The new solo exhibition at Gasworks by Los Angeles-based artist Gala Porras-Kim explores the nature, status and treatment of artefacts removed from their original sites and placed in museums. “Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing” features sculpture, drawing and sound work created in response to items found in the British Museum and other collections. The focus is on funerary art which includes ceremonial objects and human remains and raises ethical questions about conservation and whether the essence of the artefact has been preserved or respected by the new custodians.
Whether or not artefacts should be returned to their country of origin is, of course, a very live debate – most famously about the Elgin Marbles. The artist does not advocate wholesale return of museum collections, but she does both highlight problems and offer solutions which would be more respectful of the artefact’s original purpose.
For example in the main gallery is an impressive replica of a 4,500 year old granite sarcophagus excavated from an Egyptian pyramid. In its original setting this would have been placed so that the dead person would face east in accordance with the beliefs at the time. Porras-Kim has asked the British Museum to adjust its position to meet this ancient need.
Another large canvas uses ink marbling to “open a conversation with the spirits inhabiting a collection of human bones stored at the Gwangju National Museum” in Korea. Every picture does indeed tell a story.
One of the more fascinating exhibits is genuinely a work in progress. A large canvas has been covered with a material which is growing mould from dust taken from the British Museum’s storage rooms. It began as a blank canvas, but over the life of the exhibition will develop into a living art form which casts an unusual light on the realities of museum storage.
There is also a life size drawing of a stone slab with hieroglyphs celebrating the bond between two brothers. Accompanying this beautifully rendered work is a soundtrack which converts the story into a song created by Egyptologist Heidi Kopp-Junk using replicas of musical instruments of the time.
This exhibition uses artworks to open up a conversation about the ethics of museum conservation. This is not a large show, but its merit and interest lie in the detail. And the power of the works is inextricably linked to the context which gave birth to them. But it’s more than a history lesson. In seeking to address the concerns of the original owners or creators of the various artefacts, the artist is adding a spiritual layer to the works. How far you travel on this journey is up to you, but this is an interesting show which deserves and repays some thoughtful attention.
“Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing” runs until 27 March in Gasworks, 155 Vauxhall Street, SE11 5RH
Entry is free. Opening times Wednesday – Sunday 12 – 6pm or by appointment.
For further information call 0207 587 5202 or visit www.gasworks.org.uk