Critics’ Picks

View of “Gabi Dao and geetha thurairajah: soothsay,” 2020.

View of “Gabi Dao and geetha thurairajah: soothsay,” 2020.


Gabi Dao and geetha thurairajah

Unit 17
2954 West 4th Avenue
September 10–October 25, 2020

The term soothsayer is derived from late Middle English for a person who speaks truth, but its contemporary use is generally synonymous with a fortune-teller. Given as an exhibition title, in its intransitive-verb form—divorced from a singular, gifted individual—it prompts us to consider measures of divining truths or futures carried out by collective consciousness. “Soothsay” at Unit 17, featuring the work of Gabi Dao and geetha thurairajah, subtly caricatures beliefs that thrive as unofficial discourses.

Plebeian (all works cited, 2020), a painting by thurairajah, features what the artist calls a “cave alien,” which references a branch of pseudoscience that argues the interstellar motifs of ancient cave drawings are proof that extraterrestrials exist—and made contact with humankind long ago. The canvas’s muted jewel tones, along with the regal, even sacred-looking dress of the figure residing within the temple-like architectural space, suggest as much. The work’s title, however, contradicts the lavishness of the scene before us, and casts this being as a prole. 

Dao’s sculpture an alphabet burn scene: debunked bat myths & more/eyelashes unapologetically has an I-shaped base structure treated with red paint and 焼杉板 (or shou sugi ban, a Japanese preservation technique for wood). A set of bat wings, made of aluminum and bioplastic and decorated with nail polish, velvety flocking, spices, and plaster eyes with false lashes, are suspended from the letter’s top serif like meats on display in a butcher shop. The work’s title touches upon the early pandemic belief that the novel coronavirus grew out of wet markets and bat soup. Flesh-toned fruits and vegetables patinated with ashes and micas line the serifs of the I, an arrangement that calls to mind both the Chinese ritual of 拜神 (or bai sun, an altar-based ceremony for honoring one’s ancestors) and Dutch memento mori paintings. Although we’ve gleaned no prophecies from Dao and thurairajah, unofficial truths and speculations seem to satisfy us all the same.