In Precipitation for an Arid Landscape (2021), recently on view at Amant in Brooklyn, Los Angeles–based artist Gala Porras-Kim proposes an alternative practice of care for cultural artifacts. The project revisits the dredging of a sacred Mayan sinkhole in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, the Chichén Itzá cenote, believed to be a portal between the earth and the underworld as well as the temporary dwelling of Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. Over a period of about eight hundred years, the Maya peoples deposited human remains and thousands of sacrificial objects—including animal figurines, jewelry, and vessels, made from marble, gold, jade, obsidian, and wood—in the cenote. They were preserved there until 1904, when Edward H. Thompson, an archaeologist and United States diplomat, began excavating, and eventually helped smuggle out some 30,000 of the ancient artifacts on behalf of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Porras-Kim’s project follows the artifacts’ journey—including their partial repatriation to Mexico, primarily during the 1960s—through drawings of more than 5,000 items in the collection as well as a sculpture and an installation of items documenting these events. Using poetic and archival strategies, Porras-Kim proposes a more flexible museum that acknowledges the collection’s multiple contexts and stakeholders, and includes them in decisions about the objects’ display and care.
SALLY EAVES HUGHES You’ve been drawing objects from museum collections for several years, including unidentified objects held by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, which you showed in the Hammer Museum’s 2016 Biennial. How did you structure the drawings on view here, collectively titled Offerings for the Rain at the Peabody Museum? Visually, they seem to be arranged into groups by size, material, color, or function, but the larger logic is unclear.
GALA PORRAS-KIM The drawings look at how the Chichén Itzá objects are indexed and catalogued in the Peabody’s collection. I downloaded all the images from the catalogue and aligned them according to the museum’s categorization. How do you organize a pile of things? The museum probably received boxes full of artifacts after the dredging, and arbitrarily assigned them numbers. The drawings are very straightforward and drawn to scale, because the way the objects are catalogued is already so fantastical.
HUGHES Is there something that happens in the process of drawing, either to the objects or to your relationship with them?
PORRAS-KIM Before, I used to make all the work myself, but now I have people helping me. The process of drawing is so slow that we have memorized every single work that exists in the catalogue. We all know them. The process is like a tool for learning. You stare at each object over and over in a visual type of education.
HUGHES You’ve built such bodily memory and visual knowledge of these objects. How did your research into the legal aspects of the project develop?
PORRAS-KIM The law is so abstract; it’s very similar to conceptual art. You frame an idea and decide what rules apply to this object or people or context, and we all follow them. The law is very loose and interpretive in the same way an artwork is. How have antiquities or objects been moved through the legal process of accession, deaccession, export, import, ownership, and copyright? All those moments change the way that the same object exists in different parts of its life—ancient, current, or future. If, legally, we can change the framework around an object, it can become a different work.
Once I started reading through all the letters between Thompson and the Peabody, the project became legal. They were talking about how to maneuver to get the objects to the Peabody [given an 1897 Mexican law against exporting antiquities]. I initiated mediation with the Peabody to think about entities that still have a stake in these objects, which led me to Chaac, the Mayan rain god. Are there any other interested parties that have a stake in the objects? Now that they are in the institution and categorized as historical objects, that categorization has completely overshadowed the fact that the objects may still have a ritual function with some other interested party . . .
HUGHES Such as Chaac or the individuals who put them in the cenote?
PORRAS-KIM Yes—Chaac, the person who put the object in the cenote, whomever took it out, who has it now. All interested for different reasons. It’s not that we need to believe in the Mayan rain god, but specific people [put] those objects in the cenote who thought that they would never come out. It’s those individuals’ personal relationships to their own beliefs that are constrained here.
The mediation I am facilitating is about how to make interventions within the existing policy that accommodate these other interested parties. One proposal is to change the ownership in the object file to the rain god, and note that the object is on permanent loan to the museum.
HUGHES Your sculpture constitutes another proposal to symbolically reunite the objects with Chaac. How does conservation of these objects come into conflict with their original function?
PORRAS-KIM The rain god would likely be in direct opposition to institutional conservation practices in which an object must be in a very, very dry place. Indeed, the objects were so well preserved because they were submerged in water, presumably with this rain god. These are two systems of care for the work.
I created a sculpture as a placeholder for the physical material that is in the museum. The work is a block made of copal tree sap, one of the main materials that was dredged out of the cenote, mixed with dust collected from the objects in the storage rooms of the Peabody.
I became interested in dust because in the letters [between Thompson and the Peabody], the museum director was teaching the archaeologist how to conserve these objects, which were falling apart after being removed from the water, by injecting a binder into the objects so that the dust particles would hold together. Some of them are essentially dust particles held by glue. Once they’re in collection storage, small amounts of dust fall off. How much material constitutes the whole object?
I asked the Peabody to collect the dust, and each institution where the sculpture is installed to figure out a way to get rainwater onto my sculpture. [At Amant, a device on the ceiling above the sculpture periodically releases droplets.] It’s not my role to resolve how to reunite these objects with rain; I challenge the institution itself to find a solution. The work then becomes a gesture, a way for the objects to leave the institution, at least conceptually or temporarily, and have rain get back into them.
HUGHES One of the major themes of your recent work is a more expansive notion of care for these objects.
PORRAS-KIM Everybody in institutions wants to care for objects, and conservation is all about that. But they tend to prioritize the [object’s] physical material versus its ritual function. Conservation just slows down the process of decay—and the museum will not be there forever. Chaac might be rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh, it’s just temporary, because in the end, everything’s going to get rained over anyway.” I’m not offering a solution. This project is more about acknowledging that there are other interested parties. What do we do about it?