Gala Porras-Kim’s ‘Ancient Technologies’ Wants to See What Happens

Gala Porras-Kim at work during her current residency at Headlands Center for the Arts.  (Marina Weiner)

If everything goes as planned, the rosy piece of alabaster currently propped up on wooden pegs at the Headlands Center for the Arts will have a nice big hole in its middle by 2064.

Gala Porras-Kim, the artist who placed it there, will be 80 that year, and she’s looking forward to seeing the hole. She’s creating it herself, positioning a water drip just above the soft rock’s center that releases one small drop about every three minutes, just when the previous drop has dried.

Now age 34, Porras-Kim is experimenting for the long term during a Headlands residency that she’s titled Trials in Ancient Technologies, which culminates in a reception for the public this Sunday, July 15. In addition to the alabaster time clock (officially named Untitled (Water Erosion)), four other pieces have resulted from her tenure in the Headlands’ Project Space, a time she says has been a welcome respite from her rigorous studio practice at home in Los Angeles.

Gala Porras-Kim, 'Untitled Water Erosion,' 2018.
Gala Porras-Kim, 'Untitled (Water Erosion),' 2018. (Courtesy Headlands Center for the Arts)

Born in Colombia in 1984, Porras-Kim has an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and an MA from UCLA. An emerging artist whose career is off with a bullet, her work has been shown at the Whitney, LACMA, and Hammer Museum and she has won a growing list of awards and grants. Interested in the lives of indigenous peoples—those of Mexico in particular—as well as the concepts of canonization, erasure, and appropriation, Porras-Kim’s work is cerebral to the extreme. Her objects, drawings, and relational constructs consider how to carve pathways of understanding towards long-gone peoples that perhaps exceed the ability of mere language to parse.

In the past, she has curated the unidentified potsherds and fabric scraps that institutions regularly store. Recently, she worked with the archives at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in an attempt to trace something of the lives of the anonymous artisans who made the vessels and the citizens who used them. By usurping conservators, she questioned the right of a museum to own such detritus in the first place, the canonization of some objects above others, and the value of loss.

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“Why do we have to know everything?” she says rhetorically. “It’s not like, when we form narratives around historical artifacts, that we can get to some kind of truth. Because no one was there is alive today. No one really knows.”

For her Headlands residency, Porras-Kim has embraced the opportunity to explore ideas that she calls “cousins” of her larger, more complete exhibitions. The residency doesn’t require a completed suite, which frees her up to wander around ideas that have previously intrigued her but don’t necessarily fill a full show. Turns out, what interests her most right now is the beauty of erasure.

Gala Porras-Kim, 'Untitled Efflorescence' (detail), 2018.
Gala Porras-Kim, 'Untitled (Efflorescence)' (detail), 2018. (Courtesy Headlands Center for the Arts)

Made to break, Untitled (Efflorescence) is a large, slim slab of cement cured with extraordinary amounts of salt that “bloom,” she says, to the surface as the work dries. Pouring salt into old cement is a trick modern Mexicans might use to help an older building crumble away so that they can build something new. Like Untitled (Water Erosion), Efflorescence is a living object, what Porras-Kim calls a “very slow motion sculpture.” It gains new salt blotches and endures new cracks as each day elapses. She can start and imagine the process, but she can’t quite control it.

Against the west wall sits a still-untitled drawing that recreates the petroglyphs etched on rocks atop Marin’s Ring Mountain. Porras-Kim is fascinated by the "flattening" effect that the marks of both ancient and modern-day peoples have on the stone, further smoothed by time and wind and water into a marriage of marks.

Considering the petroglyphs to be a document prompts Porras-Kim to inquire after the real. Drawing was once considered the supreme form of documenting the truth, she says. Photography replaced that. Photography could always lie but never as well as it does today. Reality is so wiggly. How to grab it? Might we soon be able to capture a full three-dimension snapshot?

“The amount of information that’s been accumulated and the technology to do that has gone so fast, maybe in 80 or 100 years it will be possible to completely capture a moment in its entirety,” she says.

Gala Porras-Kim at work during her current residency at Headlands Center for the Arts.
Gala Porras-Kim at work during her current residency at Headlands Center for the Arts. (Marina Weiner)

The idea excites Porras-Kim, but what’s always percolating behind her work is the performative imperative that requires activation in order to be complete. The final piece of her residency show is a graphite drawing that harkens an ancient onyx mirror when approached: it reflects a visitor’s presence in ghostly form but shows nothing before then.

Recalling the myth of Archimedes’ shield, able to direct a light so intense it burned Roman ships in harbor, Porras-Kim activates a shiny piece of metal from the local Home Depot each afternoon around 4pm when a reliable ray of sunshine comes in through a western window. When the light dies around 6pm, so too does the sculpture subside for the day.

“These are science experiments in a sense,” Porras-Kim says, looking around the Project Space. “I just want to know what happens.”

A free public reception for ‘Trials in Ancient Technologies’ is slated for Sunday, July 15, from 4pm–6pm. Dinner follows at 6:30pm. Details here.

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