“From Durham, NC to San Francisco, CA: A Letter”

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in June 2013  |  3 Comments

“From Durham, NC to San Francisco, CA: A Letter”

By Eva Hayward

School has ended, grades are submitted, and the pink tulips have lost all their cup-shaped petals: it’s that time when academics and teachers alike begin to think about writing and research projects, or that half-finished book. For me, it’s also a time for travel, to refresh my own sagging petals. So, by way of reviewing two art shows—one in Durham, NC and San Francisco, CA—that regenerated me, I’ll offer the equivalent of the What-did-you-do-this-summer? essay in that beloved epistolary form, the letter.

May 2013

First stop: Durham, NC. Now fashionably called Bull City, Durham is one long conjugation of the verb “to green”: vines vining over vines, blooms blooming out of other blooms. Life seems to love itself especially hard in Durham. And it’s this incandescent verdure that perfectly frames Wangechi Mutu’s “A Fantastic Journey” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Grounded on large sheets of pellucid mylar, Mutu works with collage, watercolor, and sculpture to grow-out hybridized plants, fungi, animals (including humans), and machines into large-scale female figures that enfold you within a rich bio-politics of life. By bio-politics, I mean, her work holds together in startling febrility, but without irony, social ills of violence and ongoing colonization in contemporary Africa with attention to how the life-ways of nonhumans matter in these politics of everyday life. Working in dialogue with her own experience as a Nairobi-born, New York-based artist, Mutu’s art reflects contemporary issues of African culture and tradition, women’s lives in the age of transnational capitalism, and global (and seemingly unavoidable) ecological disaster. Using images and references farmed from fashion and pornographic magazines, documentary photography journals, anthropological publications and medical texts, and natural history books and catalogues, Mutu creates what can only be described as vast, vibratory archives of personal, yet undeniably also collective, experiences. Most experiences like those portrayed in the show reside in multiple and contradictory states: threatening and inviting, ensorcelling and numbing, frustrating and reassuring, stunning and appalling, magical and realist.

Mutu’s work, at its most powerful, demonstrates how art produces and generates intensity that directly impacts the nervous system and intensifies sensation. Art, then, is the art of sensation rather than representation. Mutu’s work surges with this force—you can’t help but feel yourself being augmented, reached into, by these remarkable collages. The works don’t simply represent political and ecological despair, but are literal experiences of despair and more. But never, in all its thematic variance and vividness, does Mutu’s work set aside political commitments to feminism and anti-patriarchal stances, to environmental activism, and importantly, to how histories of colonial rule continue to shape Kenya’s future. By recycling visual materials from the transnational present and encapsulating them in almost ritualistic figures, she forces the viewer to acknowledge, while rejecting, a European fantasy of Africa as an exotic past or a place that is still in the past, “the dark continent.” Kenya, like Africa, like the United States, like Taiwan, are bombarded by unrelenting tides of images that impact us all, if also always differently. We’re all part of a voracious-racing-present; Mutu’s work reminds us that our lives are, in equal measure, constructed, germinated, destroyed, and wounded in the orgiastic excess that is life, no matter how much it loves itself.

Leaving Durham, I’m already missing the bumptious plant-life, but am also left intensified by Mutu’s show—just what I needed! The flight from Raliegh, NC to SFO (San Francisco International Airport) is made especially unpleasant by an onboard screening of Sam Raimi’s film Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). The cloying performance by Michelle Williams playing Glinda coupled with retinal impact devoid of any meaningful sensation, left me cutting-and-pasting the red and green jeweled flowers of the mise-en-scene into another, more promising landscape.

Next stop: San Francisco! What can I say: San Francisco is so San Francisco. Walking from the Castro to the Business District requires stripping and covering over and over again to accommodate the changing weather. “Dress in layers” isn’t meaningless advice here—take it seriously. Though San Francisco’s climate felt much the same, I was startled by how much my old haunt, the Tenderloin, had changed. Cute Glinda-esque coffee shops everywhere. Alleyways that had been home to sex-workers now had farmer’s markets two days a week. I don’t necessarily miss the grit or the fetid smell of urine, but I’m shocked by how quickly gentrification takes root (like the invasive honeysuckle shrubs in my back yard). Not the endless green of Durham, but another kind of verve has swept through the neighborhood: kudzu in the form of money and industry. But even here, in the heart of overgrown capitalism, there are surprises. The inventive wonder of machines (and their arteries percussing with money) becoming lively, expressive, informs Shih Chieh Huang, “Synthetic Seduction,” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Taiwanese-born, New York-based artist, Huang has been a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow where he investigated the evolutionary adaptations that allow some marine invertebrates (pelagic life-forms that always float and rarely settle down) to live in environments unthinkable to us humans. Huang starts with the interrogatives: How can we relate to the unimaginable without resorting to the sublime? What might result from a cross-species (cross-phyla!) encounter? In what ways are we similar and different from one another?
To begin to answer, he constructs from motion and light sensors, video cameras and monitors, electrical cords, fluorescent lights, fans, and plastic bags into large-scale sculptures of carefully engineered marine organisms that appear to respire, pulse, drift as they expand and contract. More than their ability to move, the delicate beings fluoresce: ultraviolet, neon yellow, milky blues, red-irradiated-to-orange. Seduction indeed! All this luminosity references bioluminescence, the capacity that enables certain organisms to produce and emit light, which is especially useful in habitats of perpetual darkness. Some of these invertebrates are able to ingest chemicals that gleam when mixed together. In others, radiant bacteria create a symbiosis (living together) with organisms, enabling their host to generate light. And still others, in yet deeper waters, throw out light in particular flashing patterns or glow different colors. Huang’s dark ecosystem, an interpretation of these deep sea worlds, becomes prismatic, a prismatic ecology, as impossibly delicate (however machinic) entities solicit in amorous call-and-response while others flash their shimmering effect to dissuade predators. Computer cooling fans are repurposed for locomotion while Tupperware serves as bodily integrity. Dismantling and rearranging toys, household appliances, zip ties, water tubing, lights, cheap motorized toys, Huang repurposes, like Mutu, material culture to imagine alternate futures through a plasticized present. Rather than a simplified representation of deep-sea life, Huang teaches us to imagine how vast flows of plastic, toxins, pharmaceuticals, and rubbish are producing the conditions of possibility; for instance, the proliferation of synthetic creatures similar to those populating “Synthetic Seduction.” It isn’t just imaginative thinking, but about coming to terms with realities of climate change and pollution. (92% of human bodies in the US are laced with plastics, says a new National Health and Nutrition survey).
Mutu and Huang are telling us that we are already living in ecological catastrophe; it’s not something waiting for us. For Huang, his vivid depictions of bio-plastic marine life encourage us to see resilience, beauty, and even seduction in the midst of a polluted planet. Mutu’s world is more violent and brutal, and decidedly more powerful, and yet her work also seduces and provokes. Through kinds of seductions, they both tell stories about how autonomy (even anatomy) is a tender structure. And in the context or ecological and political upheaval, bodies and selves are in the ongoing process of emerging as more and other, more than we fear (or hope) and other than we are.

Flying back to Cincinnati, I am left with the sobering realization that these decidedly different cities—Durham (more a town than city), San Francisco, and Cincinnati—are beautiful and dirty eco-techno-political-systems: humans, animals, machines are hosts, are hosted, and are cohosted by massive currents of unimaginable and disruptive things. However quaint, white, and liberal my little neighborhood is, it’s also producing the byproducts of its own downfall as well as the conditions of its possibility. No wonder the banalities of Disneyesque films seem a necessary prophylactic from the vastness of our uncertain futures.
I still prefer the vital and challenging worlds of Wangechi Mutu and Shih Chieh Huang.


Eva Hayward is a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.


  1. Kris Weller says:

    June 23rd, 2013at 6:08 pm(#)

    Wow! Thank you for these next-best-thing-to-being-there reviews! Even more than the descriptive analyses of Mutu’s and Huang’s work, though, I appreciate your taking us through the exhibits from outside to inside the studios (and back again), and, too, the reminder that art is to be sensed and not just seen. May art such as this inspire us to learn to bioluminesce [bioluminate? is there a verb form??] our collective way through what can seem like the “perpetual darkness” of these “dirty eco-techno-political” times!

  2. mary sue markey says:

    June 24th, 2013at 1:28 pm(#)

    Art as sensation not as representation! Love it..I can “see” the Shih Chieh Huang works. His the choice of materials have content not just a “green vibe”. Alluded to but not quite as focused is my image Mutu’s work. Sounds like interesting juxtapositioning but i have a hard time knowing if it’s sculpture, or 2-D. I am aching for some distinct images descriptions that are utilized in her work.

  3. Katie King says:

    June 25th, 2013at 12:12 pm(#)

    Always love your thoughtful cares and carings! in ways that are still puzzling me nowadays, here is a quotation I have been pondering. See what you think, and how it does or does not work here, help in some way, or is just inadequate? not sure…. “Soil that is dirty grows the countless things. Water that is clear has no fish. Thus as a mature person you properly include and retain a measure of grime. You can’t just go along enjoying your own private purity and restraint. — Vegetable Root Sutra” Oh, and I keep thinking it would be so cool to have a book or all these. Maybe one of those that puts them in day by day order, like meditations. What do they call those books? And keep thinking of Eileen Joy’s Puntum Press too….