New York

View of “Gala Porras-Kim,” 2021–22. Photo: Shark Senesac.

View of “Gala Porras-Kim,” 2021–22. Photo: Shark Senesac.

Gala Porras-Kim

At the historic site of Teotihuacán, twenty-five miles northeast of Mexico City, two greenstone monoliths were dislodged from the caliginous interior of the Pyramid of the Sun as if they were bad teeth. Unearthed during an excavation that occurred between 2008 and 2011, the smooth colossi ended up being featured in a presentation of new archaeological findings from the ancient Mesoamerican city. When artist Gala Porras-Kim encountered the show in its 2018 iteration at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bogotá-born Angeleno questioned the decision to displace the hidden megaliths, whose numinous function, while unascertained, appears to have been significant and site-specific. In a letter to Juan Manuel Garibay Barrera, the exhibitions coordinator at Mexico City’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, who co-organized the LA show, Porras-Kim proffered facsimile replacements. “This could be a first step to acknowledging the potential disruption of the ritual caused by the extraction of the stones,” the artist advised, “and . . . somewhat cover your bases with the forces greater than us who might care.”

Barrera must have demurred. In Porras-Kim’s solo offering here, some 2,500 miles away from the Pyramid of the Sun, her polyurethane-and-acrylic duplicates—a cool-gray column and its truncated counterpart, in brown—stood like sentinels by the typed missive that the artist originally sent to Barrera, all of which constitute Proposal for the Reconstituting of Ritual Elements for the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacán, 2019. Nearby, a rectangular length of brass had been erected at a specific angle so that the sunlight entering the gallery was redirected onto an adjacent wall, creating a bright scintillating field. With elegant concision, this work, titled All Earth Energy Sources Are Known to Come from the Sun, 2019, conjured up the abiding solar élan vital that was once venerated at the pyramid—a spiritual presence not consulted on excavation plans.

By creating work at the weird nexus of speculative realism and institutional critique, Porras-Kim probes the museological, epistemological, and legal frameworks in which cultural objects and heritage sites are couched. The artist, detecting asymmetrical power structures in these codifications, advocates on behalf of overlooked or subaltern parties, including deceased and nonhuman ones. Porras-Kim made Leaving the Institution Through Cremation Is Easier Than as a Result of a Deaccession Policy, 2021, at a moment when many museums are reckoning with their collected human remains, which have often been unscrupulously plucked from battlefields, indigenous cemeteries, and archaeological sites. Alongside a napkin smudged with an ash handprint, a letter from the artist discourages the National Museum of Brazil’s director, Alexander Kellner, from reconstituting Luzia, a prized Paleolithic human skeleton in the collection. A 2018 fire at the museum, the source of the ash on the tissue, partially destroyed Luzia; Porras-Kim suggests that this serendipitous cremation shed new light on the institution’s seemingly “lifeless” inventory, turning it into a real individual who deserves to be properly memorialized.

The ambrosial scent of smoldering copal, a tree resin used for spiritual fumigation in Mesoamerica, announced the exhibition’s titular pièce de résistance, Precipitation for an Arid Landscape, 2021. Seven immense drawings depict white storage shelves with neat clusters of precious artifacts—including copal balls, golden bells, ceramic vessels, and jade beads—found in the sacred Mayan cenote at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, which was first dredged in 1904 by American archaeologist and diplomat Edward H. Thompson. Having evaded Mexico’s national patrimony law, Thompson was indirectly funded by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, which owns the bulk of these objects today—and, under current international law, is not obligated to repatriate them. Writing to the museum’s director, Porras-Kim suggested that the items be restituted to Chaac, the Mayan rain god to whom they were sacrificed when initially submerged. (Bitterly ironic as it may seem, they’ve been kept bone-dry in climate-controlled storage.) Facilitating a reunion of the transubstantiated variety, the artist mediator presented an amber-colored slab of cracked copal—the Aztecs called it the blood of trees—equivalent in volume to the artifacts taken. The copal, which is infused with dust accumulated in storage, was periodically struck by water droplets that fell from the ceiling of the gallery, uniting Chaac with his belongings, at least in spirit. As it highlighted the frequent aridity of the institutional imagination, this work beautifully enlivened ours.