display in the two-venue show at San Francisco galleries Cushion Works and Friends Indeed were taken between 2001 and 2017. They wear 2020 well.

An installation view of Patty Chang's exhibition "Que Sera Sera" at Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco. The image shows the gallery's interior wall and floor-to-ceiling street-facing window. There is a mail drop box outside, and a Charles Schwab across the street. In the gallery, two screens playing videos hang on the wall.
Patty Chang, Que Sera Sera, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

Nancy Lim, the shows’ curator, hesitates to say that this October was a good time to show Chang’s work—good being an inadequate word. What Lim means is that Chang’s bravery when looking directly at death, or grief, or fear, almost generates what Lim calls “an anticipatory grief.” The work suggests a way to grapple with loss in a year when so much death—by the police, by Covid-19—has happened so unfairly and avoidably. “Chang’s work prepares me for the deaths I myself will have to face,” Lim reflects.

A photograph from Chang’s 2017 series “Letdown,” which makes up a substantial portion of the shows, hangs perpendicular to In Gait Remains. Chang photographed cups of a thick, yogurt colored substance, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of the disheveled remains of food. Each image shows breast milk, which Chang pumped and was then forced to discard while traveling to the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan without her baby. Breast milk in a sardine can, breast milk colored by a saturated tea bag, breast milk next to a crumpled paper napkin.

A framed and matted photograph of an airplane tray table with a small clear plastic cup full of a thick white substance. There is a crumpled napkin to the left of the cup. The seat is by the airplane window, and cool, diffused light illuminates the scene.
Patty Chang, Letdown, 2017. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

Between the video feed of Chang singing to her father in the hospital and the photographs of milk, doomed to be discarded, you see a proximity of generations.

Living requires the body to constantly shed waste, Julia Kristeva writes in meditations on the abject. She defines the word not as a lack of cleanliness or health, but as that which “does not respect borders, positions, rules.” It is “the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[1] Chang’s work approaches abjection by refusing clear divisions. It’s mindful of the body, its fluids, but refuses to sterilize waste.

A street-facing window, like the one at Friends Indeed, has become essential. How else can we peer at art from the perceived safety of the outdoors? Through a sheet of glass, the demarcation between the spectator’s reflection and the photographs, also sheathed in an additional pane of glass, gets messy. Chang further troubles this layering by returning attention to reflections, the matrixial space of overlapping images she carefully attenuates, that unsettling in-betweenness.

A photograph can be a performance. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay characterized the camera not just as a technology, but the “invention of a new encounter.”[2] For Azoulay, viewing an image with active attention can reanimate the moment it commits to permanent stasis. The photograph begins to move, discontinuities thaw, and the still past creeps into the present. In this way, Chang’s work extends beyond the moments she has collected and suggests continuous processing, inhabiting a cascading grief, and activating a path towards healing.

A video still showing a man and a woman in white button down shirts sitting, facing the camera. Their bodies are semi-transparent and overlap at the shoulder. Both have their mouths open as though caught mid-sentence.
Patty Chang, On Love, 2003 (still). Single channel video, 4:12 min. Courtesy the Artist, Friends Indeed, San Francisco, and Cushion Works.

In On Love, 2013, superimposed videos of a man and a woman, both wearing the same starch white button down, play simultaneously. They speak over each other, but harmoniously. Chang’s mother, the woman, says “he is a good father, he repairs everything for the children.” The video bleeds into the man, Chang’s father, making an equation out of love: “introducing person A, person B, having B act upon A, A react to B.” They are intensely in their bodies, hyper-exposed in the act of being—for themselves, for each other, and for their daughter with the camera. It’s a portrait of companionship, the way it feels to pass time in the company of another person.

Chang’s work displays a longstanding preoccupation with the boundaries and trace appearances of the body. In Que Sera, Sera, she honors the materiality of family, motherhood, existence, and death. All the strings that bind one to others—through sight, taste, song, memory, and loss—are taut with feeling.

[1] Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.

[2] Azoulay, Ariella Aïsha. The Civil Contract of Photography. (New York: Zone books, 2008), 89.

Patty Chang Que Sera Sera is on view at Friends Indeed and Cushion Works in San Francisco, CA, until November 6.