Nikita Gale: “Ruin Can Be Elegant”

IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, 2022 (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London). Photo: Andy Keate

From the climate emergency to systems of authority, the artist’s work is focused on foregrounding troubling backgrounds

The weather is a good place to start. Nikita Gale and I begin our conversation by speaking about the UK’s record-breaking July heatwave, which caused death and fires alongside other forms of destruction. Gale mentions how an increase of a couple degrees in the average global temperature can take humankind from precarity to extinction. The scorching weather, which peaked over the course of two days, will become much more frequent as a result of climate change, a more insidious process many of us quietly accept as it edges us towards an irreversible, cataclysmic end. Yet this heatwave was a moment when our collective awareness of the larger, looming damage bubbled up over the back burner and into our immediate consciousness.

Gale has previously created work referencing climate change. The Los Angeles-based artist’s 2019 installation DRRRUMMERRRRRR is a prime example. It features a drum kit with each component standing, separated, in plastic tubs into which water from a black hose splashes over the cymbals and pours in and out of drums. The torrent, rather than the human body, plays these instruments. The work is an abstract investigation into what happens to human technologies in the absence of humankind. Like much of Gale’s recent work, DRRRUMMERRRRRR is analogous to a transitional space in which something new can be imagined amid the ruins of previous systems. It also offers a sobering reminder of the impending consequences of the rising sea levels produced as the atmosphere progressively warms and thaws ice. Climate change is one of many entry points into the two primary themes that run throughout the artist’s practice: ruin and attention.

DRRRUMMERRRRRR, 2019– (installation view, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 2021). Photo: Tony Walsh. Courtesy the artist; 56 Henry, New York; Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles; Reyes Finn, Detroit

These form the foundations for IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, the artist’s current show at Chisenhale Gallery, London (which is also Gale’s first European solo exhibition). Here the artist creates an atmosphere in which attention slides between seductive anticipation and anxious dread. This feeling is amplified by a looping choreography of lights and sound with no discernible beginning or end. Coloured lights, both in the corners of the room and attached to sculptures in the space, go off and on, flicker, stay still and swivel, casting beams around the space. Simultaneously, sounds – whistles, clicks and halting silences – punctuate the light sequence.

The installation features four sculptures, three of them monumentally sized works that stretch from floor to ceiling: the largest objects the artist has created to date. At one end of the room is a large velvet stage-curtain covered in concrete, which is half drawn across the truss that suspends it, as if frozen in the process of opening or closing a show. Also attached to the truss is a spotlight that rotates and pauses as if searching for something. In the centre and other end of the room are two almost identical works that also feature spotlights affixed to the ceiling in the same manner. Alongside them on the same trusses are static copies of the lights, again cast in concrete, from which concrete cylinders extend, occupying the space where a real light’s beams would be shed.

The sculptural curtain and lights are performance devices used to reveal, conceal and direct attention. They suggest systems of surveillance and visibility, the latter of which often masquerades as equitable representation. By fixing them in concrete and forcing the audience to navigate around them, Gale shifts the audience’s focus away from the performance they would typically frame or highlight, and instead holds the audience’s focus on these apparatuses of visibility. “They are permanently objectified or rendered in these positions where they have to be analysed in a different way… they get closer to their roles,” Gale says. Through this process, the artist transforms them into ruins of a previously functional system. They are recognisable objects, but their original abilities seem diminished and their scope limited.

Moreover, by casting these objects in concrete, the artist further interrogates the power dynamics embedded in these tools of visibility. Concrete has links to permanence and authority, most notably in how it functions in our built environment – roads, buildings, walls – to guide and restrict patterns of movement. Gale describes concrete as having an ambient quality, particularly as it relates to infrastructure, in that it quietly enforces systems of power, hierarchy and behaviour.

END OF SUBJECT, 2022, six aluminium bleachers, automated lighting systems, four-channel sound, dimensions variable. Photo: Kerry McFate. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker, New York; 56 Henry, New York; Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles; Reyes Finn, Detroit

“Ruin can be elegant,” says Gale, who studied archaeology before completing an MFA.“I don’t think it always has to be read as something that has been destroyed through active violence.” The artist describes the slow and almost imperceptible process of imposing power that is embedded into structures and systems in which we live – in effect Gale is saying that we need to look more closely at what we habitually overlook. This subtle approach is clear in the Chisenhale commission. It differs from previous works like END OF SUBJECT (2022) or the RUINER series (2020–21), where objects like benches or rail guards are bent out of shape in order to demonstrate alternate possibilities and the potential malleability of authoritative devices and systems. In IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, the dual sense of destruction and possibility are maintained through feelings of abandonment and the impending arrival of some change – what exactly that is remains unclear and unanswered.

IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, 2022 (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London). Photo: Andy Keate

There is a moment in the exhibition’s light-and-sound sequence when a whistle melts into a missile-like screech, which gradually gets quieter and quieter. I expected to hear a boom or some other loud sound signalling that an invisible projectile had landed, but instead nothing. This is part of the anxiety and expectation that the installation provokes – the audience waits for something to happen, a performer to enter or some other release from the unease that permeates the space. Beyond that, what we really seem to be waiting for is a moment of legibility within our framework of perception and understanding. Gale denies us a resolution to this tension, so that we look more closely, and in doing so, become more attuned to the space and our own abilities and failures to perceive.

In a public conversation at Chisenhale between Gale and art historian Rhea Anastas, the artist explained that many of the silences are actually occupied by sounds beyond our perception. What I understood as silence is actually a high-frequency sound perceptible to dogs. The lights, which continue to flash and oscillate during these moments, signal that something is still happening, even though I am notable to perceive it in its entirety. Dogs play an important role here, by suggesting a breadth of perceptual possibilities that underscore the limitations of human sight and other senses in comprehending the spectacles we consume. Dog bowls are dotted around the exhibition space, and blue and yellow – the colours in which dogs see – are the predominant colours used in the light sequence. Further, the fourth sculpture in the installation, a pile of knotted dog leads covered in concrete, is akin to a canine shrine. From it, individual, knotted leads levitate in an arrangement reminiscent of ascending a curved
staircase. Each lead holds a sprig of lavender – activating the sense of smell, something new to Gale’s practice – like an offering.

IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, 2022 (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London). Photo: Andy Keate

The activation of multiple senses in Gale’s current work – in this case, hearing, sight and smell – highlights the possibility of forming interspecies connections. Dogs, which have served as both domesticated companions and tools for policing activities, demonstrate how animals can act as technologies through which humans can extend themselves for different purposes, including upholding and possibly challenging systems of authority. This human–animal relationship is further suggested by the titles of the installation and its three monumental sculptures, which are all named after Circe, a character from Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon, an excerpt from which provides the title to Gale’s show. Circe is a maid and midwife, who shares a name with the mythological witch in Homer’s Odyssey. She is introduced towards the book’s conclusion, where she inhabits her former employer’s mansion along with a pack of wild dogs, who destroy the space and with it the symbols of servitude and disrespect that have coloured Circe’s time with the family.

Considering what is beyond ourselves also informs Gale’s choice to leave the external windows of Chisenhale’s exhibition space visible in the exhibition space, something that has not happened in the gallery for some decades. The gallery’s six large windows are fitted with neutral-density filters that create a hazy, dusk-like glow in the space during daylight hours. Letting the outside in also breaks down the sense of isolation from the world beyond the show, while questioning the sense of neutrality suggested in many art spaces. Because there is no clear beginning and ending to the sequence of light and sound, visitors will spend varying lengths of time in the space, waiting for a conclusion that never arrives. IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS has a collaborative social element where the audience not only looks to the architecture that creates the experience, but also to each other for clues about what is transpiring, beginning and ending. Something that excites Gale is the prospect of two people discussing their differing encounters with the work. Through these interactions within and beyond the exhibition, a variety of ideas and strategies for creating something new in the wake of existing systems and structures of surveillance and representation can be found. Ruins can be a beginning as much as they are an end.

Nikita Gale’s IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS is on view at Chisenhale Gallery, London, through 16 October

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