Kapwani Kiwanga’s exhibition, Linear, at Galerie Tanja Wagner explores role of pigment as vector of social control, taking the theories of the American author, Faber Birren, as one of many starting points. Birren’s best known works – relatively speaking – explore the ways in which populations interact with colours. There is a bleak fascination in the way Birren, whose later career is described as that of “an industrial colour consultant”, applied his research into colour; colour for Birren was a means by which institutions could manage human behaviour. Birren actually anticipated by decades some of the more extravagant hopes of the extreme variation of empiricist philosophy known as Behaviourism; but in his relative modesty – again, a highly relativised term when discussing Behaviourist conceptions of human beings – his ideas have proven more durable than those of more high profile Behaviourists like the psycholoigist, B.F. Skinner. Birren’s idea of using spaces to promote particular behaviours via manipulations of space and colour is still pervasive, as anyone who has worked in a call centre will readily attest, but as Kiwanga’s exhibition makes clear, his approach was only one expression of a much longer lineage of thinking about how pigment, institutions, and minds interact.
The works themselves are quite easily described. The majority of the exhibition consists of six panels painted in two-tone blocks. The colour schemes and proportions are intended to reproduce those used on the walls of specific institutions. These arrangements of colour were believed to be conducive to some desired behaviour. For example, the yellow – green divisions of the painting of the walls of Dr. Sherman’s Operating Room (St. Luke’s Hospital, San Francisco, California) – from which the painting takes its name – are intended to promote healing by evoking the natural world. The paintings of rooms at RR Donnelley & Sons’ printing company aim at increasing worker performance and productivity. Kiwanga’s works are painted on drywall and there’s a neat concision in literally reproducing both the colour scheme of walls and the material from which walls are made as an artwork, but there is also a bloody – mindedness about hanging these walls on walls and using a black line drawn on the surface of the gallery’s wall as an axial point along which to hang the works, the line denoting the division between the various lengths of the blocks of colour of given works.
The exhibition also features an audio piece which deeply enriches the experience of the paintings. The work consists of a female voice reading descriptions of the logic of the colour choices for the institutions featured in the show. The title of the audio work, “500 feet”, references the minimum distance thought to be safe – for colonists – to build structures between indigenous populations and colonists in a settlement in Guyana. The prison of this settlement, St. Laurent du Maroni, is one of the sites Kiwanga uses in the exhibition. The audio makes clear that there were thought to be hierarchies both between settlers and natives, but also among and within the ranks of settlers who had committed crimes. While the prison might be the most obvious place where such power dynamics are instantiated, Kiwanga’s audio makes clear this kind of deliberativeness is inscribed in each of the designs. Institutions like the prison, or the Weyburn Mental Hospital of Saskatchewan, or even the Donnelley family’s printing company are, of course, reifications of ideology, but Kiwanga’s exhibition makes visible – and audible – the depths to which that ideology penetrates. In these spaces, not only is the ideological writing on the wall, the walls themselves are writing – and ideology. Kiwanga’s works make that writing significantly more legible.
Galerie Tanja Wagner
Until 19 July
Images courtesy the artist and Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.