“How do you begin to unburden an object bound to nothing when you too are tethered to nothingness?…The market was driven and is driven by you. In unburdening the object you lay yourself bare, but who will relieve you?”– Hanna Girma, exhibition essay for Baby is a Cool Machine
Who will relieve you?
Baby is a Cool Machine, a solo exhibition of new works by Aria Dean, which opened on October 19 at American Medium, drew upon questions of objecthood and burden as a way to explore the perilous weight of Black life. Rather than insisting on bodily coherence or existence par excellence, Dean urged us to consider the answers that might also be found in the spectral, the ghostly, the not-quite-here spirits at the end of the empty street. Grounded in autobiographical themes, Baby is a Cool Machine provided ongoing ways to think about microhistory as the starting point for a haptic sensibility; for an expansive and generous mode of thinking about materiality and touch.
In the accompanying exhibition essay, curator Hanna Girma writes that “for Dean, these two situations- that of blackness and that of the art object’s status- are irrevocably entangled.” When I entered the gallery on opening night, the room was filled with people engaged in the collective work of creating value from blackness-as-object. Seeing Dean’s works for the first time in such a setting reminded me of the continual conversation and tensions between the art world economy and its audiences, Black artists, and the objects that they produce. That these processes of valuation are never far removed from histories of violence and the colonial display is sometimes abundantly apparent and always worth remembering. On subsequent visits to the exhibit, the works taken together seemed to hold a quiet expansiveness that had previously been foreclosed, reaching across the empty space to reference the skin and flesh of Southern African-American history.
Throughout the exhibit, Dean employed an impressive array of mediums: a plexiglass box covered with computer code, a large silk bow held up by steel chains, and a plastic suit were some of the ways that the artist played with and thought through questions of phenomenology, embodiment, and the digital. At the same time, these objects seemed to poke fun at the earnest gestures of interpretation and historicization. The sensual juxtaposition of steel and silk, the unsettlingly human-like form of the plastic suit, and the suit’s coiled nozzle all invoked questions related to the messiness and open-ended potential of skin and breath and tactility. Even the objects’ placement throughout the gallery space seemed to encourage a spontaneous, embodied practice of looking–of doubling back, seeing again and from different angles, revising, glancing, riffing. Kneeling on the floor of the gallery to look at the metal links buried in the bow’s exuberant red folds, I was reminded of something Dean had said in a recent interview: “I think I want my art to be antagonistic, but seductively so.”
While the set of canvases on each wall of the gallery were not physically attached to anything sentient, they were striking in their recall of epidermic vulnerability. Three of the four canvases displayed rust-colored openings that could variously be read as bullet holes, burn marks, or bloody wounds. A fourth was completely blank: unblemished, or simply pre-woundedness. In addition to the litany of racial terror suggested by the disfigured openings, the material itself—canvases made of cotton batting–existed only through a lineage of Black plantation labor. However, Dean’s work confounds the weight of autobiography even as it courts the complexities of personal archives. In their various states of alteration, the canvases referenced not only the quiet devastation of wounding, but also the cheeky provocations of classic conceptual pieces such as Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. Inasmuch as Dean summons Black history’s structuring and inescapable abjections, she does so in ways that also reference the slippery, shape-shifting fugitivity of African diasporic aesthetics.1 Borrowing from a formulation of Amiri Baraka, one might say of much of Dean’s work that “it slides away from the proposed.”2
Dean’s inquiry demonstrates that perhaps Blackness and commodity cannot be decoupled, that the weight of what Fanon calls “crushing objecthood” is ever-present if elusive. However, the works in this show also remind us of the capacity of Blackness to exceed the physical and material, to move in forms that are fugitive and unwieldy. A video installation, A River Called Death, tells a ghost story inspired by a river in Mississippi where the artist’s grandfather lived. This story, accompanied by visuals of the body of water, narrates the intimate geographies of Black death and nonbeing that run through Dean’s American South. It also charts a kind of alternate temporality through the protagonist, who finds life after ghostliness and now smokes a blunt at the end of the street
(“and after a forever, he found himself alive.”)
In its rejection of European linearity and its awareness of the porousness of the spirit world, this ghost story gestures towards a temporality of the Black Atlantic. This is the temporality of spirit possession, of those who move porously between specter and living being, of those who live in carceral and middle passage time. It is the waiting-time of the neighborhood men who come back from prison and smoke a blunt at the end of the street: once a ghost, now maybe less so, perhaps soon to be a ghost again.
Interacting with these objects, one was continually pushed to reckon with the interplay between ghosts and the labor of their existence, between the physicality of Black being and the expansiveness of spirit. Ultimately, Dean’s work reminds us that when objects speak, it is only because of the breath and material that are entangled in the circumstances of their making.
Baby is a Cool Machine was on view at American Medium Gallery October 19, 2017-Dec 2, 2017.
Amber Officer-Narvasa is a B.A. candidate at Columbia University. She is currently the Executive Editor of The Blueshift Journal. Amber’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Entropy Magazine, Apogee Journal and Quarto. She is a Sagittarius.