Thrival Geographies: "In My Mind I See a Line" in Chicago (Amanda Williams and Andres Hernandez in collaboration with Shani Crowe)
Thrival Geographies: "In My Mind I See a Line" has traveled to the atrium of the Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, IL from the Venice Architecture Biennale where it interrupted the courtyard space and the neoclassical symmetry of the US Pavilion with its curvilinear steel asymmetry. In its second life as part of the current "Dimensions of Citizenship" exhibition, the structure is nestled; kitty-cornered between a smooth concrete staircase with its glass and steel railing, and a wall of unadorned windows. The dozen or so rectilinear window cut-outs stare back at us blankly; or, more optimistically, they function as frames, filled with distant sky. The bricks themselves are in their second iteration, as they were collected from the original 1920’s building repointed and merged with Tadao Ando’s more signature design elements.
The building and the visiting installation have very different temperaments: one cold and sleek, and the other handmade, dynamic and textured. The installation’s central form is demijohn-like, but with a more abbreviated neck than a bottle. Its basket-like quality emerges through the use of thousands of shades of black and occasionally yellow paracord strands of varied thicknesses and lengths. Noticing the differing densities of cord and the spaces between them reveals that this object is hallow and enterable. Paracords are commonly found in survival kits or worn in bracelet form; here, they are braided, draped, gathered, looped, pulled taught, wrapped around, and woven through the steel boning of the pod’s structure. Gathered up into ponytail-like repeats along the main structure, I discover large cumbersome braids. There are zig-zagged actions, cascades, moments of unruly tangles, and areas of strategic repetition. The frayed ends of the cut cords urge a transformation from cord to hair. I find this association at its strongest along the upper rungs of the leaning ladder. Long braids emerge from the ladder’s ends and travel across space, over our heads to far away points. Now, hair becomes rope and brick wall becomes tower, summoning Rapunzel, Rūdāba, Saint Barbara, Danaë, Saulė… The cord reasserts itself as hair when I reach out to touch and lift the strands. I am also reminded of quipu (khipu), the talking knots of Andean South America and wonder what facts or stories are braided into these strands?
All of this handiwork is intersected by cold, black, steel railings that become ladder-like as they narrow and swoop skyward from their grounded asymmetrical legs. The more I translate the cord as hair, the relationship between steel and cord becomes almost as unexpected as a fur lined cup. Although the object and the space it resides in may lead you toward folk or fairy tale, the intentions and touchstones of this group of artists are far from fantasy. Their aims are instead grounded in the factual; the somber realities of both the historical and the present status quo for black women in America. To focus on the formal qualities, albeit exciting to try to decipher, will lead you astray, neglecting the many layers of complexities and questions that the work wants us to consider. Thrival Geographies’ “thereness” is palpable but the “who”, “what”, and “why” demands the wall text 1:
Black female bodies are particularly (mis)read as being out of line, making them vulnerable to harassment, violence, and death. Within this context, the ability of black women to navigate and shape often hostile spaces amounts to de facto survival strategies…Although rooted in the historical practices of African-Americans, this work explores imaginative spatial strategies that support the most precarious of populations and move all citizens toward thrival and full participation in the democratic ideal 2.
With the wall text in my mind, I follow the yellow braid that leads to the entrance of the structure. I lift and part the strands of paracord and step inside the belly of the structure. Inside the vessel, I am greeted by strands of yellow plastic beads, reminding me of elementary school hairstyles and the soft clinking sounds that come with the wearing of them. There is a circular skylight that gives an unobstructed view upward. Parting the second curtain’s strands reveals a seat made of cord. To sit, you must mimic the gesture of a trusting cat, turning your back on the atrium and the people in it. Without a view behind me, I am vulnerable, and I sit hovering over the ground.
Now alone, my gaze and my imagination travels upward following the ladder up, rung by rung, and higher to cathedral heights. There is a liberating quality to the structure that is only felt when participating with it. I imagine that there will be many selfies taken in this position, but I think if you can resist the urge, your experience will be more fully and particularly internalized. This space that I am sitting in was designed and built by many hands defusing its ownership. In thinking of and reacting to the concept of citizenship, the artists remind us that surviving is not synonymous with thriving. The artwork asks us to consider tender gestures as action and offers a poetic space to contemplate and care.
Thrival Geographies is subtle, and its profoundness could be easily overlooked. I find the making and sharing of this structure’s space radically generous. The artwork reminds us that space, imagined or physical, is necessary for self-preservation, and it is a privilege. It is with tenderness that the artists invite us to consider thoughtfully and engage with their collective imagination.
1 John Berger, "The Shape of Pocket" (New York, USA, 2001).
2 Wrightwood 659, "Dimensions of Citizenship" wall text (Chicago, USA, 2019).
Thrival Geographies: In My Mind I See a Line (Amanda Williams and Andres Hernandez in collaboration with Shani Crowe) in part of the current exhibition, Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago IL.
Venue: Wrightwood 659
Event: Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos.
Date: Feb 28 - Apr 27, 2019
Tickets: Reserve your tickets online for free.
Address: 659 W. Wrightwood Ave. Chicago, IL 60614