Gala Porras-Kim – Whistling and Language Transfiguration

I need to begin in the space, with the work. Without planting myself in front of a piece, and thereby reminding myself – and you – of the material nature of our subject, of art, I find that the words I choose have better relations with each other than any of them have (individually or in the aggregate) with an artist’s work and thinking, and of my experience with their practice. As often as possible I do my writing by hand, in the space, and fuss it up when I get home to my computer. (When I fail to do this I struggle to find my footing.)

I think of this now because materiality and presence and representation and absence have been topics for examination in recent conversations – inspired in part by (equally recent) exhibitions. (There is a discussion at LAXART on Saturday that may touch on these subjects, and that anyway promises to be fascinating: “Discussion on Aesthetics – Affect and Issues of Value in Contemporary Art with Aram Moshayedi, James Welling, Natilee Harren, Phil Chang and Walter Benn Michaels, 2:00 PM on April 14.)

And what does all this have to do with the work of Ms. Porras-Kim? I hope we shall see.

Walking down a dark hallway toward an open, light-filled doorway can feel like metaphorical transfiguration, “Ooh, I’m walking into the light!” and all that stuff. A romantic beginning is not bad in the context of an art exhibition, each space has its own character and any artist working within the given structure is likely to be aware of and have considered such things. Possibly Gala Porras-Kim saw this passageway and the differences in light value as among her tools for Whistling and Language Transfiguration.

Slowly I made out, in the white, white light, mounted on the wall just beyond the entry, what I took to be a small shelf or box, a sculpture, a reliquary, and finally, because of the lettered tiles on top, a game of scrabble. In Gala’s previous exhibition at Commonwealth and Council, titled I Want to Prepare to Learn Something I Don’t Know, there was a similar sculpture also mounted on a wall. At least this is what I thought in the moment. The two shared physical similarities – each was box-like and was mounted within easy reach on a wall, each displayed language in some way – one had a disc that played Korean vowel sounds and the new one encourages understanding of Zapotec sentence structure – but what I see in retrospect is a shared, modest grace of manufacture and a willingness to engage with a viewer in the act of making and understanding language. Not with “a language” – for Ah Yah (2010) did not give me the Korean language anymore than Box for Sentence Structure (2012) gave me Zapotec – instead, they both gave me the modest insight that while words might be represented, it seems that language, the grammar of our minds (and existence?) can only be suggested. 

Gala Porras-Kim, "Cheat Sheet," 2012. Courtesy Commonwealth and Council.

The pieces in Gala’s show are lovely and strong,  their success as sculptures feels incidental to their nature, rather than, say, arthood being the point. Each object – the Box for Sentence Structure, the Whistling Score and the rest – is independent and moves freely among an existence as tool, example and artwork. I wonder whether artists might benefit from focusing on making as an expression of function, where perhaps function is an inquiry that one is pursuing?

An old-fashioned record player sits near the ground across from the door, and two stacks of blue-print sleeved records lean against the wall, these album covers are printed with the title of the exhibition in a written version of Zapotec. The letters are doubled, the words are fuzzy and they make me a little drunk. A record spins on the carrel and I can hear the curius, up and down language – I can’t make sense, but I enjoy listening.

There’s a scroll on the next wall, in a simple wood holder that looks like an ancient writing scroll – maybe Greco-Roman Post-its which one can turn up or down to read. On this scroll is printed sheet music for the record that is playing, I suppose if the whistles sound like songs, then why not turn them into sheet music? That it would be unplayable seems right.

There is another, much larger sculpture (For Learning Zapotec Verbs), “a mix of an abacus and a rolodex” as Gala said – made from the same dark wood and hanging in relation to it on a wall. Everything in this exhibition asks to be touched, to be considered physically as well as intellectually.

There are things to be accounted that remain on my mind:

It seems that the Zapotec language is spread as separate dialects among villages in southern Mexico, and the whistling began after the arrival of the Spanish as resistance, as a way to communicate among themselves.

In the translation to whistling from the then current daily Zapotec language, the older words, those untouched by the new language of conquest, were sounded in deep tones while the terms which had Spanish counterparts were in thin, high tones.

When education came men got it, and travelled for it, while women remained in the villages. In this way women became holders of the language.

Gala Porras-Kim, "Whistling Score," 2012. Image courtesty Commonwealth and Council.

Having travelled, and being able to make livings, many of the Zapotec men came to this country and work(ed), sending home money for their families.

A dilemma: being a patriarchal society the men hold the government, even at a distance.

This language, which lacks/ed a written form and is only now being codified is being built upon  the memories of men and is being narrowed down from its historical state of many languages in many villages across Oaxaca to a single language based on one or an amalgam. How far may one stray from facts when they are written?

Given that such codification is necessary, might it be possible with simple tools to allow individuals to learn and so, in a slang-wise way, to recreate an ancient, regional dialect?

Gala Porras-Kim, Whistling and Language Transfiguration installation, photo taken by Vincent Ramos. Grabbed from Facebook. Thanks, Vincent.

What is the weight of a written language as compared with a spoken language? Does a spoken word have the same fluid materiality as text? Can it become a thing unto itself without written representation?

“I really was preparing to learn something I did not know,” Gala told me when I visited this new exhibition, quoting from the title of her 2010 show. Evidentally she still is.

Gala Porras-Kim, "Box for Sentence Structure," 2012. Commonwealth and Council

PS  I write online, so I get to revise things. People reading after now (when is this, Geoff?) won’t know the difference. People who read before? Check this out, changing us to me:

Not to belabor my point (and of course smiling) but catch me if you can. (Thanks for your indulgence Gala, I took liberties.)

1 Comment

  1. I’m so sad that I missed this show. The work looks incredible. Thanks for introducing her work to me! Zapotec por vida!


  1. From LA to Seoul: Félix González-Torres retrospective, Interactive art at MOLAA and Kumho, Artspectrum at Leeum, Do Ho Suh, Gala Porras-Kim | Notes on Looking - [...] Porras-Kim’s practice is based on heavy research and study.  Some of her works function as epistemological tools which can…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *