The bodies of deceased people are frequently exhumed to an afterlife they may not have chosen, and reclaimed as objects by institutions. Where do museum practices intersect with the afterlives and ritual passages of the dead? It has been one year since Gala Porras-Kim traveled to Gwangju for her site visit with the Artistic Directors. Her newly commissioned project addresses the treatment of the remains of bodies in the Gwangju National Museum, not only as objects, but as people whose humanity must be acknowledged. Porras-Kim talks to us about her investigative and spiritual modes of artistic inquiry, and why museums globally should change course.
Defne Ayas / Natasha Ginwala: How much tracing can one do to inquire about the social and political contexts of deceased people in museological environments? What interested you in particular about collections and burial sites in South Korea?
Gala Porras-Kim: We can only know the social and political contexts of the deceased insofar as their traditions have been continued or recorded. We are limited by the historical record, but we could also think about other ways of accessing this information. There are the official routes, through texts and museums, which use specific, institutionalized methodologies, and there are family traditions and individuals preparing for their own passing. These are all ways of tracing the backgrounds of deceased people, which rely on the living, and on physical objects; I’d like to think that since the subject has passed “to the other side,” spiritual methodologies are another way of accessing information. Tracing can be done with the help of a shaman, for example, or through past life regression, or other forms of inquiry.
I have been interested in how institutions in general think about bodies, and of course there are cultural differences in their approaches. I wanted to see what museum staff thought about human remains in their collection, and if they were open to considering what the desires of the person once were. I want to research Korean forms of thinking about the afterlife as there is a strong connection in Korean culture to one’s ancestors. I wanted to see if or how shamanistic practices work to connect with the afterlife, and how such views might also include the ancient bodies that are housed in museum collections.
DA/NG: There are so many issues around ownership, self-possession, and the right to a spiritual existence…
GPK: Yes, it is clearer to compare these issues if you think about your body and the decisions you can make around it, or about arguments over reproductive rights in America, which are based on definitions of life and whose interests take priority. These arguments for self-determination should extend to whatever one becomes after life. We might be separated from our physical container, or not; maybe there is nothing after, but then there is nothing to lose by giving a spiritual existence the chance to be fully realized. This would mean leaving open the possibility for its existence while we are still alive.
DA/NG: What further rights do you think that we, the living, have vis-à-vis the rights of the deceased?
GPK: While we are alive we tend to have much more agency over what happens to our physical bodies. Conversations around reproductive rights and regulations around fetuses are good examples of this. I was rereading Our Bodies, Ourselves (first published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1970) and thinking about the types of conversations and regulations that determine who has rights over our physical body. These questions already extend to recently deceased people, and so I want to think about how ancient dead bodies could also be considered in this way, as they are usually treated more like artifacts than cadavers. In the recent afterlife, protections of the individual are contingent upon definitions of consciousness and our credence towards being faithful to their wishes [as expressed when alive], as interpreted through wills, estates, or close relatives. But when a body is so ancient that we do not know the person’s wishes, how should we approach them? Culture, government, and law all have a role to play in deciding our fates long after we die, as our bodies are no longer ours but become objects of property. I would want to think beyond the rights and laws designed for our physical body to consider the spiritual rights of our consciousness—since we really don’t know where that is housed—as outlined in rites of passage, treatises, and books that address how our internal self might exist in the future.
DA/NG: What rights are at stake in the politics of the dead, or undead?
GPK: At stake are the rights of dead people in the future, which is all of us. Think about King Tut, spending all that energy and resources on a really nice afterlife, which he was enjoying, according to plans made while he was alive, until he was interrupted in order to be on view at his blockbuster exhibition. If in the future we are exhumed and it so happens that an afterlife exists, I would hope for the living to have a good precedent, set while we are here in our current embodied state, for caring for people who have moved beyond this stage. One way to think about this could be to consider the wishes of our future selves.
DA/NG: Tell us more about the repair and reparation that you are seeking.
GPK: I try to think of projects that will prompt the caretakers of objects to consider the nuances of the pieces they are looking after. Many collections contain objects whose initial function never expires, such as ritual objects, offerings to spirits, and objects for the afterlife. Since the afterlife could be “forever,” these types of objects fall into a different group to many others. The agency that the living have over these objects can take priority in the present, but making sure that current priorities don’t conflict with or negate the object’s original function or the desires of the dead is a form of care. In one of my projects, I am litigating on behalf of Chaac, the Mayan rain god, to return ritual offerings placed in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. Through modern laws, these objects were dredged up, and are currently stored at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. Chaac is still around, yet his offerings have been removed from their original place without his permission and without considering the intentions of those who placed them in this sacred site. One option would be to use property laws to request that the objects are returned to the cenote and to their rightful owners; or, a compromise could be to submerge them in water at the institution, as Chaac can exist in many forms. The point is that the layered functions of such objects, from past to present, can be made to coexist.
DA/NG: In thinking about these desires of the dead, you’ve certainly stretched institutional boundaries through your agency as an artist. You must have witnessed fault lines emerging in the administrative practices, conservation policies, and legal obligations of museums.
GPK: The way collections are built, maintained, and framed exposes all kinds of power structures and motivations that often come into conflict with the mission and intentions of institutions. The contexts for the questions I ask and the interventions I make are already there, I simply try to find them. Often, an institution’s outward intention and their ideas of caring for works in their collection will come into conflict with the physical and conceptual framework in which those objects were made and how they functioned. The intention could be to preserve the integrity of the works and try to contextualize them for a public, but if the objects were made to decay, then conserving them would be against their best interest.
Whatever the intentions of the day, the motivations or interests of the present should not interfere with the past lives of an object, as they do not really belong to us. I’ve worked alongside a number of curators to open up a conversation around these questions: recently, in L.A., with the Fowler Museum’s collections, on the limits of documentation and physical space, and the public’s expectations for how far objects should be maintained; and at LACMA, on the institution’s relationship with collectors and the ways in which they influence how objects are displayed. Other of my projects ask who has agency over the works in a collection; for example with MOCA’s collection, I asked whether an artist still has agency over the physical or conceptual form of their work while they are alive. As objects inevitably decay, could a living artist choose to replace materials or even alter an artwork’s form, if they change their mind about it, over time?
The staff of the museum is charged with maintaining the physical and conceptual integrity of the object as best as possible. We can see the fault lines by looking at the motivations and processes within each of the department’s methodologies. Conservators will try to preserve an object even if it was meant to decay; administrators and curators will try to categorize objects according to their particular priorities, which can contradict an object’s intended function; legal policies add a meta layer of definitions about how that object exists today. I try to think of an object as a living thing: it had an original life in relationship with living people, which could have been put on hold if it was buried, and now it has a totally new life in its contemporary situation. When I visit museums, I always wonder whether an object is happy with its current life—does it like its neighbors and the language people use to describe it? If not, hopefully this phase will pass quickly and the museum will collapse, so that it can move on to a better part of its existence.
DA/NG: How can museums assure the happiness—the affective substance—of cultural objects that carry living memories or active purposes beyond the institutional bubble? How can they acknowledge the many lives of their collections from the perspectives of different ontologies and value systems?
GPK: The problem is that they prioritize the role of the object as evidence—for a visual movement or an historic period—at the expense of the object’s cultural sanctity. The role of a ritual object is different from that of a common artifact. Burial objects, particularly human remains, actively perform a role in the individual’s afterlife. Who are we to disrupt that? At a minimum, museums should strive to find a compromise between the pedagogic role of a relic and its ritual purpose. Furthermore, the museum can strive to maintain the object’s ritual function in some way and prioritize this over their impulse to preserve it. I heard that there is a sacred object in the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington D.C.), which is meant to be fed. Now someone at the institution has the job of feeding it corn every once in a while. This is a way for the institution to respect its ritual purpose and give this precedence over institutional methodologies or conservation practices. At the Fowler Museum, they house Tongva remains, and the Native American community are able to visit and treat it as a sacred site to pay respect to their ancestors, thus temporarily changing the role of the museum. This can make for a flexible institution, where objects themselves define the function of the building that houses them.
Gala Porras-Kim (b. 1984, Bogota, Colombia, Based in Los Angeles, US) makes her work through the process of learning about the social and political contexts that influence the representation of language and history. The work comes from a research-based practice that aims to consider how intangible things such as sounds, language, and history have been represented through different methodologies in the fields of linguistics, history, and conservation. Porras-Kim received an MFA degree from CalArts and an MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA. She has had solo exhibitions at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito (2018); LABOR, Mexico City (2017); Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2017). Selected group exhibitions include the Ural Industrial Biennial (2019); Whitney Biennial (2019); Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul (2017); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016). She has received an Artadia Award (2017), a Rema Hort Mann Foundation grant (2017), a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant (2016), a Creative Capital grant (2015), a Tiffany Foundation Award (2015), and a California Community Foundation Fellowship (2013). Porras-Kim currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced studies at Harvard (2019)