Kevin Beasley: "A view of a landscape" at the Whitney
“A view of a landscape” rumbles along on the top floor of the Whitney, where visitors are greeted by walls of raw Virginia cotton treated with resin and pigment, embedded with objects that are pertinent, some more directly than others, to the subject at hand: the history of slavery in the American South. Du-rags, overalls, sound mixing consoles, and, of course, the cotton itself create semi-narrative and representational tableaus, forming a pictorial membrane for the exhibition. Depending on how one approaches and how long one stays with them, the slabs can appear as paintings, monumental sculpture, or an architectural intervention that ushers viewers into the Kevin Beasley’s investigation of how the history of the South intersects with his own life and practice.
In another room, just beyond these, sits the exhibition’s energetic core: a motor that used to power a cotton gin – the invention of which caused a great expansion of both the cotton and slave industries in the US – near Selma, Alabama. Encased in soundproofed glass, the running motor is surrounded by an array of contact mics and other recording equipment; the fine hairs of a boom shimmy soundlessly in the breeze. Suddenly, the drama of the slabs feels like a feint. The machine takes centre stage, sidelining the earlier narrative. Beasley reverses the usual order of such exhibitions, where artworks prop up an artist’s claim to their experience of the world. Instead, we here walk through them for the sake of accessing the thing itself.
Walking through a dark curtain into a space that is empty save for a few benches and sound mixer, you find yourself inside the machine, enveloped by displaced audio from its mechanisms. This, too, is a pump fake, a juke of its own, and Beasley drops four-, going on five-, hundred years of economic history on our heads, delivered by way of that engine’s rattling. Sitting in the listening chamber, you can feel its rumble in your abdomen. Forget, for a second, the known horrors, dehumanisation, and abjection of slavery: what’s it like to be a machine, yet also flesh and blood? In this room, the motor’s capacities multiply rapidly, marking a whole apparatus of technics and labour that cradles everything we think we know – learned from family history, textbooks, movies, art – about the „slave experience“ and its inheritor, the „black experience“.
„A view of a landscape“ elegantly holds together all of this, offering so matter-offactly the artist’s singular viewpoint, while collecting so much within that frame. In this landscape of the American South, the system does not simply engender the „slave-cum-black-experience“. Rather, this experience draws Beasley into the machine and catches us all in its gears. The result is an exhibition that opens itself to the audience and asks them not only to confront the violence of history but also to ask what we know and how we came to know it.
“A view of a landscape”
15 December 2018 – 10 March 2019
ARIA DEAN is a writer, artist and curator. She lives between Los Angeles and New York City.