Jumana Manna, Bhanu Kapil, Khairani Barokka and Rodrigo Hernández at SALTS, Basel

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. THE GOURD AND THE FISH, Rodrigo Hernández, 2018
Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy: SALTS & the artist

 

Jumana Manna, curated by Samuel Leuenberger, Bhanu Kapil and Khairani Barokka, curated by Harry Burke for The Printed Room, and Rodrigo Hernández’s THE GOURD & THE FISH curated by Samuel Leuenberger and Elise Lammer, are currently on show at SALTS Basel.

An exhibition space dedicated to the display of printed and literary materials, The Printed Room at SALTS, Basel, stages two simultaneous solo presentations, Formidable Sparkles by Bhanu Kapil, and Selected Annahs by Khairani Barokka. While conceptualized separately, the projects spatially overlap, and represent parallel interpretations of the same theme: the interwoven, and intimately political, relationship between poetry and performance.

Formidable Sparkles gathers materials produced by the writer and poet Bhanu Kapil during the composition of Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015), a book described by its author as “notes for a novel never written.” A poetic work, in its expansive yet fractionable form and concerns, Ban en Banlieue nonetheless outbounds the work, or the scope, of poetry. As Maureen N. McLane has written in the Los Angeles Review of Books, with reflection on the limits of this term, the book metamorphoses into, for lack of a better word, a project—or a projective, even: “poetry as a projecting forth, something thrown forward into a given, multiple, and transformable world.” The project’s inciveness emerges in the productive happenstance of literature’s failure. Writes Kapil: “The project fails at every instant and you can make a book out of that and I do.”

The novel at the centre of Ban en Banlieue takes place on April 23, 1979, the day of an anti-racism demonstration, and ensuing race riot, in the west London suburb (banlieue) of Southall. Its protagonist, Ban, is “a brown [black] girl . . . walking home from school.” Upon hearing the sound of breaking glass, she responds by lying on the ground for twelve hours. The book is structured through an assemblage, a shattering, of notes, fragments, blog entries, vignettes, and deletions—paratextual strategies that have been described by Allison Conner in jacket2 as a “syntax of resistance” due to their fractious relation to teleological narrative. Excavating the deeply contested boundaries of violence, identity, place, race (Brownness, and its significantly complex relation to Blackness), and subjectivity, the work complicates, and finally refuses, interpellation by the colonial, racist state, be this performed governmentally or internalized by the writing subject herself.

“I want a literature”, states Kapil, in a trenchant, self-reflexive switch, “that is not made of literature.” Kapil has described her writing as comprised of “annotations on performances.” A chorus of rituals and performative acts made up the initial authoring processes of the book, and of Ban as a fictive (and, ultimately, lived) character. Many of these took place in Kapil’s garden in Colorado. They were rites of composition and decomposition, held in dialogue with a small plot of domestic land, and documented, through irregular, provisional means, on The Vortex of Formidable Sparkles, Kapil’s “always-never: blog” before being further digested (petrified) in book form. Though existing outside of a conventional writerly framework, these displaced materials are fundamental to Kapil’s perpetually reconstitutive, transformational, practice of writing.

Though not conceived as visible or audible elements, banners, a trousseau, photographs, notes, and imagistic, writerly fragments will be displayed at SALTS alongside videos of poetry readings given during this period. Presented as performance documentation—a continuance of writing—in their unresolved state the materials transmit a vivid liveness. Also shown will be parts of an unpublished novel written on yellow and pink paper, an extension of Ban en Banlieue. While Kapil’s chapbook entre-Ban (Vallum, 2017) emerged, as a horizontal evolution, from these “next notes,” the novel remains a simulation: unfinished.

Assembled through processes of paratext, interpretation, allusion, notation, and devotion, and without the artist present, the installation, too, will be unfinished. Khairani Barokka’s Selected Annahs draws from research into Paul Gauguin’s 1893-4 painting Annah the Javanese, conducted by the artist as part of a forthcoming speculative nonfiction book project titled Annahs, Infinite. Painted between trips to Tahiti, Gauguin’s portrait is of a young girl whose age was thought to be “around thirteen”, who was assumed to be his lover as well as model, but whose lineage, origins, and life circumstances—including the tale that she robbed Gauguin’s apartment of everything but his art in 1894—are recorded in supposedly reliable art historical documents with clashing details.

Selected Annahs makes revisionist readings of the painting, with a forceful critique of the colonialism, misogyny and pedophilia that is entrenched in Gauguin’s work. Taking advantage of the incongruent records surrounding Annah’s life, Barokka will stage a performance during the exhibition’s opening, in which supernatural and science fictional Annahs attempt to reckon with, or erase, the traumatic images of herself. The performance will offer a poetic captioning for a series of photocollages produced by the artist. Audio documentation from this performance will play in the space through the duration of the exhibition, in an installation that also features annotations placed directly on the gallery walls.

The Printed Room at SALTS, Basel, is dedicated to the display of literary and printed materials. Initiated by Quinn Latimer in 2013, since 2015 it has hosted a sequence of exhibitions curated by Harry Burke, featuring artists such as Hanne Lippard, Ho King Man, Martine Syms, Penny Goring, Arleen Schloss, Lady Pink, Lorraine O’Grady, Hamishi Farah, Holly White, Jesse Stecklow, and Bea Schlingehoff, among others. This year’s presentations comprise the final installments in this series.

Khairani Barokka is a writer, poet and artist in London. Among her honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow, a recipient of six residencies, and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader for arts practice and research. Okka has presented work extensively, in twelve countries, including the Baltic Triennial Prelude, on BBC Radio 2, and as Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s only Indonesian representative in 2014 with her one-woman show. She is the author of Rope (Nine Arches, 2017), author-illustrator of Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis, 2016), and co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/ deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches, 2017) and HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi, 2016). Published and anthologised widely, she is a PhD-by-Practice Researcher in Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures Department.

Bhanu Kapil is the author of five books, most recently Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015) and the re-issue of Incubation: a space for monsters (Kelsey Street Press, 2017). Born in the U.K. to Indian parents, she now lives and works in Colorado, in the U.S. Her current long-term projects include a re-writing [emptying out] of “Ban”—of which a succession of mutations and deletions were included in the chapbook entre-Ban (Vallum, 2017). She is writing a novel on yellow paper, a re-telling of the childhood classic, The Secret Garden.

The title of Rodrigo Hernandez’ first solo exhibition in Switzerland is inspired by Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, a Zen ink painting from the 15th century located in the Taizo-in Temple in Kyoto. In the center of the composition, a man standing on a bank holds a gourd in both hands, attempting to capture or pin down a catfish swimming in the stream below. An impossible task, such nonsensical act is underscored by the awkwardness with which the figure struggles even to hold his gourd. The image also serves the purpose of a Zen koan, an exemplary story or dialogue seemingly illogical used as a tool for meditation, often grappling with existential questions.

Putting the riddle into practice, the space was divided symmetrically into two parallel rooms, each fitted with a new entrance placed at equal distance from the middle wall. With no further indication, the visitor can access the exhibition from either side. Each space proposes a similar yet distinct situation: built like a multi-layered tableau, a translucent humanoid figure hung near the entrance faces a colourful papier-maché relief painting placed on the back wall. All walls are striped with horizontal continuous lines that create an optically vibrant environment meant to link all works together, very much in the way some East Asian paintings such as a “Boneless Manner” or Mokkotsubȳo manage to evoke an ambiguous space by depicting an atmosphere without any clear outlines. When combined, red and blue stripes create a visual effect known as chromostereopsis, a visual illusion crafting the impression of depth, but which can also be highly unsettling, triggering a sense of vibration for the viewer, as it was common in Op-Art. By echoing Dave Hickey’s introduction to Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s (2007) one can introduce Hernandez’ interest in creating installations that can be both understood autonomously, or by engaging with the artist’s process of cumulative associations.

“…Op art does its own work for whoever will look. It dispenses with the repertoire of knowledge and experience that is presumed to be required to appreciate abstract art. It replaces the elite, intellectual pleasure of “getting it” with the egalitarian fun-house pleasure of disorientation; of trying to understand something that you cannot… As we stand before op-paintings that resist our understanding, we introduce ourselves to our unconscious selves. We become aware of the vast intellectual and perceptual resources that await our command just beyond the threshold of our knowing. These, of course, can only be inferred on the rare occasions when they fail to serve our purposes. Optical art provides those occasions.”

Yet, another layer comes to the mix: the abstract painted reliefs are partly inspired by some of Emilio Pucci’s flamboyant designs. The Italian fashion designer’s action-packed biography seems to tangentially add up to the constellation of references. Upon close inspection, the contour of a fish in rapid movement might emerge out of the abstract shapes or one could infer a microscopic non-realistic rendering of water, establishing a dialogue with the fish-hunting figure in the middle of the space. Though still debated, it has been agreed among many specialists and dilettantes alike, that Catching a Catfish with a Gourd is about the impossibility of grasping the mind (the catfish) with the mind (the gourd), and by extension about the absence of an independent and substantial self. Acting both as the means and end of Rodrigo Hernandez’ process, this paradigm is exemplary of the artist’s work. Working as a total environment, The Gourd & the Fish simultaneously invites the viewer to contemplate an open-ended question, but also avoids hinting at any clear answer. Rather, it collages extraneous elements, calling for a new interpretative set-up, defined by both external and internal, natured and nurtured aptitudes.

The title of Jumana Manna’s first solo exhibition in Switzerland, Adrenarchy is a take on “Adrenarche”, an early sexual maturation stage in some higher primates, which similarly takes place in humans before the age of 12. During this phase, the body, its smell and oiliness dramatically change, following an increase in cortisol levels, resulting in what is commonly known as puberty. A fabricated combination of -adrenalin and -anarchy Manna’s title aims at transposing this uncomfortable moment of transformation and awe into an installation which combines anthropomorphic elements, whose shape and formal qualities incarnate ambiguity.

Manna is a sculptor and filmmaker, whose main interests address how various forms of power are articulated through relationships, often focusing on the body in relation to narratives of nationalism, and histories of place. Manna’s work uses often a poetic and fragmented visual language in order to address biographical experiences. Individuals play the central roles in narratives where the body becomes a political tool addressing more global concerns, as exemplified in her recent feature film Wild Relatives (2018), which follows a batch of seeds that were sent from Aleppo, Syria, to the Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic island of Svalbard, and recently back to Lebanon to be planted. Following the path of this transaction, a series of encounters unfold a matrix of lives between these two distant spots of the earth. The film captures both the violence and melancholy of both climate and war induced disasters on earth, alongside practices of care that manifest resilience it.

For this exhibition, the artist has created a new body of work comprising sculptures laying over a sauna-inspired construction. Evoking strength and eroticism, these structures seem like archeological fossils sweating out some tension. Armpit (2018) and Armpit Shell (2018) continue the Muscle-Vase series, which she began in 2014; a body of androgynous and dismembered hollow vessels that are juxtaposed with found furniture or simple structures. On the right side of the wall, Torso II (2017), a white skin-shell sculpture resembling the shape of a torso is leaning against the wall. Accompanying the sculptures, one finds piles of towels that introduce softness to the hard bodies, as well a a tablet and smart phone playing short-looped animations, Balls and Flutter (both 2014). These comical and grotesque videos add an additional layer to the over-sized bodies and their surfaces, into the digital, haptic realm. They linger in the space like left-behind objects, adding to the general uncanniness. Jumana Manna’s sculptural work simultaneously appears to be strong in their materiality, while also bearing a fragile and deconstructed presence. This ambivalence is also palpable in the contrast between the delicate and candid way she captures the sheer beauty of every day human moments and landscapes in her films, and the tension brought by her use of humour and criticism in other installations. Manna’s artworks are conceived as surrogate vessels, through which a psychological journey takes place.

Additionally, in the adjacent room, SALTS presents Manna’s Blessed, Blessed Oblivion, her first film from 2010, inspired by Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), which weaves together a portrait of male thug culture in East Jerusalem, manifested in barbershops, auto-shops and body building.

SALTS supports young Swiss and international artists to develop unique and outstanding site-specific projects. Since 2009, the exhibitions have often materialised on site, in varied forms of media, always with the goal to push beyond the artists’ daily practice, while challenging the audience’s formal and conceptual expectations. Each new project grows out of a unique commissioning process, born from an open-ended conversation, with the ultimate goal to become a landmark in an artist’s career.

Off the usual gallery set-up and dynamics, SALTS is a non-for-profit Kunstverein that aims at developing proposals addressing the specificity of its location. An old family butcher shop, two converted garage boxes, a courtyard and a garden adjacent to the river Birs in the outskirts of Basel, are the elements each artist is offered to respond to formally and conceptually.

SALTS promotes an interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue and encourages involvement with other non-for-profits spaces, while fostering a dialogue with educational institutions on a national and international level. Today, SALTS is run by Samuel Leuenberger. Its exhibition program is curated by Samuel Leuenberger and Elise Lammer, and it hosts regular contributions by guest curators.

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. ADRENARCHY, Jumana Manna, 2018
Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the artist

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. Formidable Sparkles, Bhanu Kapil and Selected Annahs, Khairani Barokka
Installation shots Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the Artists

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. ADRENARCHY, Jumana Manna, 2018
Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the artist

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. Formidable Sparkles, Bhanu Kapil and Selected Annahs, Khairani Barokka
Installation shots Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the Artists

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. THE GOURD AND THE FISH, Rodrigo Hernández, 2018
Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the artist

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. ADRENARCHY, Jumana Manna, 2018
Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the artist

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. Formidable Sparkles, Bhanu Kapil
Installation shots Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the Artist

 

Installation Views at SALTS, Birsfelden. Formidable Sparkles, Bhanu Kapil
Installation shots Gunnar Meier Photography. Courtesy SALTS & the Artists

 

JUMANA MANNA
Curated by Samuel Leuenberger
BHANU KAPIL, KHAIRANI BAROKKA
Curated by Harry Burke for The Printed Room
Rodrigo Hernández
THE GOURD & THE FISH
Curated by Samuel Leuenberger & Elise Lammer
15 June — 25 August 2018

SALTS | Hauptstrasse 12, CH–4127 Birsfelden, Basel
Opening hours: Fri, 2–6pm & Sat, 1–5pm and by appointment
+41 61 311 73 75
info@salts.ch
www.salts.ch