TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 2022

THE ETHICS OF DUST

Gala Porras-Kim, 303 offerings for the rain at the Peabody Museum, 2021, color pencil and Flashe paint on paper, 72 × 72".

ON NOVEMBER 20, 2021, the artist Gala Porras-Kim wrote a letter to Jane Pickering, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: “I am interested in objects suspended from their original function or purpose by being stored and displayed in institutions solely as historical objects,” she began. This could easily describe any number of the millions of objects held by the museum, but Porras-Kim’s focus was on the Peabody’s collection of thousands of artifacts found in a major sinkhole: the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The Maya peoples understood the site as a portal to the spiritual world and deposited jade, ceramic, gold, shell, wood, copal, and textile objects, along with human remains, into the cenote as offerings to Chaac, the Mayan rain god. The vast majority of the Peabody’s collection was dredged from the cenote between 1904 and 1911 by Edward H. Thompson, an American diplomat and self-styled archaeologist who gained access by purchasing surrounding property and then employed various forms of subterfuge to smuggle the artifacts into the United States. In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, a lawsuit during the 1930s and early ’40s to repatriate the collection of cenote objects ultimately proved unsuccessful. For Porras-Kim, however, “human laws” are but one framework for assessing the value of these centuries-old items. As the artist notes, “Their owner, the rain, is still around.”

Sacred Cenote, Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico, ca. early 1900s. Photo: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Born in Bogotá and now based in Los Angeles, Porras-Kim has used her work to explore the tensions that emerge when sacred objects are subjected to the classification and preservation conventions of modern secular institutions. Her focus could hardly be timelier, given the increased pressure on museums around the world to repatriate material acquired through means ranging from colonial looting to illicit excavation. Porras-Kim, for her part, has shown a remarkable ability to work her way into the fold, persuading museums to engage with her weighty interrogation of topics such as preservation, context, legal versus spiritual ownership, materiality, and the very act of collecting itself.

Porras-Kim titled her Peabody letter Mediating with the Rain, 2021–, and it forms the centerpiece for a series of drawings and installations she created to address dislocation: from the watery depths of the cenote to the dryness of climate-controlled storerooms. A responsible conservation strategy generally entails keeping a collection free from moisture, but some of the Peabody objects had stayed intact in the cenote precisely because they were submerged. Once excavated and exposed to the air, the wooden artifacts and textile fragments required treatment with binding agents to retain their form. The result, as Porras-Kim points out, is that these objects’ essential material identity has been altered such that they have become “just dust particles being held together through conservation methods.”

In response, Porras-Kim made Precipitation for an Arid Landscape, 2021, which presents the viewer with an austere block of amber-colored copal—an aromatic tree resin burned as incense that makes frequent appearances among the objects dredged from the cenote. By mixing it with dust collected from the Peabody and instructing each exhibiting institution to devise a strategy for dripping rainwater onto its horizontal surface, the artist provides a link between Chaac and the spiritual offerings taken from Chichén Itzá. Another important component of the project is a series of drawings based on the museum’s catalogue records; they are the same size as the original artifacts and presented as if displayed on shallow shelves. For a recent exhibition at Amant in Brooklyn, these colorful, large-scale drawings brought together arrays of artifacts made from a range of materials, while a version of the project currently on view at Harvard Radcliffe Institute features more monochrome portrayals of textile fragments. At both venues, displays of facsimile documents from the Peabody archives provided viewers with the opportunity to delve into primary-source evidence of the collection’s complex and troubling history.

Dog figure, Colima, Mexico, ca. 200 BCE–500 CE, burnished ceramic with slip, 9 × 7 × 13 1⁄2". From the Proctor Stafford Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

THIS WAS NOT PORRAS-KIM’S first consideration of knotty ownership claims. Nor is it her only work centering on correspondence with an institution. The opening salvo of what has now extended to six such gestures, her 2017 Naming Rights, is a printed-out letter replete with Microsoft Word annotations that Joan Kee, writing in Artforum in 2019, compared to those on a marked-up legal brief. Addressed to the curatorial department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the letter inquires about the institution’s substantial holdings of West Mexican ceramics, known as the Proctor Stafford Collection. As Porras-Kim notes, the Proctor Stafford objects arrived in the US ahead of both the 1970 unesco convention protecting cultural property and a 1972 Mexican law proclaiming state ownership of all pre-Columbian artifacts and therefore likely had been looted. The artist proposes that lacma be forthright about this history and update the provenance to include information such as “unnamed grave looters in west Mexico collection” and “deceased people of west Mexico collection.”

Gala Porras-Kim, 2,576 offerings for the rain at the Peabody Museum (detail), 2021, color pencil and Flashe paint on paper, 72 × 72".

Varied forms of resistance to repatriation demands, both recent and long-standing, indicate the challenges associated with relying on Western legal traditions, particularly country-by-country ownership protocols. In the United States, for instance, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) provides a framework for the return of religious objects and human remains—but only for material taken from federally registered tribes and held in US collections. Objects currently in international collections or associated with Indigenous groups that do not receive federal recognition are not subject to such claims. International borders are also an obstacle to the push for what is known as “environmental personhood,” a kind of protection extended to rivers, trees, and other natural objects that reflects both Indigenous priorities and broader ecological goals. With New Zealand’s recognition of the Te Awa Tupua River as a Maori ancestor, it has joined Bangladesh, Bolivia, and Ecuador in passing laws granting rivers the right to flow and remain free of pollution—but these legal protections tend to fail when the bodies of water cross national boundaries.

Resistance to repatriation demands, both recent and long-standing, indicates the challenges associated with relying on Western legal traditions.

Porras-Kim, too, has considered recourse to the legal system. In 2021, the artist contemplated filing a lawsuit against the Peabody on behalf of Chaac, seeking to have the rain god recognized as legal owner of the museum’s cenote objects. She eventually abandoned this relatively adversarial action and is currently pursuing a process of mediation focused on designating these artifacts as “loans,” with their owner of record being the rain.

Gala Porras-Kim, Sights beyond the grave (detail), 2022, graphite and color pencil on paper, document, 59 × 109 1⁄4".

Such a shift in status might seem purely symbolic, given that the Peabody would retain physical possession of the collection, but the stakes could not be more concrete: Harvard lawyers are currently mounting a vigorous defense against a lawsuit brought by Tamara Lanier, a descendant of enslaved individuals who were photographed in 1850 in support of Harvard professor Louis Agassiz’s pseudoscientific campaign to prop up his racist theory of polygenesis. Lanier’s lawsuit demanding that the Peabody turn over daguerreotypes of her ancestors attempts to establish a new precedent, given that there is no equivalent to NAGPRA for material connected to enslaved individuals, and even NAGPRA does not address photographic images. Her appeal draws a direct line between the horror of treating humans as property and the unique plates that were in physical proximity to Renty and Delia Taylor in 1850, their silver-coated surfaces registering the light reflected from the individuals before the camera. Harvard may well succeed in its defense of traditional property rights, yet recent moves to return African cultural objects looted under colonialism indicate how quickly attitudes can change, even in the absence of laws explicitly mandating restitution.

View of “Gala Porras-Kim: Precipitation for an Arid Landscape,” 2021–22, Amant, New York. From left: Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, 2019; Two plain stellas in the looter pit at the top of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, 2019. Photo: Shark Senesac.

WITHOUT DIMINISHING the significance of repatriation, one must acknowledge that moving an object from one museum collection to another does not constitute a full restoration of its original context and function. Porras-Kim has been thinking about the British Museum’s holdings through this lens. Assuming her playful yet serious role as self-appointed advocate for spiritual entities caught in a form of conservatorship from which there is no apparent escape, the artist speculates about what objects themselves want. If Egyptian statues are the reincarnation of specific individuals, she asks, then could it be that “their life in the institution might compromise their plan for their afterlife?” At the Gasworks gallery in London, she proposed several amendments to the British Museum’s display of Egyptian artifacts in light of these questions. She offered a drawing of the Egyptian desert landscape that could envelop a vitrine enclosing a statue of the Old Kingdom nobleman Nenkhefta, providing him with a familiar scene to enjoy. She also presented a reproduction of a granite sarcophagus from Giza belonging to the museum, placing it on a floor drawing of a compass dial to highlight the Egyptian practice of interring the dead on their sides, the body facing the rising sun in the east with the head pointing north.

The artist speculates about what objects themselves want.

Gala Porras-Kim, Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan (detail), 2019, polyurethane, acrylic, document, 11 × 8 1/2".

It is hardly uncommon for authorities to prioritize the appearance of artifacts and monuments over their spiritual function—particularly when tourism is at stake. Consider the pyramids at Teotihuacán in Mexico. Porras-Kim’s Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements of the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, 2019, features a letter to Juan Manuel Garibay Barrera, the national coordinator of museums and exhibitions at Mexico City’s National Institute of Archaeology and History. The artist first thanks Garibay Barrera for restoring the site’s exterior for visitors’ visual consumption. She then inquires as to whether the same care was given to the pyramid’s hidden, or nonpublic, areas: “I would ask you to consider reconstructing and/or replacing these elements that have been extracted . . . seeing as the audience of these internal sites . . . might not have been an earthly one.” By way of suggestion, Porras-Kim offered up polyurethane replicas of a pair of monolithic greenstone objects that had been excavated and removed from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, proposing that her ersatz versions, which have the appearance of post-Minimalist obelisks, be interred in place of the originals. “This could be a first step to acknowledging the potential disruption of the ritual caused by the extraction of the stones,” she writes. With this paradoxical, even absurd, proposal, Porras-Kim emphasizes the artificiality of all forms of restoration. Although a return to an earlier, undisturbed state is impossible, she suggests, consideration of a site’s many functions should be part of any preservation effort.

Fragments of the 11,500-year-old “Luzia” human-skeleton remains after a fire at the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, October 19, 2018. Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images.

Porras-Kim has also taken on the role of spokesperson for human remains, particularly ones that do not have clear advocates. Her contribution to the Thirteenth Gwangju Biennale in 2021, A terminal escape from the place that binds us, 2020, focused on two-thousand-year-old human bones from Shinchang-dong, Gwangju, held by the Gwangju National Museum in South Korea. In a February 16, 2021, letter to Soomi Lee, the museum’s director, Porras-Kim described the tension between the benefits of careful preservation and the possibility that such remains were intended “to completely decompose as would be their natural course.” To contact the spirits of the dead and request instructions regarding their final resting place, Porras-Kim initially contemplated seeking the assistance of a shaman. Eventually, she turned to her version of encromancy, a form of divination that entails suspending ink in water (as one might do to marbleize paper)—although Porras-Kim says she has been unable to decipher the resultant swirls. Another intervention was even more pointed and potentially unwelcome given the circumstances. Leaving the institution through cremation is easier than as a result of deaccession policy began with a letter to Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum of Brazil, dated July 31, 2021. While acknowledging the tragedy of the devastating 2018 fire that swept through the institution, Porras-Kim suggests that the partial destruction of one of its prize possessions—the fossilized skull and bones of “Luzia,” the oldest human remains discovered in the Americas—may in fact have opened up an alternate, and perhaps more ethical, category for this historical object. She proposes treating what was salvaged from the ruins not as an object to be reconstructed and studied but as the cremated body of a person.

Gala Porras-Kim, A terminal escape from the place that binds us (detail), 2021, ink on paper, mahogany frame, document. Installation view, Gwangju National Museum. From the 13th Gwangju Biennale. Photo: Sang Tae Kim.

The artist’s engagement with institutions, if provocative, is not necessarily adversarial.

Only a few of the projects centering around letters have elicited a direct response from the recipient. Yet the artist’s engagement with institutions, if provocative, is not necessarily adversarial. Museums are hardly undivided, and many museum workers are equally fascinated by the contradictions that Porras-Kim lays bare. Just as the Harvard Art Museum purchased an edition of Carrie Mae Weems’s quartet of images based on the Peabody daguerreotypes, lacma has acquired Porras-Kim drawings of Proctor Stafford Collection objects. The Peabody was even willing to loan one of the original cenote fabric fragments for the Porras-Kim show in the Radcliffe gallery focused on the textile drawings.

View of “Open House: Gala Porras-Kim,” 2019–20, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. From left: Fluorescent light bulb for Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Robert, Joe and Michael), 1975–82; Wolfgang Laib, Pollen from Dandelions, 1978; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Last Light), 1993; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Last Light), 1993. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Porras-Kim’s exploration of the connections between artifacts and their original purpose has intriguing parallels to the questions about authenticity, context, and material raised by modern and contemporary art. What happens to a dance first imagined for a downtown church basement when it is reperformed amid the spacious halls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art? What happens when a site-specific sculpture is removed from its original environment? Or when conservators have to decide between allowing an object to show natural signs of aging and adopting heroic measures to try to arrest the effects of time? For a 2019 foray into curating via the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Open House” series, Porras-Kim selected works that emphasized such ambiguities, including a Franz West piece made of silver leaf designed to tarnish, and therefore continuously change whenever exposed to air; a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy pile at the mercy of the manufacture of the Baci chocolates he specified; and a spare fluorescent lightbulb, one of many stockpiled by the museum as replacements for those in works by Dan Flavin but presented in a fixture the artist did not select, so that it was not actually a “work” at all despite having been installed on a gallery wall. Porras-Kim’s point is subtle yet profound: Even supposedly secular institutions, such as museums of contemporary art, participate in conventions and archival procedures that can have a remarkable impact on an object’s definition and perceived significance. “They’re just bulbs,” Porras-Kim says, “until they become a Dan Flavin, and then they go back to sleep as a bulb again.”

Martha Buskirk is a professor of art history and criticism at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, and the author of Is It Ours? Art, Copyright, and Public Interest (University of California Press, 2021).