ESR 9 Blog October 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

The winter sun glints through the glass of the café. I write to you at the tail end of this month from the UK, where I’m on secondment for the coming four months.

The pandemic has both stretched and condensed time, making my return to a country I have often lived and worked in feel like a parallel track, a different temporality. I’m back to being 20, 24, 27. At the Whitechapel Gallery this weekend, I recall all the past times I’ve moved through this building. In the smaller Gallery 4, I remember the black and white images of playful pedagogical practices, and the unbound, box-based magazine Aspen.[1] In Galleries 5 and 6, which currently show Yoko Ono’s MEND PIECE for London, the colourful costumes of a project involving primary school children designing their own costumes flickers in my mind. Meanwhile, the white ceramic cups, bound by twine, cluttered on shelves, reminds me of other times I have encountered Ono’s work, in larger, dusk-lit spaces somewhere in the States.

Having been in and out of cultural spaces, and particularly exhibitionary contexts, for significant portions of my life, the pause of the pandemic is still shifting how I now re-enter museums and galleries. In part, I find myself finding it harder to return to my usual rhythm, to access the choreography of movement and memory to simply drift through these spaces, to gaze at works. There’s also the renewed component of the body; the illusionary “transparent I” of modernity is not so easily feigned now the body has also become a site of contagion, risk and transmission. It’s too soon, for me at least, to abstract the global health crisis we continue to be in into a conceptual line of thought around bodies in art contexts, so for now I’ll leave it at this: I feel my own bodily presence more in spaces that used to premise their viewing on displacing it.

Alongside this present tense/tension, in which the timing of one’s visit and the incidental companions one shares the space with, many tendrils of past visits, past viewings, other places more porously interact with how I’m viewing shows. Likely because I’ve mainly engaged with culture via digital interfaces for the majority of the past years now, being back in physical rooms seeing works feels like entering a memory palace.[2] I’m loosely thinking of ideas around the biennalisation of culture here, the ways in which certain works and certain segments of the population operate in a fluid international sphere that exists like a layer of oil over water; not fully localised, distracted by the sheen of its own surface. That is to say, I’m critical of the ways in which art crosses borders without heed, and mindful that my reflections on the associative archive of my own exhibition viewings also stand loose from the question of what certain exhibitions mean, or do, or don’t do, in their specific contexts.[3] One might think here, too easily perhaps of the critique of Documenta 14 expanding from its usual location of Kassel, Germany, to Athens, Greece, in 2017.[4] The choreopolitics, perhaps, of exhibition circulation in both its individualising and collective sense.

The show currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery, as I write to you, is Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon. Tracing a material history as well as an embodied relationship to clay, it thinks through the “communities of knowledge” that exist around the material, its global history of trade and its ritual use.[5] This interplay of material history, traces of touch and formation and the socialisation of or through objects, and Gates’ practice more widely, which moves between social and community-focused work and exhibitionary contexts, is something I’m still thinking around, tracing. How the less transparent I meets the density of history in a choreographed manner, and the ways the body begins to generate its own relation to a partially resistant object. The porousness of association, the heavy history that sometimes ought not to be loosened.

I stepped out of the gallery and ran into some artists I used to work with. It was Halloween night, and Aldgate East was swarming with facepainted fear. Now, a few days on, I can’t find a way to conclude: I’m thinking of mud-splattered aprons and ceramic studio chatter.


[1] See here for more on Aspen, which I continue to find delightful and generative:

[2] The memory palace is a technique for memorizing large amounts of information by visually locating them in spaces. It’s not quite the right term to use here, but I do so to indicate the ways in which the hanging or installing of art pieces in specific spatial contexts does play a role in how I recall them and the archives of other works I come to associate them with. Simply put: when the Kunstmuseum (formerly, Gemeentemuseum) Den Haag rehung its Francis Bacon works in its permanent collection, I experienced that as a gesture, a sequence of sorts – the new arrangement related like a scene change to the previous installation view.

[3] It’s worth adding here that I’m also not wanting to gloss over my own privilege in my ability to cross borders with comfort and the ways in which my viewings of exhibitions are part of a small segment of the population’s. As such, I’m mindful that this blog’s reflection is nowhere near a general experience of galleries!

[4] The 18/19 issue of FIELD covers this in further depth, as did much media at the time:

[5] This is how the exhibition text frames the show, at least, which did feel aligned to the evocation of the works. More here:

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