Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art debuted a trio of new exhibitions this Valentine’s Day. Flanking the space devoted to the museum’s newest acquisitions are “Ashes” by Steve McQueen and the 2017 James and Audrey Foster Prize winners. These latter two exhibitions explore ideas of mourning, raw scenes, and the material substance of art.
While the eclecticism of a new acquisitions show—usually a mix of gifts and art specifically purchased by the accessions team—can pose curatorial difficulties for any museum, the ICA put up a solid effort in creating a survey indicative of the museum’s current direction and priorities. There was no lack of diversity, with artists of different genders, races, sexualities, and nationalities included in the gallery.
Just as prominent as issues of identity, the question of materiality seemed to inform much of the work on display. Sarah Sze’s 2001 multimedia work “Hidden Relief” was a clear standout. Built into the corner of the gallery, the various mechanical, found, and pseudo-organic forms—some of the Q-tips emerging from the corner almost resemble a sort of sea flora—created the sense of a great number of smaller sculptures built within its mass, in an effort that appears both meticulously executed and still under construction.
The short film “Ashes” by Steve McQueen—director of “12 Years a Slave,” which won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 2014—in theory requires a multi-projector installation with two soundtracks, and the seamlessness of the final experience demonstrates the ICA staff’s superior attention to detail. Projected on both sides of a single screen, a viewer entering entering the exhibit from its left hand side sees footage of a young fisherman, Ashes, perched on the prow of a boat above crystal-blue waters. Entering from the right, on the other hand, reveals a video demonstrating the process of making the funerary monument for the same fisherman. Curators have taken care to exclude all ambient light and sound from the exhibition space. There is no wall or curtain alongside the screen to allow the soundtracks from both sides to intermingle, but in the sheer darkness of the room each side takes on an air of singular interiority. Blurring the line between life and death, “Ashes” evokes a haunting sense of personal loss.
Harvard faculty feature prominently among winners of the Foster Prize, awarded to Boston artists who have had greater exposure beyond the city than within it. Professor Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, in addition to visiting VES lecturer Jennifer Bornstein, all contributed work. Here, the simplest yet most effective curatorial detail was the use of bean bag chairs in the installation of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film “Leviathan” (2012). For a viewer watching a film shot with GoPro cameras on an industrial fishing vessel—where the shots crash in and out of the water, glide through fish guts, and soar in the air—the cradle of the bean bag chairs provides a literal immersion to match the aquatic weightlessness of the film. With Lucy Kim’s harrowing casts of the body, Bornstein’s encaustic rubbings made of her late father’s belongings, and Sonia Almeida’s biomorphic paintings, the Foster Prize exhibition presents a collection of contemporary art with a sense of ritual and sensation that feels almost archaic. As each of the three exhibits reveals in one way or another, contemporary art reflects a sense of history, personal or otherwise.