Rashid Johnson's Monument: What Does It Mean to Activate a Work of Art? blog post by julia park

I sat down on the bench and looked up at Rashid Johnson’s “Monument,” a 20-foot high tower constructed of a metal grid brimming with potted plant life, shea butter sculptures, stacked books, and video monitors. The piece officially kicks off the ICA’s annual Provocations series, which invites artists to interpret the unique True Farr Luck Gallery located on the top floor of the ICA’s Markel Center. The First African Baptist Church Contemporary Choir had just finished performing the last notes of their encore, and the room was alive and buzzing. I looked to my right to see a choir member sitting next to me, resting, after 45 minutes of performing. He looked content and awash in the incredible energy of the room.“Where do you think I could get one of those plant pots?” he asked me with a laugh. A palpable connection had formed between the performers and the artist, the audience and the performers, and the audience and the artwork.

Photo: Meghan Marchetti

The weekly series of live performances that activate “Monument” is coordinated by David Riley, the ICA’s Curatorial Graduate Assistant. The practice of art activation is best described as bringing a static piece of artwork to life with human interaction. Activation creates space for a greater possibility for connection and evolution within an existing artform.

I asked Riley what activation means to him in the context of coordinating these Provocations performances. “Once Rashid titled the piece “Monument,” we were thinking about how it functions as just that. He wanted to address the monuments of Richmond, but we also could see it as a living monument, both in terms of the plants and culture,” Riley told me. “What would an alternative monument be? An alternative monument is one that is alive and culturally relevant. People feel that it’s evolving and that they are a part of it, rather than shut out of history that is set in stone, literally. That was the starting point.”

Photo: Meghan Marchetti

From there, Riley, with input from the ICA curatorial team, set out to research and secure performers that could activate Johnson’s work and continue Johnson’s support of Black creativity. The physical elements and symbols featured in “Monument” also influenced the performer lineup. Johnson is a fan of music, particularly jazz, and often incorporates LPs into his works. Texts also feature prominently. As Riley points out, one of the books featured in “Monument,” The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, gets its name from the gospel song Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, which the First African Baptist Church Contemporary Choir sang during its performance.

Approximately 95 percent of the Provocations performers are based locally in the Richmond area, positioning Johnson’s work as a monument to the community itself. As a result, new groups of people have been introduced to the ICA, and the lineup varies in terms of genre and background. “I felt strongly about having a wide variety of performances that are all drawing from different communities and maybe bringing different communities that would not necessarily come here often or had not been here yet,” Riley began. “For example, the choir is one community. It’s a religious community and perhaps a slightly older community. This past weekend was Formula, and they do underground dance parties. That community is the other end of the spectrum. It brings [in] 18 year olds and people who are just experiencing music or going out for the first time.”

Photo: Meghan Marchetti

When “Monument” is viewed without performers, it is a different experience. In its simplest form, without the activation from performers, there is more room for a personal contemplation and thought. In a sense, visiting with the piece alone is a form of activation as well. Within the vast and sculptural form, there is space to sit and privately commune with the piece. Riley noted, “Each visitor who comes activates it with how they interact with the piece, how long they choose to stay there. It’s a piece that is designed to be interactive.” The quiet, personal experience carved out in “Monument” for the visitor lends itself to new discoveries. There is always a new angle to gaze upon, various perspectives to be gained, or an unfamiliar plant with which to become familiar.

Photo: Meghan Marchetti

Each performance viewed alongside “Monument” brings its own unique experience. Riley stated, “They are not all activating it the same way. When you have a choir here, it feels like a church. When you have jazz here, it feels like something else. When you have a group of DJs, it feels like something else. Each one is a different interpretation. When you have a yoga instructor or dance class, it is different. Each artist activates it in a different way.” Thus, the activation through performance transforms and augments Johnson’s creation with each new note that bounces through the gallery.

The weekly Friday and Saturday afternoon performances in “Monument” will continue throughout the run of the exhibition, through July 14, 2019. Some performers will return to the space in 2019, while other groups and individuals will join the lineup for the first time. Expect spoken word hip hop, dance companies, a botanist, as well as youth music and poetry groups. Learn more by visiting https://icavcu.org/calendar/.

Julia Park is a senior at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and intern in the ICA Curatorial Department. She is a Richmond, Virginia native. Julia dabbles in studio art, but her greatest interest lies in art facilitation, appreciation, and commentary. She is also passionate about plant-based food and wild jewelry.

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