The grand reveal of the Institute for Contemporary Art last Thursday was a celebration of art at its most powerful. The inaugural show, Declaration, is a bold collection of works that confront and transform the viewer, delivering on the promise of the ICA as a place to have difficult conversations and build connections between the city and the campus, across racial, gender, national, and socio-economic divides.
As Americans struggle with deep divisions and difficult conversations, the institute brings these issues to the forefront, part of a broader effort to make Richmond a “world-class cultural center” in the words of Michael Rao, President of Virginia Commonwealth University. Before tours began, Rao and others spoke about the building, the inaugural exhibit, and the future of the institute in an impressive auditorium that seats 240.
Some of the most arresting work is in the first-floor gallery space, opposite the auditorium and a cafe by local grocery store Ellwood Thompson’s. Of the many provocative works and series in this space, two provide the strongest visual challenges: “WOMEN Words” and “Storm in the Time of Shelter”.
The first work is by Betty Tompkins, a pioneer of feminist art, and consists of a series of small acrylic text-based paintings. The words, many of them misogynistic and lurid, were submitted in response to an open email she sent asking for “a list of words that describe women.” One of the paintings recreates a close-up pornographic image of sexual intercourse with the words “EASY LAY” written in pink; another reads, “LIGHT OF MY LIFE” on a dark background.
Past her exhibit is the second series, “Storm in the Time of Shelter”, by visiting arts fellow Paul Rucker. This room contains a shocking collection of life-size figures wearing the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan. Rucker created this series as a reimagining of the Klansmen he saw growing up Black in the South. Instead of the traditional white robes, the figures wear robes and hoods made of silk, satin, Ghanaian Kente cloth, and bold, patterned fabrics. There are 52, “one for each week of the year”, said chief curator Stephanie Smith. She added that Rucker’s work reflects his experiences and his view that “structural and systemic racism is not just in the past,” echoing this reporter’s sense that the piece shows that white supremacy wears many guises in 2018.
This version of the figures was commissioned for the ICA, but other versions shown elsewhere have raised security concerns resulting in the work being pulled from public display. Shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, for example, the York College of Pennsylvania. Rucker blasted the decision to deny entrance, particularly the university framing the decision as resulting from the violence in Charlottesville; he said the tragedy in Charlottesville should make the university broaden their invitation, not restrict it.
Unlike most galleries, this floor contains large windows facing Broad Street, inviting the public to stop and look within the museum, which will have free admission when it opens on April 21. It’s part of a commitment to including the broader Richmond community which is also reflected in a work on the second-floor terrace, where Tavares Strachan’s giant pink neon sign, on-brand for the pink-logo of the ICA, announces “You Belong Here.”
Outside of the first-floor gallery, visitors feel “a sense of invitation of going up” from the wide, circular staircase according to Steven Holl, the architect whose eponymous firm was selected from a pool of 63 by a unanimous decision. The other way up is by way of an oversized cargo elevator described by Chris McVoy, a senior partner in Steven Holl Architects, as an “economical [design] choice,” but one which is as beautiful and polished as the rest of the site. Instead of having a cargo elevator and a passenger elevator in what McVoy calls a “relatively small space” they combined the two into one. Outside of sheer size, the elevator does not suggest utilitarianism; the walls include cut aluminum sheets bearing hash marks, meant to represent time. “Architecture is an art of time,” McVoy said, highlighting the way that natural light moves through the third-floor space and changes the experience of the building throughout the day. “It’s about your experience moving through it.”
The building design also serves as a bit of respite and tranquility between exhibits that can be confrontational or challenging, all leading up to the third floor, which McVoy described as a “billowing white space.” The curving walls and shapes move inward as the building reaches its peak in a response to the city.
McVoy gave tours of the elevator and third-floor space while Holl led visitors around the ground floor. Between digressions on Jorge Luis Borges and the meaning of time, the internationally-known architect pointed to details and material choices with an infectious pride and joy. He started with the “forking time fountain” on the Broad and Belvidere entrance, which he said answered the challenge of locating the space at a busy intersection. “One of the problems of a busy urban intersection is the noise, but if you have a little water moving, it all fades away,” he said. The pipes carrying water ‘fork’ much like the building does, diverging from a common spot and bringing three streams of water into the river stone-lined pool.
At the campus entrance on Pine Street, he pointed out the exterior of the cement building, covered in Rheinzink cladding, a natural-weathering metal that’s become a go-to choice for large buildings worldwide. The color and texture was, he said, “wabi-sabi”, referring to the Japanese concept of aesthetic beauty arising from transience. “It looks good as it gets older, it’s zero-maintenance,” he said about the metal, and it changes color throughout the day based on the sun. He’s preferred the material as an environmentally and economically-friendly choice since he first used it for the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, which he designed in 1998. The same material is used to provide footpaths all over the campus entrance garden, laid out in a manner that resembles the hash marks back in the elevator.
The building and the artwork in tandem in the second gallery, located on the second floor, where an audio installation by Stephen Vitiello, titled “whether there was a bell or whether I knocked”, overwhelm visitors with a cacophony of voices speaking unrecognizable phrases in a plurality of languages. The VCU arts professor recorded professionals and local teenagers reciting passages from Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”, which playback using algorithms to let individual voices sound over the din. The Babel-like work, comprised of multiple speakers and a few chairs, sits opposite Andrea Donnelly’s “To the Various Futures (Not to All)”, two panels of woven cloth suspended from the ceiling and bearing words from Borges rendered into unreadable, aesthetically-pleasing collections of letters and words.
The sum total of the two works is described by our guide to the area, assistant curator Amber Esseiva, as inspired both by Borges and the site itself. She noted that it represented the current political and national discussion, too, saying, “everything is happening simultaneously, but at different times. Everyone has something to say, everyone is speaking at once, and it makes it hard to hear the message.”
The stand-out work in terms of scale in the next room on the press tour, gallery three, is Levester Williams’ “Tar Ball”, a massive ball containing unclean bed sheets from a Virginian adult penitentiary, tar, and other media. The material provides a link to “Forced Out of Frame”, Titus Kaphar’s series of oil and tar paintings recreating the dashboard camera of the officer who arrested Sandra Bland before she would die in a jail cell. Esseiva spoke to the use of tar in these, describing it as a “material reflection of the surface on which Sandra Bland’s body was dragged.”
In the middle of the gallery are a series of dioramas in reclaimed jewelry boxes, safely enclosed in glass. These works by Curtis Talwst Santiago cover a variety of events, among them a piece titled “The Execution of Unarmed Blacks”. This striking miniature recasts the murder of Michael Brown in a three-dimensional version of Goya’s “The Third of May“, all in a little box less than 3 inches tall. Another of his pieces, “Frida’s Entry Into Iguala”, is a reference to James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” commenting on the 43 missing Mexican students in Iguala.
The third floor is a radical break from the tighter, more traditional galleries on the second floor. The ceilings leave behind the standard contemporary art museum height of 17-feet and soar up and inward at a height of 33-feet, “a provocation to artists,” as McVoy and Holl have described it. Here is something familiar, at least to readers of this magazine; the self-photographs of Nidaa Badwan’s “100 Days Of Solitude”, shot entirely with limited natural light during a self-imposed exile in her tiny room in Gaza, now hanging in an open, airy room absolutely awash in natural light. They’re stunning and incredible to see in person for the first time, with the same rich colors of the Baroque painters that came through even in the online images.
Across from the exhibit sits Lee Mingwei, a participatory artist born in Taiwan, and the table where he’ll be performing “The Mending Project“, a live installation. Visitors can bring their torn or damaged clothing to Mingwei who will sew it back together. Participation is the price of repair; visitors must stay with Mingwei or a guest mender and watch the repair of their garment. Afterward, they can donate the article to the exhibit or bring it home with them.
If the third floor is meant to challenge artists, Mingwei at least seems comfortable with that challenge. “I love it here, this is the best place I’ve worked,” said the artist who calls both Paris and New York City home. “Most galleries are dark spaces, but this is just so beautiful.” Sitting briefly with Mingwei, who radiates kindness and love, was a moment of catharsis and peace after an afternoon of heavy art that left this reporter feeling transformed and better prepared for his next difficult conversation.
The ICA opens to the public later this month with a block party on Saturday, April 21 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The pieces featured above are only a small sample of the total work by more than thirty artists, hailing from Richmond and all over the globe.
Cover photo of Paul Rucker’s “Storm in the Time of Shelter” taken by Branden Wilson. WOMEN Words image proved by the ICA. All other images Branden Wilson.