The Contemporary describes itself as a “nomadic, non-collecting art museum.” It doesn’t have a primary exhibition space, and instead organizes projects in various public locations throughout Baltimore, foregrounding site-specificity and collaboration. Abigail DeVille’s “Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars” was the Contemporary’s most ambitious and well-executed effort to date. The organization initiated a dialogue between DeVille, a New York–based artist dedicated to unearthing forgotten narratives, and the Peale, one of the oldest museums in the country. The result was a sprawling accretion of nine installations that filled both floors of the museum. Excess suited the enormity of the task at hand: to frame within broader narratives of black experience the protests of Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of Baltimore police. DeVille included historical photographs of children educated in the Peale when it was an African-American school, furniture sourced from a local salvage company, and work by contemporary filmmakers and musicians whom she admires, making her perspective diffuse without diminishing its potency.
Visitors entered an untitled foyer installation featuring blacked-out protest signs leaning against each other in a stack that reached from floor to ceiling. Beyond this was Charm City Roundhouse, in which leaf after leaf of aged paper and a gigantic American flag were hung on the walls. The flag’s inclusion was a nod to Baltimore as the city where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was composed. Yellowed paper stars were impaled on the limbs of chandeliers, which fragmented any possible single view of the room-size flag. Broadsheets pasted onto the wall of an adjacent staircase catalogued significant demonstrations in Baltimore. The type was so large it was hard to read while ascending the steps, as if the paragraphs on the history of public demonstrations in Baltimore were meant for a collective audience rather than one set of eyes at a time.
Upstairs, Black Whole made a stunning comparison of bodies to bottles by nesting vessels within vessels. Metal trash cans were stacked flush against the walls. Each one held glass bottles or another trash can. A composition of cascading, looping, layered vocals by musician Justin Hicks suggested the presence of multitudes, and a pulsing strobe echoed other inadequate lighting, from partially obscured light sources, found throughout the exhibition. The array of cans and bottles snaked through a gap in the wall toward Invisibility Blues, a room where fences, ladders, doors, and wooden lattices hovered above and around the viewer like an ineffable suburban dream. Black Whole functioned as the antechamber for an installation of coat-rack sculptures and videos about the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death. It was presented as a journey to the American dream of neighborhood and brotherhood interrupted by racism and institutionalized violence and by a media machine that distorts reality and perception.
At the back of the second floor, DeVille offered a space for healing and solace. In this installation, The People’s Theater, a shredded tarp hanging from the ceiling let through dappled light, serving as a peaceful and optimistic foil to Black Whole’s strobe. Beneath this shade, on a small stage flanked by small pews, DeVille set up a microphone and left it on at all times. It was meant, she said, to “give everyone a voice.”