The definition of what constitutes a “body” is one of the most vexed notions in philosophy. In a universe in which objects and forces interact on levels that are, essentially, inconceivable to present scientific understanding, where do the boundaries between bodies and forces begin and end? Particles are bounded objects that interact by contact, except when they are not. Forces are external relations that act on the objects that move through them, except when they don’t—for example, in the strange phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, manifested by two particles acting in synchrony despite being separated by vast stretches of space. One need not possess a cyclotron to experience such incongruities. The exhibition Wandering/WILDING at London’s IMT Gallery focuses on a much more earthly manifestation of interaction of bodies and forces: the way black bodies are acted upon by the political and social forces in which they find themselves inscribed. In a year in which the grim bodycount of people of colour killed by police has continued to mount in the US (the most recently recorded being Waltki Williams in South Carolina), the collision of material bodies of colour and psychological and political fields of force that oppress, define and scrutinise them remains one of the signal moral emergencies of the 21st Century. The artists brought together by the writer and curator, Legacy Russell, for Wandering/WILDING present works that speak of the weight of lived experience–another immaterial process that slowly accretes into materiality– and of a humanity that is frequently adjudicated and policed by cultural normatives that could not be more alien to the cultures they seek to circumscribe. The exhibition is at times painful, but also exhilarating. This interplay between sorrow and ecstasy constitutes one of the most powerful aspects of the exhibition. The philosopher and activist, Cornell West, has spoken of a unique subjectivity as arising out of the Black experience in America. Such a subjectivity finds forms of transcendence and meaning amid a culture of foreboding in the face of an omnipresent potential for structural lethality. Several of the works in Wandering/WILDING seemed to speak directly to this phenomenon.
Hannah Black’s “My Bodies” is a video work with many layers. The piece begins with the voices of an array of pop singers singing the words “my body”. The rough juxtaposition of so many different samples touches on the palimpsestic character of early hip-hop—a practice nearly legislated out of existence in the early 2000s by an aggressive copyright culture determined to perform a reverse sublimation process: turning intellectual property into strictly economic property. Striking, too, are the numerous melodic crenelations the singers derive from the two simple words—words which turn out to be anything but simple. “My body” goes through endless emotional registers, terse, sexy, operatic, casual. “My Bodies”’s soundtrack is purely nonphysical, but the emotional heft of the work is deeply felt. The question of sovereignty over the narratives permitted to a person living in a black body contained in a white supremacist cultural surround is an undercurrent that also emerges from the cacophony of voices; these voices sing about “their” bodies in songs often produced for record companies with distinct melanin deficiencies among their senior executives. There are infinite morphologies of the ways in which white power exploits black labour, and Black’s “My Bodies” meticulously teases them open. On the screen, close-up images of the faces of aging white men appear. We see hairlines, teeth, hands, terrifying living-skull grins, moustaches, fingers, laugh-lines, pores. Whiteness visible, in the words of the author, Valerie Babb. The images fade to scenes of otherworldly landscapes, underground caverns, almost reptilian dirtscapes and a ruptured narrative appears as text over these territories. Every surface tells a story, but only a privileged selection are permitted attention in contemporary power configurations.
Wandering/WILDING also includes works by Devin Kenny, Evan Ifekoya, Fannie Sosa, Tabita Rezaire, and E. Jane, as well as a performance by Niv Acosta in which the artist enlisted the crowd at IMT to take part in “CLAPBACK”, a work that, itself, has many dimensions and potential forms: video, installation, and, of course, performance, to name just the most obvious. As a series of statements flashed on the gallery walls, the audience was asked to answer truthfully and to move into one of two rooms: the gallery’s front room was the “yes” room, and the back room was the “no” room. Participating in the performance was, in part, fun, but much more serious levels of engagement were also inscribed in it. To be asked to answer honestly if one has shaved one’s head is fairly likely to elicit an honest response without hesitation; to ask if one has “imitated a culture that is not your own” is less likely to, not least given the difficulty of understanding where and how one culture, and the performance of that culture, may be manifested. The work ended with an intense performance by Acosta in which the artist twerked more than 1000 times, a single twerk for each Black person killed by police as revealed by Acosta’s research. The performance occupied a complex position, with the viewer both rooting for and agonising with Acosta as the numbers grew, but, one must hope, also understanding that there could be no true understanding; no amount of agonising in a gallery could make the subject matter of Acosta’s twerking via dolorosa comprehensible. A single black body in space through an act of will transferring aspects of a cognitive and material state of affairs to others who are connected by vision and cognition, if not by direct physical contact: one may describe it, but, it seems, in Acosta’s United States, and the rest of the world, engulfed as it is in bleakly racialised discourses of oppression, understanding of such a basic and fundamental human act is as incomprehensible as the finer points of quantum mechanics. The world owes the artists included in Wandering/WILDING (the exhibition itself taking its name from a racialised term from the 1980s connected to deranged tabloid panic) more than mere attention; it owes them more than it can ever account. One must hope works like those featured in this exhibition represent the beginning of an urgent moral awakening.
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Images courtesy of IMT Projects and the curator.