by David M. Roth
Turning America right-side-up won’t be easy. The problems plaguing us are so varied and so deeply rooted in historical injustice that coming to grips with them requires big-picture thinking of a sort few know how to perform. But, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first months of the Biden administration, it’s that concerted action works, evidenced by the easing of the pandemic and the president’s proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, which promises to benefit those most in need.
Students in CCA’s Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice Class program appear to have divined these lessons presciently. In 2020 they organized an exhibition devoted to one piece of our collective malaise – inadequate caregiving – and selected five artists to examine it. Its title, Contact Traces, derives from the job of tracking COVID infections, the spread of which laid bare a raft of long-standing inequities: racial, economic and environmental. In a feminist-influenced, manifesto-like statement, the curators — Leandra Burnett, Katherine Jemima Hamilton, Shaelyn Hanes, Youyou Ma and Emily Markert – propose a 360-degree view of the problem. Built on the scholarship of theorists, philosophers and art historians, it offers an expansive vision of what a country that genuinely cares might look like. The student curators, all of whom will graduate this year, selected five artists — Derya Akay, Lenka Clayton, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ilana Harris-Babou and Jenny Kendler. They collectively ask: How do we care for ourselves? And what can artists do?
In the statement mentioned above, the curators note that care means many things, from the consequential decisions made by governments to the things we do for each other as parents, caregivers, and stewards of the environment. They also scrutinize the unpaid labor performed by mothers and the work undertaken by professional caregivers — the exploited non-unionized variety deemed “essential,” but not so essential as to warrant a living wage, adequate PPE or compensatory time off to care for themselves and their families. The artists’ responses to these and a constellation of related issues ranging from heart-wrenching and satirical works to others intended to guide thinking about community and environmental protection.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, the best-known artist in the group, trains her documentary lens on her hometown of Braddock, Pa., a post-industrial wreck of a place whose defunct steel mill left its remaining residents all but ruined. Her film, Detox (Braddock U.P.M.C), 2011, shifts between footage of U.S. Steel’s belching smokestacks, scenes of the artist and her mother receiving treatment to remove heavy metals from their bloodstream, and sequences of the artist’s mother recounting a string of undiagnosed illnesses that have left her disabled and utterly without hope.
Were it not for a large gray cat, which remains dutifully perched on the older woman’s chest, the film would be all but unwatchable, so severe are her afflictions. Close-up shots of the detox regimen, foot tubs filled with what look to be sewage and algae, are equally unsettling – so much so that you wonder if what you’re seeing isn’t a quack remedy. Whatever the case, it’s impossible to discount the pain U.S. Steel’s activities inflicted on Braddock’s resident survivors. If the artist’s mother is representative, we can safely conclude that those who remain limp through what’s left of their lives physically and financially broken: the result of unchecked corporate power and environmental racism.
Illana Harris-Babou’s parody of a social media influencer video, Decision Fatigue (2020), appears, at first glance, to be more lighthearted. But within seconds, you see that the wellness remedies under discussion, while entirely bogus, are no joke. One of them is a Cheeto face rub, which the artist’s mother, Sheila Harris, demonstrates by crushing bits of the orange-colored junk food and smearing them across her face. Rose quartz facial rollers and soaps containing junk food also figure into her act, as do multivitamins, which Ms. Harris recommends washing down with Pepsi. (I’m addicted to it,” she states flatly. “It has a different kind of effervescent feeling.”) The video screen stands above a long tile wall meant to replicate the kind you’d see a well-appointed bathroom. On it rests an array of fake soaps made of industrial products you’d not want on your skin, a point made by their freakish space-junk appearance. Aspirational wellness videos typically assume a certain level of affluence and leisure; this one does the opposite. Emphasizing the grotesque, it points an accusing finger at the bifurcated systems of nutrition and healthcare that now dominate in the U.S.
Jenny Kendler’s tabletop display of charred library books – all on the topic of climate change – stands as an even sharper bit of detournement. You may cringe at what appears to be a small-scale reenactment of Kristallnacht. But the truth is: the knowledge contained in such texts was, for all practical purposes, torched decades ago when President George H. W. Bush, possessing incontrovertible evidence of catastrophic climate change, caved to oil industry pressure and cancelled a well-developed plan to phase out fossil fuels. In The New York Times Magazine (“Losing the Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”), Nathaniel Rich described the saga in sickening detail. Kendler’s installation also includes photos of the books (before they were burned), along with two 55-gallon drums she used to incinerate them. Both, we learn, were equipped with a bio charring device that sequestered the carbon instead of releasing it into the air. But what best summarizes her project is a framed book from Harvard University Library, opened to the empty check-out page, indicating no one had read it.
Motherhood, the very emblem of giving and caring, Lenka Clayton frames in a photograph of 63 objects that she removed from her toddler’s mouth, any of which might have been fatal had she not intervened. The banality on display, which originated as a sculpture, is something any mother will understand. What’s not communicated directly but strongly implied is the near-psychic abilities a parent must possess to perform such “labors of love.” Most of them, as we know, go unpaid and are undertaken by women like Clayton, an artist who works at home. The point: During the pandemic, the already porous membrane separating motherhood from professional life dissolved at an accelerated pace, magnifying the value of such labor and the degree to which it has historically enabled paid work done outside the home.
The only piece in the show that doesn’t hit the mark is Derya Akay’s display of flowers set in jars and plastic crates, which is also replicated outside the gallery on the sidewalk. The idea is simple enough: anonymous giving to passersby, something I equate to “random acts of kindness.” It’s a lovely notion, and it represents a necessary piece of the puzzle the curators are trying to assemble, but it lacks the critical bite evidenced elsewhere in the show.
These installations are, of course, the public-facing elements of Contact Traces. The exhibition catalog, which includes essays by the curators (collectively and individually) and interviews with two of the participating artists, is no less vital: It outlines the full scope of their thinking and could, if widely adopted, function as a template for future exhibitions of precisely this sort. The writing is brilliant, and so is the research behind it. To demonstrate, the curators include excerpts of that research, replete with marginalia and highlighted passages, all of which are worth reading. If the art world truly wants to effect broad-based societal change, it will need expansive, cross-disciplinary thinking like what’s seen here to light the way.
# # #
“Contact Traces” @ CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts through June 6, 2021.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.