Mediating between the past and present: a conversation with Gala Porras-Kim
Jan 26, 2024
From reconstructing artifacts purchased from eBay in order to reposition them in the contemporary context and re-align their narratives, to exploring the posthumous existence of bodies currently housed in museum collections without their consent, Gala Porras-Kim makes work that transcends the realm of contemporary art.
The artist’s work generally engages in conversations across disciplines like language and history, addressing the complexities of conserving cultural heritage within institutional contexts. This thematic focus forms a significant aspect of her practice, and is notably evident in her recent works. Examining the existing system of conservation practice, Porras-Kim shines light on the underlying issues around democratic distributions of power when it comes to ownership of the narrative of history.
Porras-Kim’s works at face value alone invite the audience to imagine their own narratives – but her research and process-led practice adds expansive depth to her art. Offering alternative narratives, or the possible existence of different perspectives, the act of negotiation centers the art-making motivation for Porras-Kim. She mediates between ancestral beliefs and modern ways of life in works that question the boundaries of materiality and consent, especially in terms of old objects and bodies – such as mummified people – when displayed in a museum.
On the occasion of her visit to Seoul to open her two institution exhibitions in October 2023 – at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) as part of Korea Artist Prize 2023, and National Treasures at The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (Leeum) – eazel met with Porras-Kim to unravel and contextualize her work through an in-depth conversation that weaves through past, present and future.
eazel: Congratulations on your exhibitions at MMCA and Leeum. You must have been busy opening two institution exhibitions. How has your stay in Seoul been this time around?
Gala Porras-Kim (Porras-Kim): I just came back from checking up on the mold in Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing (2022 - ongoing) at MMCA, as I am leaving Seoul tomorrow. They are growing rather happily. The work consists of propagated spores from the British Museum that will grow in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. I have been busy as the Leeum exhibition National Treasures also opened yesterday, but I still wanted to check on the mold as often as possible.
I started thinking about 530 National Treasures (2023) displayed at Leeum back in 2015. So, when I was invited for the exhibition, that was the only thing I wanted to show. I didn’t have to come up with something new and I had already begun drawing. The nomination for Korea Artist Prize 2023 at MMCA was a slightly different process. That exhibition features a new commission – a triptych titled The Weight of a Patina of Time (2023) – and existing bodies of work that support it. The idea for the triptych had already started churning as an extension of the research process for the exhibition at Leeum.
eazel: Could you give us more detail about the new commission – The Weight of a Patina of Time at MMCA – in relation to some of the other works in the show?
Porras-Kim: The Weight of a Patina of Time is a triptych of a dolmen in Gochang, where over 500 dolmens have been used as grave markers since the first millennium BCE. UNESCO designated the area as a World Heritage Site in 2000, and I wanted to explore the different ways of understanding the site. The main idea was to look at how all these various functions get added to and removed from the land, though in a way, they all coexist. So, back in May this year, I went to Gochang to understand the different ‘lives’ of these stones.
You read about these sites, but it's something else being there in person. Only then can you see and feel what it actually is like in the context of current time. The entire area had been used as an ancestral grave site for thousands of years, even with contemporary grave sites available. Since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, people have not been able to use it as a cemetery anymore, but there are still flowers as the site has been used generation after generation.
I was interested in the fact that, though it is no longer a cemetery, that version of its functionality still remains; it is more like the taxonomy or category has been rearranged. The overarching question is whether historical objects, or sites, stop functioning as how it was used in the past, only because it has been recategorized today.
The far left of the triptych, where black graphite fills the paper, presents the point of view of the deceased person that is not meant for our current perception, as it can only, perhaps, be seen by the dead; the middle drawing is the historical point of view, where the stone no longer functions as grave marker but as a protected site with the UNESCO plaque; and on the far right is nature’s point of view, where organisms like moss grow freely on the stone regardless of the functions. There are two other works in the exhibition of these fully-covered graphite drawings. I have never shown so many of those black landscapes together. I was thinking about how I can get the public to understand that these works are more than just black drawings – that they are meant for understanding perception beyond what we can see, and that these could be landscapes that are not meant for us. Putting the new black drawing as part of the latest triptych reinforces its position in the context of the previous works I’ve made about the subject.
eazel: One of the main mediums for many of your works is graphite. Some of the reasons you like graphite are for its sculptural aspect and its reflectiveness. Could you expand on the use of this material in your practice?
Porras-Kim: The graphite works are not all the same – some of them are landscapes, and some of them are not meant to be seen by us. Earlier works that I had made are based on the obsidian mirrors in Mesoamerica. People use them to understand something about themselves that they don’t know – like divination tools. Graphite is a very similar material to the obsidian mirrors. Not only is it representative of my attempt to make an obsidian mirror drawing, but I can also make it function because it's reflective. This element of reflection is not necessarily the main character in these works because we don't actually need the idea that you can see yourself in it. In a sense, many of the questions about reflectiveness are about future life and how you would be seen in the end. It's thinking about our own future when we die, because we are future dead people.
eazel: Asymptote Towards an Ambiguous Horizon (2021) is also about timeline and different perspectives, but presented in a more dynamic setting where the landscape quite literally changes shape. Is there a reason why the work is in a set of 12 drawings?
Porras-Kim: Asymptote Towards an Ambiguous Horizon is about another UNESCO heritage site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe. Prior to this site's discovery, it was understood that the ice age had ended 11,000 years ago – but this site dated back 12,000 years, moving the timeline of the ice age by 1000 years, and shifting the entire history of human evolution. I was doing my fellowship with Radcliffe at Harvard at the time and an astronomer colleague said we can even fact check this at the observatory by inputting the location and direction, and rearranging the sky to show exactly what it looked like 12,000 years ago in Turkey. The top half of the drawings are of the sky from 12,000 years ago as I took pictures of the observatory every two hours to mark the orientation. This process was meaningful partly because back then, there was nobody to record this. The bottom half is the trajectory of the sun today. The old skies and new grounds get closer and closer to the horizon, but they never meet as they existed in different time frames, although within the same location. This work demonstrates the instability of things that we are so certain about, addressing fragility as the world is on constant move.
There are 12, because originally I wanted to make 24, one for each hour of the day, but as I began making them, they were so labor intensive that I ended up making one every two hours instead. I am now in the process of drawing the other 12 that are missing. The drawings are accompanied by a topographical model with 12 different interpretations of this Neolithic archeological site, including the government’s point of view, a German archaeologist’s interpretation, and that of the son of the owner of the local convenience store next to the site. It actually goes beyond human interpretations – there is wind blowing across the space and light touches the site too. There could have been so many more points of view, but I limited myself to 12.
eazel: Would you say there is a spiritual element to your work?
Porras-Kim: I like to focus on historical objects that were meant to do something forever, which includes today, and how those past functions are still there even though we are only presented with a historical view of the object. My work is more about the people in the past, who were very spiritual and knew how they wanted to be treated in the afterlife. I don’t know the technicalities of the afterlife or the artifact’s point of view – it is just something beyond my existing perception. Discussions around death and bodies are not consistently black and white, but there's always a way to compromise. It is important to remember that these bodies were people before they became historical material in a museum. For example, Ancient Egyptians left extensive instructions on how they wanted to be preserved, but they probably didn’t imagine their bodies would be on display and definitely didn’t consent to that. So if you're a conservator in the present, why wouldn't you take into account those conservation notes? They are very specific, but the contemporary institutional perspective overshadows the mummified person’s rather clear directions.
Also, every country has a different law that decides when a body is old enough to be classified as archeological so they can be displayed or used as objects in museums. In Italy for example, the drawing line is World War I, so everyone who died before the war can be in a museum and be shown with some exceptions. When I was making Leaving the Institution through Cremation Is Easier than as a Result of a Deaccession Policy (2021), I interviewed a national coroner about this because I wanted to make a project about the law at first. He explained the history of the law that defined when life ended and death began and how it continuously changed over time as science advanced. At one point, one was legally dead when their heart stopped working, but then, who is alive and who is dead in the case of people who have had heart transplants? Currently, if a person stops breathing or their brain stops working, they are considered dead. But if a person’s oxygen supply relies on a machine and only the brain is active, are they still alive?
With my work, I'm not providing answers, but in the process of solving questions, we tend to raise interesting possibilities instead of a definitive solution, compromising along the way. Sometimes, it is natural to have a defensive reaction to a method that is out of your existing knowledge or culture, but each generation can try their own solutions as long as we account for different factors and not set it as completely resolved. I find it less anxiety-inducing knowing that I am not stuck with a potentially wrong answer. It requires much flexibility too – and an ability to learn new things and accept, and continuously update knowledge.
eazel: These questions also seem connected to the major theme of categorization in your practice. Where does the desire to open up the dialogues about categorization come from?
Porras-Kim: Categorization is important because it reflects more on the contemporary priorities of what we want history to do, rather than whatever might have happened in the past. When people go to museums and watch documentaries, they think of the content as fact because they trust the experts to know about this historical narrative. This, though, can be thought of as a director’s cut of a documentary – semi-factual in a way that it is a construction of an idea that leads you to see the subject matter only in one way. If you pay attention to how it is structured, you can tell the intention behind the organization of a certain institution, and question why a specific set of information is shown in a particular way.
It's a question that we can all raise with our own personal collections, even with basic things like arranging the sock drawer. I read a lot about home organization and hoarding. I also listen to Marie Kondo, and I think we can ask ourselves similar questions as the ones we ask bigger institutions. Why is it so difficult to throw away things you’ve inherited even though you will never use them? In a way, the collection in institutions feels more permanent than it should be, when it actually is a single factual way of organizing that we could all potentially rearrange in a different way.
eazel: Do you have an idea of how you want your work to be reflected or categorized in the future? Perhaps to make it constantly relevant throughout history?
Porras-Kim: Yes! I think that's why I learn so much about cataloging, because many of the works I make can be categorized as “regular art,” following their own art lives as drawings or sculptures in a museum context. Other works that use things like ashes and mold – which are to do with leaving an institution – can’t go back to an institution as my artworks alone, because the conceptual framework of the work is about a change in the categorization of something. I am still working on how those will circulate, but the idea is that those works would bring with them directions for their additional care.
It would be most ideal to draft accession documents for works like Leaving the institution through cremation is easier than as a result of a deaccession policy, so that Luzia*, the person who escaped the institution through cremation, can enter a collection as a person requiring cemetery-type care. This way, the works will carry all their functions and historical contexts.
*Luzia is an 11,500-year-old skeleton at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, whose bones were tragically destroyed in a fire. Gala Porras-Kim suggests viewing the fire as a form of cremation in her letter titled Leaving the Institution Through Cremation Is Easier Than as a Result of a Deaccession Policy (2021).
eazel: The way you talk about old objects and mummified people seems like you live and breathe the subject. It feels very much like a part of you. Does your interest in museum artifacts and categorizing pre-date your artist days?
Porras-Kim: My parents are both historians and academics, so I've been living in archives forever. When I was little in Colombia, my dad used to take me to tiny churches around the town, where all of the colonial records were kept in the back. He had me search for different references, like snacks, in all of these ancient books within a given time. These games I played with my dad helped me formulate the questions I have now about institutions and conservation. One time, my dad told me that we were going to find a relic – a very special holy toe. We made a giant climb up a hill and saw this beautiful box which had a bone in it. I felt really special being able to see an important historical object, but I found out years later that it was just a chicken bone he had planted. This made me realize that things we believe to be absolute knowledge can be constructed by someone who will want you to see that they are in a higher position.
eazel: Sounds like a very elaborate treasure hunt! We also found ourselves hunting for some of the treasures that are part of the artwork titled 530 National Treasures, which is the biggest work at your Leeum exhibition. Could you share some insights you learned while making the work?
Porras-Kim: As I said earlier, I began thinking about 530 National Treasures in 2015. It took a long time to do the research for this work, but it also took a very long time to make. The lengthy creation process gave me an opportunity to learn about Korean history, since, growing up abroad, I didn't have a lot of access to it in school. The main question I asked myself while making that work was, “What is considered a national treasure when the nation itself is always moving?” The national treasures I drew were all designated before the Japanese occupation and the division of the state. After the South and North were divided, each country began to manage the lists separately. I was curious about how they were picked to be treasures and wanted to find out more about them, so I began to produce this work.
530 National Treasures collates national treasures of South and North Korea, drawing them in order by the way that they were numbered. It begins with Sungnyemun, Number 1 national treasure of South Korea, with next on the list being Pyongyangseong, Number 1 national treasure of North Korea, and so on. As I was drawing them, I realized that the first couple of rows had a lot of architectural elements. It turned out the first 116 national treasures were designated by Japanese colonial authorities led by Sekino Tadashi whose expertise was in architecture. They started with Sungnyemun – possibly because it was the first one they began with, and the following ones are next in distance. This is just one way of categorizing, which is different from the way they were for number 117 onward, but seeing them as a whole, we wouldn’t know the motivations of specific generations of people for designating the treasures.
So, the range varies since the first lot was never rearranged or reset. As can be seen in the drawings, the treasures are from different generations, which is hard to understand unless they are visually presented. It is difficult to make sense of the items on the text-based data sheet with titles alone, especially when they have been documented from photographs. The North Korean documentation is very different. For example, many of the photographs from the North Korean treasures are of landscapes with non-descript objects indicating there is a treasure in the image, but we don’t actually recognize it.
eazel: One of the national treasures you drew in 530 National Treasures is the Gourd-shaped Ewer Decorated with Lotus Petals (13th century Goryeo Dynasty), which is in Leeum’s permanent display. It is also interpreted in your other artwork, Gourd-shaped Ewer Decorated with Lotus Petals Display Shadow (2023), with the main medium described as shadow – a reflection of the most basic appearance of the antique that perhaps denies it of all context. Could you elaborate on your reason for choosing a shadow as the medium for this specific artwork?
Porras-Kim: The work is really about institutional forms of display. When I went to see the actual Ewer, I noticed the shadows that the dramatic display made. To me, the shadow was like a quiet supporting actress and I wanted to make a work about the stage that institutions set that we might not perceive immediately – though once we see it, we can’t unsee. I am hoping that by pointing it out, people will be able to see the amazing shadow show that is set up behind the antiquities in the galleries.
eazel: Another work is 37 Korean objects uprooted during the Japanese occupation (2023), which is shown with three national treasures from the museum collection on either side. The Daoist Immortals by Kim Hong-do on the left hand side of your work are displayed in an especially unique way, in that they are shown in their storage boxes. What were the motives for this curatorial decision?
Porras-Kim: The Daoist Immortals were on view for a period of time before my show, and as all works in collections, they have particular light exposure conservation requirements. I wanted to install the national treasures in the collection around my works to contextualize them. The two national treasures in boxes are there so the audience can think about their existence in the institution besides their image. The work on the right was brought back from Japan by the funder of the museum, so we placed it next to my work about objects that were uprooted during the Japanese occupation.
eazel: Your work, especially the drawings, can stand alone and be read as figurative art or abstraction, but they convey highly realistic subjects – living beings. What contextualizes some of them further is the letters that are part of the work, adding performative elements in a form of quiet activism, whether that was intended or not. What benefits do you think we, as a society, can gain from museums shifting the way they care for and preserve their collection, moving away from treating the objects as symbols of power or colonial legacies? As the public, it is sometimes difficult to separate the fabricated narrative from the truth especially when even the background details are so well laid out in the story.
Porras-Kim: The top down colonial archaeological methodology is so singular and does not give much room for interpretation or alteration. In a sense, institutions should trust the audience to be ok with not knowing everything and that details can be added and updated as the historiography develops over the years. Then, the information in front of you is by default not a solid single version that someone decides, but a collective history-making that also appreciates more non-linear traditions like oral history. This way, we can create a more democratic understanding of what has happened in the past, ultimately affecting the way institutions deal with the multiplicity of functions that their objects have.
The letters are essential because I want the audience to be able to understand many conversations that I have had with the institution about their collection – so they are not a surprise to the museum directors. These letters are often written and placed very close to where the works are being presented. They function as an aid in order for the public to better understand these conversations and the context of the work they are seeing in front of them, and realize that it is all about compromising between a past and a contemporary way of life. Activism has such a wide range since even questioning something is itself already a mode of activism.
eazel: If not in museums, where do you think the objects could belong instead?
Porras-Kim: The field of archaeology is having a major crisis right now. People are using the newest radar technology and scanning every single surface of the earth – you don't even need to open the ground anymore. They are all racing to put their name on discoveries, and in our lifetime, they will find every single thing that has ever been made by humans. We have to ask where would all these findings go and do we have the capability to reconcile with the sheer amount of objects already in storages? The ground is the biggest storage in the world and these objects are already being held there for free, so maybe we might not have to have everything in institutions anymore but find other ways of learning about history.
Also, an object being in a museum for some centuries is nothing compared to how long it has existed. Museums are not going to be around forever, so those objects are eventually going to be in a different context. We are just seeing a single time frame in relation to our own lives, which is merely a fraction of the bigger timeline.
eazel: What is the plan for next year? Is there a project that you are working on at the moment that you can share with us?
Porras-Kim: There is a project that is not out yet about Nenkheftka, an Ancient Egyptian who believed he would be reincarnated into his ka sculpture, which is currently at the British Museum. The work is a lawsuit on behalf of his spirit as the museum is not taking into account that this person believed he would still be alive, in a different definition of life, in this object. According to his conservation wishes, his ka sculpture needs to be fed and his name should be said out loud. There were specific directions left behind about how he wanted to be treated which are not part of his conservation care right now. The body can’t be put back to where it was dug up and it has to live in the collection as a sculpture now without choice. The least that can be done is come up with a compromise and address his wishes. For example, some food can be left out as a ritual, or the museum can decide on a realistic interval to call out his name. The conservation of his spirit might not take too much effort beyond the sculpture’s current care, so changes like this could be a small step towards acknowledging Nenkheftka’s agency now as he planned for back then. He was trying to be very prepared for the afterlife, even making 12 of these ka statues as insurance, so in case his body disappeared, his spirit could come back into one of them. If one of the sculptures was damaged, he would still have eleven and so on. The main question is, “Can the spirit also be a material that needs to be preserved, as it is very much part of the object that they have in the collection?” If so, the institutions need to take ancient beliefs into account and be willing to compromise – because sometimes materiality is not the only thing to care for.
eazel: It sounds like your work is a constant quest for a compromise and negotiation between the past, the present, and future.
Porras-Kim: Yes, there is always a negotiation. It can't be one or the other because, besides an object’s original function and subsequent ones since, it is also historical material. But history is not black and white – some voices are heard less than others, and in some cases, they are blatantly ignored. So, when we learn about the past, we are getting information that has already been selected by sometimes multiple generations of people. I enjoy learning about history and trying to find all of the stakeholders, who all have different desires and needs for the material that surrounds us.
Gala Porras-Kim makes work about the social and political contexts that influence how intangible things, such as sounds, language and history, have been framed through the fields of linguistics, history and conservation. Her art considers the way institutions shape inherited codes and forms and conversely, how objects can shape the contexts in which they are placed. Porras-Kim (b. 1984, Bogotá) lives and works in Los Angeles and London. She received an MFA from CalArts and an MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA. She was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2019), an artist-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute (2020-22), and currently a fellow at Museo delle Civiltà in Rome.
Both Gala Porras-Kim’s presentation at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, and National Treasures at The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, are on view until Mar 31, 2023.