An image of a ladder generates a crucial awareness of one’s position in space. In the literal sense, it brings attention to where one’s body is in relation to other objects and in a more metaphorical sense it can refer to one’s position within a societal structure —climbing the corporate ladder, at the bottom of the ladder. Its implication of hierarchy and a pecking order cannot be denied.
Forming part of Goodman Gallery’s online programme ‘La courte échelle’ (translated directly as the short ladder) is curated by artists Yto Barrada, Mateo Lopez and Carlos Garaicoa. Each curator selected three artists: M’Barek Bouhchichi, Johanna Castillo, Meriem Bennani, Santiago Reyes Villaveces, Mazenett Quiroga, Juliana Góngora, Yaima Carrazana, José Manuel Mesias and Dania González, the result of which is fourteen works brought together under the concept of the ladder. The exhibition draws on the French idiom meaning ‘to give someone a leg up’ while also engaging the ladder’s potential to implicate the body within space.
It brings together artists who share a concern for the negotiation between here and elsewhere, now and the regular rhythms between these different states. The artists have resolutely individualistic practices with a diverse choice of engagement, ranging from sculpture, painting, installation, weaving, video and performance.
Carrazana’s How can you become a Dutch national? are abstract paintings, two-dimensional rectangles of differing proportions, containing no more than three colours at a time. They appropriate the Dutch government-corporate identity as an inquiry into the complexities of migration. Carrazana uses official designs of the Dutch Ministry of Justice as a starting point from which to reflect on her own process of integration into Dutch society. Unlike the artist’s pristine and immaculate paintings, processes of migration, integration and unification are fraught, lumpy and tarnished with histories of oppression and violence. The simple properties of points, lines and surface function as more reliable sources to illuminate the cold feeling of unbelonging.
Concerning itself with various structures, both in terms of construction and form (tall and rigid sculptures, fibre and stick installations, bird’s-eye view into an interior space) ‘La courte échelle’ presents as very architectural. Perhaps this is as a result of the influence of the curator’s practices: both Lopez’ and Garaicoa’s backgrounds waver between architecture and drawing. Bouhchichi’s two-metre tall diptych, Etude pour un monument, made from burnt wood resembles a staircase held at a perpendicular angle. While Villaveces standing structure Andaluz, draws attention to gravity through reciprocity where two elements, a wooden ornament and a metal bar, depend on and support each other.
Architecture is evoked in a different manner in Castillo’s woven artworks Mi sala (my living room) and Mi espacio, tu espacio (my space, your space), illustrate the interior topography of a house-not-home. Castillo explains:
Mi sala is a reflection of a moment when I was living in a house, I never called home, filled with surveillance cameras inside and outside. Being out of a space I could paint in my own colors, switch objects when I felt it, dance really loud salsa with la escoba while cleaning, cut avocados in my own way, and not being so neutral in dinner conversations made me self-conscious of existing as a not-so-free being in a space.
What seems like shapes and colours at first glance reveals a window, some lighting fixtures, a couch and a tiled floor – Castillo is communicating the banality of everyday life through flat planes of colour.
An undertone that reverberates across the works is the idea of conditional freedom – freedom that is subject to clauses and conjunctions, a partial freedom. Its low and steady thrum can be felt through Carrazana’s reflections of integration into a new society as well as in Castillo’s inquiry into the notions of safe spaces. This lingering sense of conditional freedom can also be felt in González’s performance Flight, which takes place in two parts (Permanence and Escape). In the first part, the artist is covered with feathers made from silver threads. This lustrous armour later suppresses, strains and immobilizes. It is a heavy burden pleading to be removed and its removal leaves behind an empty shell, a remnant articulating presence through absence. The desire for complete freedom remains unmet. Castillo elaborates
Where am I allowed to exist, to play, to heal, to unlearn, to decolonize, to deconstruct imposed imaginaries…
The deathly logics of art as pure form are defied with Mesias’ presentation of siamese mules. Mesias’ work, Céspedes’s soliloquies is an ode to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Hailed as the father of the Cuban nation, he is said to have spent his last days (following his removal from the presidency) alone in the mountains of eastern Cuba. A mule, a chess set and straps function as an emblem for agony and loneliness. These strange totems expose a singing sadness.
In the work of Góngora, chemistry, physics and mathematics merge with biology and mythology. The installation, Techo de leche y tierra is the result of the artist’s investigation into the process of turning liquid milk into a solid yarn. The yarn is suspended and appears to be carrying the weight of ninety-three sticks. This rather scientific experiment is inspired by the tale of La leche de la muerte (The milk of death) by novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar, about a buried woman whose breasts continue to produce milk to feed her son— a bonded love; bonded in blood, milk and baptism.
‘La courte échelle’ is a challenging show to engage with digitally. What makes it successful is each work’s ability to fully engross the viewer within its own narrative. The work is incredibly generous and offers layer upon layer of mythology around which various processes and methodologies are arranged. Materiality and technology work together in surprising ways to engage the senses. What potentially works against it, if anything, is that because of its conceptual rigour it is easy for certain narratives within the show to become buried and forgotten. I imagine that works by Meriem Bennani and Mazenett Quiroga could converse separately around nature, technology, visibility and narrative, outside of this show.