Curated by Antwaun Sargent
What is our relationship to our social history? How have we submitted to the psychological and psychosocial limitations that it has imposed on us throughout the greater part of the 20th century? At “Social Works," Antwaun Sargent’s curatorial and directorial debut at Gagosian Gallery, these very questions are taken to task—explored through execution, by showcasing some of the misgivings and failures of its semiotics. The performance and staging of it refocuses our relationship to it as witnesses in a socially constructed space. The show features artists such as David Adjaye, Linda Goode Bryant, Theaster Gates, and Carrie Mae Weems.
“Social Works” doesn’t try to grapple with the failures of institutions, galleries, and history—as an archive. The exhibition doesn’t flatten time. We’re introduced to a collective staging of practice-oriented artists whose intent is to reshape our understanding of how one moves through the world. We’re met with David Adjaye—who focuses on the art of architecture—with Asaase (2021), which consists of rammed earth from New York City, that calls to mind the canonization and likeness of a Richard Serra, or a Michael Heizer. This sculpture, whose title translates to “earth goddess,” doesn’t center masculinity as a divine cultural force. A skip and a jump away we encounter a site-specific installation by Linda Goode Bryant—who ran the curatorial project and gallery Just Above Midtown from 1974 through 1986— though recently, the artist has focused on Projects EATS, which prides itself on bringing fresh produce to disenfranchised neighborhoods of New York City. Are we really that different (2021) enshrines a giving garden that prioritizes horticulture in an installation collaboration designed by Liz Diller of the architecture firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.
The most compelling aspect of “Social Works'' is that we’re not encouraged to think through the past with an attempt to understand the present and combat structural racism with the stroke of a pen to rewrite history. We’re positioned to engage with works that have been the origin for varying artist movements, such as Theaster Gates’ BURN BABY BURN (2016), and A Song for Frankie (2017-21) [pictured]; The latter of which showcases the record collection of five thousand records from the musical pioneer Frankie Knuckles, who is credited with creating house music. Though the more recent occasions that we’ve celebrated “firsts,” (the first Black president, the first Black editor, etc.) serve as distractions, here, instead, we position ourselves at an origin point that doesn’t center our individual successes—but move us towards collective kinship.
The series of artworks that drive the thesis of the show—Roaming (2006) and Museums (2006–), are two photographic series by the astute portrait and performance artist, Carrie Mae Weems—truly embody the century old tale, “you had to be there to see it”. Often is the case of art in white-walled environments: you have to experience work in the physical space, and spend time with it to feel its presence. In this instance, people have described the work as a feeling, where time and time again, sharing what now feels like the myth of carrying the weight of an institution and its politics with you, is put on display in a room of its own. In Weems’ photographs, we encounter various settings where we see the artist’s back to camera (the capturing device); over the course of time, while these photographs have been shown, the body of work itself has been assumed to be a critique of the strictures of the institutions with Weems posed with “quiet dignity” (so says the press release). Maybe this is what Black Twitter means when it says they want more Black critics to review things so we can collectively imagine and assign new beginnings, middles, and ends to the same old tired readings— that didn’t move us any closer to a site of production that forces us to constantly look at in the rearview mirror—a reminder of the unfulfilled promises of the past.
Though the images of Weems in an ankle-length, black, long-sleeve gown, has the same visual integrity as Bruce Nauman’s staging of Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-8), Weems’ performance isn’t a complete sentence, rather an executed gesture. It reads more like an idea that provokes the work with more questions that follow: Why did the artist choose the displayed institutions, monuments, and/or museums? What is her relationship to them? Has she been inside them? If so, what did she see and what did she learn? How did they make her feel? As purveyors of art and witnesses to culture, in this case, we have been positioned to see Weems’s back while she faces these monuments; It’s best not to assume the subject-object orientation, immediately assessing the purported interiority of Weems herself. Maybe it’s merely a façade that she wanted to engage with and move on from. In varying capacities, we bear witness to practitioners who have engaged in community building—while not always being called on, or having a white cube gallery to permanently inhabit—but are still building thought. —Emmanuel Olunkwa
Theaster Gates, A Song for Frankie, 2017-2021. 5,000 records, DJ booth, and record player, Variable Dimensions. © Theaster Gates. Photo: Robert McKeever. Courtesy Gaosian