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ICA’s New Sensory Exhibitions Explore Bodies, Borders And Boundaries

Rashid Johnson constructed a geometric tower of plants, books and shea butter sculptures for the "Monument" commission at the ICA.
Rashid Johnson constructed a geometric tower of plants, books and shea butter sculptures for the "Monument" commission at the ICA. The space will be shared by local artists in weekly performances. (Photo: Catherine Komp) Catherine Komp/WCVE

“What does it mean to perceive ourselves and others as native or non-native? As welcome guests or invasive species?” Those questions are explored in one of two new exhibitions that open this week at VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: The First African Baptist Choir performs in the Monument exhibit Friday October 19th at 4:00 p.m. and Saturday October 20th at 3:00 p.m. Find details about other performances and the exhibitions at the Institute for Contemporary Art.


The smell of the forest leads you into the group exhibition: Hedges, Edges, Dirt. Sixteen Emerald Green Cedar Trees line the entry.

Stephanie Smith: Just wanted to start and give you a moment to breathe in….

Stephanie Smith is the ICA’s Chief Curator

Smith: This is a show that’s not just for looking at, but also for breathing in and for listening to...

The bright color and earthy armona is at first welcoming. But the Iranian-born artist Abbas Akhavan shifts your senses as you realize the tightly packed trees are a wall, a barrier. 

Smith: He's interested particularly in the ways that hedges have been used along with other kinds of gardening tactics, but hedges in particular have been a source of interest for him in the ways that they designate yours and mine, public and private.

Akhavan continues these themes in the next room, where tropical plant leaves of varying hues and textures are woven together on the floor, like a carpet or maybe a raft. There’s no artificial light in the space. The high notes of an untuned wind chime, powered by a small fan, give a sense of the outdoors. The sculpture, a collaboration with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, changes as water evaporates from the leaves and they begin to curl and lose color.

Smith: Which extends the interest that I mentioned at the beginning with gardens as sources not only of beauty and aesthetic delight, but also of dominance and control, that mix of hospitality and hostility that we can think about in our relationships with nature and the ways that we sometimes bring them into a kind of domesticated state.

On the second floor, Arizona native Julianne Swartz blends science, sculpture and sound.

Julianne Swartz: This is a group of 18 ceramic and glass objects, they’re vessel instruments, each one is emitting a tone in different configurations.

The sculptures are irregular, round and smooth, almost looking like organs or limbs.

Swartz: Right now you’re hearing a layering of tones but each piece is emitting an individual own tone.

Swartz uses a microphone in each one to read the air mass inside the vessel and find a tone. She then places a speaker inside to amplify the sound.

Swartz: So I record the tones into these vessels through that process with the microphone reading the air mass, but then if I listen to those tones on the computer or on another speaker you can barely hear them. So they need the physical body to have resonance, to have the amplification.

The tones seem to fill your body up or pass right through you.

Swartz: I find myself being able to sit in here and listen to them for a long time. They don’t have content, it’s more vibration, so you can get into the vibration of the tones and just be with it.

Hedges, Edges, Dirt also includes pieces by Brazilian born artist  Jonathas de Andrade, Pascale Marthine Tayou, a native of Cameroon, and David Hartt originally from Canada.

The ICA’s second exhibition is in the soaring, Cathedral like third floor. Artist Rashid Johnson’s Monument is a geometric tower of tropical plants that rise toward the sky.

Rashid Johnson: There's a lot of things have been taken into account as far as how this structure was born; one is very much about place and thinking about how it participates in the discourse with the place that it lives. And in this particular case, thinking about it as a monument--being as that Richmond has so many other monuments that some people cherish and other people feel are quite problematic--was something for me to think about it investigating and kind of entering myself into that conversation and into that local discourse however high or low that fruit hangs.

Many of the planters are hand sculpted and painted by Johnson. In between, are stacks of books by James Baldwin, Paul Beatty and Dick Gregory. Shea butter busts accent the green foliage. Johnson says it’s based on a character in his work called anxious man.

Johnson: We are dealing with and witnessing people experience a tremendous amount of anxiety. And I think that anxiety is a result of societal concerns, of transitions of the time we live in, of the people who govern, etc have made quite a few of us pretty nervous, right? Pretty anxious. And I think sometimes these characters for me are great signifiers to help, almost in a cathartic sense, develop and actually show that anxious character and how they may live. And that dichotomy between that idea of that anxious character and the idea of an incredibly soothing material, being born of a soothing material. So in that sense, it can almost function as a thinly veiled metaphor.

Johnson designed the sculpture so you can walk through it, standing inside and becoming part of it. And it is interactive in other ways too, with the ICA inviting performers and artists to share the space, including the First African Baptist Choir.

(Music: First African Baptist Choir)

Johnson: I really look forward to at this point being a visitor to the work and being a witness and I say witness specifically because witnesses can recall what they see, and viewers we don’t have the same expectation for.

Chief Curator of the ICA Stephanie Smith says the first performance exceeded her expectations.

Smith: It was extraordinary. These voices are stunning, so there's just the sheer beauty of it. But the thing that's most powerful to me in this context is the collaboration between an artist who's come in from another place in order to create this work here with us in Richmond and the voices of our fellow citizens who are just coming together in this beautiful collaboration.

(Music: First African Baptist Choir)

Fronell Weaver: First time I’ve been in here.

Fronell Weaver is a member of the choir.

Weaver: I think it’s different and I like it and I think it’s open to individual interpretation. I see like a garden, a nice beautiful garden, and it takes me back to the story of the Garden of Eden.

The ICA will host weekly performances in the Monument exhibition space. This is the first commissioned installation of the ICA’s “Provocation” series, where artists will create a new work in response to the gallery’s shape, light and acoustics. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.