Rituals of Desire
Words ANDREW RUSSETH
Photography EMMAN MONTALVAN
Robert A. Caro, the revered biographer of President Lyndon Johnson, has said that, early in his career, he received crucial guidance from an editor about how to do investigative journalism. “Turn every page,” he was told. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”
A similar commitment seems to drive Gala Porras-Kim. While her incisive art takes disparate forms—meticulous drawings, letters, a work made with mold—it is intent on exposing, with a gimlet eye, what museums hold and the rules (written and unwritten) that shape how they operate. She dives into provenance records, internal memos about acquisition deals, and talks with staffers, on the hunt for material whose status is thorny, contested, and complicated. “The longer you can browse, the more subtle connections you can make with the subject,” she once said, describing her methods in an interview with the J. Paul Getty Trust’s CEO, James Cuno. She emerges from her document dives with revelations that can be exhilarating to read (a secret revealed!) and discomfiting to consider (what should be done?). She then goes about prodding the status quo, proposing interventions in response to her findings.
Objects that were removed from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá in Mexico more than a century ago—vases, figurines, tools, and a great deal more—have been one fruitful subject for the 38-year-old artist. Deposited in that deep hole by Maya peoples as offerings to Chaac, a rain god, they were taken by an American diplomat in the early 1900s. Thousands of them now reside at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. While a fellow at the school’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Porras-Kim examined correspondence about the acquisition, which would be illegal under present-day Mexican law, and created colored pencil and graphite drawings of the items.
Some of these drawings are mysterious near-abstractions, depicting bits of fabric that had been well-preserved while they were wet, in the cenote, but that began to disintegrate when they were dredged up and dried out. Pouring over old reports, Porras-Kim learned that conservators had injected the textile fragments with glue in a not entirely successful attempt to stabilize them. They kept breaking apart. That got her thinking. “This is exactly what museums really do,” she said in a video interview from her Los Angeles studio. As she sees it, “they try to maintain the shape of a historical object in the memory of something that’s not even there anymore.”
<Read the full essay from Issue Six>