American exceptionalism has two sides -- a belief not only in the moral infallibility of our country’s founding principles, but that our problems, as a result, are uniquely ours. In KADIST’s current group exhibition If These Stones Could Sing, the ongoing conversation around historical monuments gets some global perspective, thanks to works by six artists based in six different countries.
Central to the exhibition’s organizing principle is a comparison between monuments and bodies. Despite their many differences -- monuments are solid, unyielding and seen either upright or toppled, while bodies are fragile, pliable and full of incessant motion -- curator Marie Martraire argues that both are capable of memorializing. Perhaps, the show posits, monuments could be more like human bodies.
This idea reminds me of a story told about a U.S. task force convened in the early 1980s, which explored how to keep future humans away from nuclear waste repositories. The trick was to devise a method that could last over 10,000 years. Among suggestions for signs in many languages and the breeding of color-changing cats, linguist Thomas Sebeok proposed the creation of an “atomic priesthood” -- an order of people who would pass down information through generations, fashioning rituals and myths to warn future humans away from radioactive sites. Human bodies don't last as long as stone monuments, but without humans there to interpret, stones cease to be meaningful.
Throughout If These Stones Could Sing, artists document once-triumphant monuments in their contemporary reduced states. Shitamichi Motoyuki’s three photographs show torii (Shinto gates) erected in places occupied by Japan during World War II. One stands almost completely concealed in a jungle, another unvisited on a grassy hillside, the third toppled and turned into seating. Through human inattention, the torii have become unmonumental. Once representing gateways between the sacred and mundane, they are now simply mundane.
Emilija Škarnulytė’s 2013 video Aldona follows the artist’s grandmother through daily rituals, including a walk in Lithuania's Grūtas Park. This privately owned outdoor sculpture park contains 86 Soviet-era statues gathered from all over the country. Neither museum nor destruction, the park offers an alternative destination for markers of a painful past. With the statues no longer occupying places of prominence in city centers, Škarnulytė highlights their accessibility as Aldona interacts with them by running her hands across their surfaces.
A similar activity of scanning takes place in two other videos in the show: Bangkok-based artist Arin Rungjang’s 246247596248914102516 ... And then there were none and Amsterdam-based Milena Bonilla’s Stone Deaf. In the former, a worker uses a 3D scanner to map the surface of the military junta-erected Democracy Monument in Bangkok. And in the latter, snails, ants and other insects crawl across the cracked surface of an engraved stone, a marker of Karl Marx’s former gravesite in Highgate Cemetery, London. (The cemetery moved the family’s remains to a more prominent spot in 1954; two years later it added a 12-foot-high bust of Marx.)
These fragmented, close-up views of the two monuments deny the objects their full power, complicating the notion that history can be summed up by a single statue or a piece of text -- even if that text is etched in stone.
While presenting alternative modes of engaging with history, the exhibition itself departs from traditional presentations. Purposefully, works about monuments -- the things we normally look up to -- hang or sit below eye level. And New Zealand artist Sriwhana Spong’s Beach Study, a film centered on a precarious human body, gets projected on an angled surface where wall meets ceiling. Even within the confines of KADIST's usually right-angled walls, viewers must shift their bodies into unorthodox positions.
It’s the bodily activation of a wall itself that serves as the exhibition’s most dramatic gesture. A piece by the Tel Aviv-based performative research group Public Movement occupies the entirety of KADIST’s front gallery. Performed twice during the opening night, Falling Wall takes four women wearing all-white uniforms through a tightly choreographed routine that treads the line between military formation and reckless danger. The performance will be repeated twice more during the run of the exhibition (March 3 and once again in April), creating a new monthly ritual in honor of toppling walls.
If These Stones Could Sing is another prime example of a small arts organization nimbly responding to its time and location in a way that larger institutions simply cannot. (That is, unless you count the very small but wonderful showcases of protest posters in SFMOMA’s Get with the Action series.)
KADIST’s show reminds us, most importantly, that grappling with the cultural, historical and emotional significance of monuments is not an experience limited to the United States. That there are options that lie somewhere between upright and toppled (the only options usually presented in recent conversations about Confederate statues of the American South). And that people -- especially artists -- may offer the most thoughtful ways to address these monoliths in the current day.
'If These Stones Could Sing' is on view at San Francisco's KADIST through April 21, 2018. For more information, click here.