Art Seen: National

To Watch and Be Watched

THE RACIAL IMAGINARY INSTITUTE: ON WHITENESS // THE KITCHEN

By Paige Landesberg

In 2016, poet and author Claudia Rankine received $625,000 as a stipend from her MacArthur Genius Grant and decided to put the funds toward founding The Racial Imaginary Institute, an organization that gives artists and writers a platform to address issues of race. This summer, the Institute has found its new home at The Kitchen in New York, through a series of programs surrounding the exhibition On Whiteness, incorporating a day long symposium, a library of books, residencies, and performances. Within her own work as a part of the Institute, Rankine states “…it is important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.”1 In this sense, Rankine suggests that whiteness’ hyper-visibility is what allows it to become invisible; a racial default that society has built itself around—the consequence of which is white people having the luxury of achieved racial ‘neutrality.’

While blackness and otherness has been the object of attention in conversations surrounding race, it is equally important that we raise questions and consciousness around whiteness and its pervasive monopoly over cultural narratives. The exhibition presents a collection of artworks that utilize the formal qualities of proximity, orientation, sensation, and visibility to foster a reflexive relationship between the viewer and the work.

The exhibition opens into a small room with a lowered ceiling and a blindingly bright light shining directly into viewers’ eyes—a club-like light fixture spinning overhead. Experiencing this installation by Baseera Khan, [Feat. ] with lowered ceiling (2018) is like being in a parody dreamscape of a nightclub. The harsh spotlight strikes like a deer in the headlights, while the lowered ceiling makes one feel so disproportionately large that proceeding to the main room of the exhibition is disorienting.

Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), 2006–2013. Lightjet print on aluminum. 40 x 80 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus, Los Angeles.

Continuing into the space, viewers are confronted with the bust of a white woman missing an eye. As a white woman, facing this bust at eye level, the image feels in some way like a mirror held up: me, like her, half-seeing (my vision still recovering from the glare of light). Looking out to either side of the woman’s bust at the surrounding works—scanning many large-scale vertical sculptures, video installations, and photographs—the physical scale and dimensionality of each of the selected works invite a confrontation as one body facing another.

Ken Gonzales-Day’s Untitled III (Antico [Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi], Bust of a Young Man and Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) (2010), is a photograph of two busts staring intently at one another. Antico’s Bust of a Young Man (approx. 1455–1528) depicts a Roman looking curly-haired male, where Hardwood’s Bust of a Man (1726/27–1783) is one of the first European depictions of an African man in sculpture. Both appear to be cut from the same slick black material, more like ebony than like marble; yet, one is stone and one is bronze. Both sculptures are owned by The J. Paul Getty Museum. The faces, facing one another forever in time, serve as a record of the art world’s relationship with whiteness and the ubiquity of European assimilation of global culture. Both sculptures have a regal air, and if anything, the African man appears distinct only for the fact that this image is less engrained throughout Westernized history. As for the Roman figure, his whiteness appears indistinct, as it assumes what has been defined as the default status throughout historical narratives both in the art world and at large.

The physicality of the exhibition continues to unfold as viewers move through the space— the range of work includes video installations of varied sizes, sensory sculptures incorporating taste and smell, and paintings that force viewers to bend sideways. Each piece asks the viewer to do some work; to become an active participant bringing a personal epistemology.

Exhibition view of On Whiteness, at The Kitchen, New York, June 27–August 3, 2018. © Jason Mandella.

Gonzales-Day’s other photographic work, The Wonder Gaze (St James Park) (2006–2013) depicts a large image of a lynching. It is eerily familiar; yet, the victim is not in the photograph. Instead we are confronted with the audience: well-dressed white people; several of whose faces are blown out and bright white with no discernable details, and a massive tree in the center—the rest of the photo is lost to the viewer in darkness. In looking at the photograph, one becomes a spectator watching the spectators. This regressive quality marks an essential shift in subjectivity, where instead the white gaze becomes the object, and a new reflexivity of whiteness is born. The gaze itself— the very thing that produces otherness—is turned back onto that of the gazer; I watch it as it watches me. This narrative reorients the viewer within the gallery space in a way that cautions the act of viewing itself. In this manner, the exhibition questions its own format as an inherently passive form of participation.

Sandeep Mukherjee’s monumental Tree Skin (2018) consists of two hand-molded aluminum pieces coated in acrylic, hanging from the ceiling and reaching to the floor. The pieces are reminiscent of Eva Hesse’s Contingent (1969), in which the artist dipped fabric in latex and suspended them with fiberglass, evoking the image of hanging skin, in the context of the artist’s early terminal illness as well as having lost her family in the Holocaust. Mukherjee writes of Tree Skin, “My attempt is to imagine the physical encounter of my body with the tree by physically forming, pressing, and molding dimensional encounter captured on a human sized aluminum sheet…”2 Although Mukherjee’s pieces refer to oak tree trunks, when considering the process he describes, along with the allusion to Hesse’s work, these pieces, too, evoke death—filling in the blank for the missing body in the lynching scene pictured in Gonzales-Day’s The Wonder Gaze (St James Park). Both works imply the body through the form of a tree as a corporeal stand-in. The tree is, as the Mukherjee intended, both a gesture of the body and an irreverent weight of nature.

The story of whiteness is dynamic; the role of video works included in the exhibition help to combat the perpetuation of any sort of binary by exposing narratives that unfold over time. Mores Mcwreath’s Spots (2016–2018) presents tiny screens that are encountered by sticking one’s head into a flesh-like thermoplastic tunnel surrounding the screen. The scale and tube-like sculpture surrounding this screen sets up an introspective space for viewers to watch a white man parody various modes of whiteness—such as progressive liberals, and Trump-supporting white people. On another screen, we see the same man giving constant affirmation “yeah… yep… uh huh,” and in a third screen we see an endless loop of the front doors of pastel colored suburban homes. Getting so close to a screen that emulates an iPhone screen to stare at what could be interpreted as generic whiteness, I am left with a humorous self-awareness of the ubiquity of each of these images. I immediately relate to and simultaneously feel complete emptiness toward the content.

(Screen) Native Art Department International, There is No Then and Now, Only Is and Is Not, 2018. Single channel video with sound; 5:17 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and The Kitchen, New York; (Sculpture) Mel Chin, Aileen, 2015. Concrete, Hi-Standard .22 revolver. Courtesy of the artist and The Kitchen, New York. © Jason Mandella.

Other pieces utilize sensory stimulation as codes that emit auras of whiteness in the everyday, such as Anicka Yi’s Immigrant Caucus (2017), which employs a sticky fragrance through steel insecticide sprayers, and Seung-Min Lee’s Intolerable Whiteness (2016), which invites visitors to drink a cup of milk poured through a filtered water cooler. Toyin Ojiih Odutola’s white charcoal pieces, entitled They and Weight (each 2015), appear as blank sheets of paper from a distance—it is only upon approaching them very closely and bending one’s body down that the images emerge: black women with heavily textured skin, glossy and beautiful. The works express the literal invisibility of black women within art historical narratives, while simultaneously drawing attention to the presence of white as a supposed blankness or neutrality.

In reaching the end of exhibition, I am once again confronted the white woman’s bust—yet, approaching the work from behind, I realize a gun is imbedded in the back of the figure’s head. The butt of the gun composes her iris. The bust, Mel Chin’s Aileen (2015) is a portrait of a serial murderer, Aileen Wuornos, with the same .22 revolver she used on her victims impaled in her own head. While on its own this piece may not appear to address race, in the context of this exhibition, the race and gender of this serial killer becomes an apparent contradiction to a current media climate that associates black men with violence while it lacks acknowledgement toward whiteness’ role as a perpetrator of violence. The work is a charged reality check, forcing me to consider the implications of my own body as I exit the space.

The multifaceted issues covered within the exhibition are nuanced and cannot be addressed through any individual manifestation. The history is old and antiquated, but also ongoing, fluid, and worthy of reimagining.


The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness ran at The Kitchen from June 27–August 3, 2018.

1 Thrasher, Steven W. “Claudia Rankine: Why I’m Spending $625,000 to Study Whiteness.” The Guardian. October 19, 2016. Accessed August 06, 2018.
2 The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness, Exhibition Guide, 2018.

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