Victoria Shen’s ‘Ligatures’ took place at Cloaca Projects Sept. 18–Oct. 23, 2021. (Courtesy Cloaca Projects; photo by Joseph Mauro)
Kerri Conlon’s installation Ambulatory is the parting shot for exhibitions at Cloaca Projects, the experimental gallery in San Francisco that has offered smart, provocative programming throughout its four-year history. That exhibition history comes from the interest of founders marcella faustini and Charlie Leese, who share a ravenous curiosity, studied disregard of prevailing trends, and highly attuned appreciation for the historical trajectories from which the selected artists emerge.
If you crave truly forward-looking visual, sound and performance art, this has been the place to experience it. Conlon’s project is unexpectedly a fitting conclusion for the gallery, as the site-specific installation bears the hallmark obsessiveness of so many of its predecessors.
Cloaca Projects is currently housed in a roughly 10-by-27-foot shed at the rear of Hunt Projects, a manufacturing and studio space in the Bayview neighborhood. It is named for the orifice from which excrement is released. In rare cases, humans can have cloaca; but they’re mostly found in other mammals, birds, reptiles and even fish. One finds it at the rear, hidden under fur or feathers—or in the vicinity of butts generally. The analogy between digestive functionality and art production may not be obvious, but in both, raw materials are transformed as they make their way through an introspective, private journey. And regardless of what you start with, the outcome invariably includes a pile of waste.
Byproducts indirectly inform the current work on view. Conlon has suspended an acid green, bell-shaped canopy within an intricate armature hung from the ceiling. Two bright lights crisscross the gauzy handmade devoré fabric of the canopy and illuminate the leaf pattern burned into it. The fabric attaches to slender metal ribs closely resembling those that hold an umbrella aloft. It is not a coincidence. Conlon dissected countless umbrellas in the effort to construct a flexible armature that could support the form of the sculpture. She found instead the need to re-engineer the mechanism, down to the joints that flex to form the curves, while salvaging what she could from her source material. The result is a delicately balanced object, in which the patterned shadows of the façade feel more substantial than the scaffolding.
The arched form and its metal ribs suggest this sculpture could expand or compress as an umbrella does, making it a portable enclosure. “Ambulatory” refers to the act of walking, and in medieval or gothic architecture, describes the aisled spaces on either side of a nave intended for processionals. The work therefore becomes a study in structure and consciousness, of sensory responses ignited or memories evoked.
Conlon’s inspiration is the dappled green glow she encountered when walking under a forest canopy, and while one basks in a similarly suffusive light in the gallery, the unconcealed armature removes any pretense of a glade. It reminds us that all landscapes are constructed, and that to build in a place is to impose one meaning upon it while erasing another.
The history of a community
Exhibition spaces are similarly palimpsests, places that are reused again and again while bearing traces of their earlier iterations. To return to a gallery is to re-infuse it with previous encounters; this is how the history of a community takes shape. Given its small scale, it is remarkable how well Cloaca Projects has held its history and shaped its community. Each of the 18 projects it featured shares a multidisciplinary approach. Each crafted singular, unbounded worlds that operated in defiance of ideological or functional strictures.
Founders faustini and Leese set out to showcase work that was of interest to them and that they were not seeing locally. They initially imagined an exchange between artists in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Over time, they expanded their geographic purview and with each iteration, have elaborated a treatise on what it means to be a technologically augmented human in the 21st century. The projects have ranged from video installations to performance to kinetic sound sculptures. Collectively, the exhibitions have focused on embodiment: the limits and finitude of the human body, fragmented bodies, the sensory extension of the body through sound, queer bodies, even the body beyond death.
One memorable project was Christie Blizard’s 2019 performance Le Nouveau Monde, in which the artist—wearing an Elle Fanning mask underneath an illuminated, polychromatic astronaut costume that recalled Seymour the Sea Monster, but more sublime and trippier—gyrated, genuflected and levitated to channel her near-death experience and the worlds she gained entry to as a result.
Blizard was just one of the many artists presented at Cloaca who worked at the intersection of various communities, blurring the boundaries of tribes and affiliations. Perhaps the most representative example of this was Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Young Joon Kwak, who constructs mutable space where bodies untethered from prescriptive identities might reside. In 2019, an opening night performance by Xina Xurner (Kwak’s electronic-dance noise band), Beast Nest and Star Amerasu accompanied Shining Palimpsest, an installation dominated by the pink glow of a sinuous, chandelier-like sculpture.
The space and the curators’ vision equally lent themselves to more austere projects. In CHIMNEY CANE CANDY HOLE (2019), Craig Drennen conflated Santa Claus, who surreptitiously enters one’s home under the cover of night, with the Bandit, a character from Shakespeare’s least-regarded play, Timon of Athens. The narrative was woven through abstracted brick-framed voids, protruding candy-cane striped rods and a blurred video of St. Nick reciting his signature catch phrase incessantly. “Ho ho” has never been less jolly.
With artists such as Drennen and San Francisco-based artist Matt Borruso, visitors could most readily apprehend how the shed itself was a crucial element in conveying the artists’ intentions. Borruso’s 2018 installation, Hands and Feet and Their Supports, exacerbated the confines of the space and made the isolation of his forms palpable before even entering it. A pair of cast concrete feet sat atop a sparse metal pedestal; other body parts were suspended on narrow ledges attached to slender poles that ran from ceiling to floor. Some parts were human; others belonged to primates. The most intimately familiar shapes became alien in their fragmentation and interchangeability. Structures designed for display and reinforcement articulated voids instead.
The gallery’s scale was also the crux of what made Cloaca so enticing a place to experience sound-based work, which expands both the limits and perceptions of the body. Most recently, this past fall, Cloaca featured self-built electronics and kinetic sculptures by Victoria Shen, a local music performer and instrument-maker investigating the textural and spatial qualities of sound. She creates appendage-like instruments, such as Needle Nails, which are acrylic nails embedded with turntable styluses. Her installation at Cloaca featured the highly sensitive analog synthesizers she designed to respond to minute changes in their environment, producing a tonal chaos that circumvents the traditional meanings we imbue in aural experiences.
Shen’s amorphous rendering of the space around us differs radically from Conlon’s elaborate architecture that we bend ourselves around. Yet both possess and convey a hyperawareness of the appendages and structures that shape bodily awareness within a chosen environment. We would be adrift without such scaffolding even as we seek to defy or transcend it.
Not a eulogy
When Conlon’s exhibition closes on April 24, it will not signal an end to Cloaca Projects, just its gallery programming. True to the work that it has championed, Cloaca is refashioning its own nature. Under faustini’s continued direction, it will foreground web-based collaborations in the future. This is not a eulogy, then, and there is no need for a lament.
Instead, it is an exhortation for the weirdness and potential that exists in unexpected places; a call to pay attention to the passages that yield our messiest, unshapely ruminations; and a reminder to not shy away from the extremes of sensory perception. It is at these intersections that we see evidence of everything we’ve done and start picking out the seeds for how we begin again.
‘Ambulatory’ is on view by appointment at Cloaca Projects (1460 Davidson Ave., San Francisco) through April 24. Details here.
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