Kapwani Kiwanga

The Power Plant, Toronto

A low concrete wall outside Hamburg’s main train station made the news recently when people began to cover it with ‘blessing bags’ for the homeless. The plastic bags, filled with food and clothes, were tied to a metal fence bolted to the top of the wall, which had presumably been constructed to keep the homeless out. For her exhibition at The Power Plant, ‘A Wall Is Just a Wall’, Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga considers a history of such barriers. Skilfully articulating her research on this subject in formal terms, she exposes the silent-yet-pernicious control that architecture exerts over our bodies and behaviour, and contemplates how we might resist it.

The exhibition comprises two works. In the first, pink-blue (2017), visitors enter a corridor painted Baker-Miller pink. Trials conducted at a correctional facility in the late 1970s found this particular tone to have a uniquely tranquilizing effect on subjects, reducing their muscle strength as well as slowing their heart rate and breathing. The effect was far from pleasant: inmates left for too long in too large a cell were found to have scratched the pink paint off the walls with their nails. The second half of the corridor is bathed in a neon light found in public bathrooms to deter intravenous drug use. An intense, disorienting blue, the light makes it harder and more dangerous to find a vein.

untitled2.jpg

Kapwani Kiwanga, A Wall is just a Wall, 2017, installation View at The Power Plant, Toronto. Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto; 

Kapwani Kiwanga, A Wall is just a Wall, 2017, installation View at The Power Plant, Toronto. Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto

Alongside this installation, the artist’s new film, A Primer (2017), focuses on the front and back of a makeshift, tripartite structure painted olive green, beige, white and Baker-Miller pink. The camera pans over objects – a house plant, a standing fan, a wooden blind – redolent of mundane corporate and institutional decor, from doctors’ clinics to school classrooms and office cubicles. Art-historical allusions are present in both works – primarily the colour field painters and light and space artists working in the years just preceding the Baker-Miller experiment. Kiwanga manages to strike a difficult balance between the sensory romanticism of Mark Rothko or James Turrell and the more dingy, oppressive uses of colour by corporation and state. From behind one corner of the gallery, a voice-over relays a history of architecture and design specifically devised to coerce, denigrate and exclude. I was forced to lean awkwardly against the wall in order to understand the muted audio. As with the immersive installation pink-blue, A Primer compels gallery-goers to high-tune their senses and observe the structurawl conditions of their environment.

untitled61.jpg

Kapwani Kiwanga, A Wall is just a Wall, 2017, installation view at The Power Plant Toronto. Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto

Kapwani Kiwanga, A Wall is just a Wall, 2017, installation view at The Power Plant ,Toronto. Courtesy: The Power Plant, Toronto

This is the exhibition’s greatest strength: rather than simply provide us with information, Kiwanga adopts minimalist formal language to communicate her research more subtly. The gallery is never a neutral space; museum visitors are always subject to the effects of small-yet-authoritative curatorial decisions regarding wall colour, layout and lighting. While such choices are not always obvious, they impact both our perception of the works and our behaviour. The final outcome of Kiwanga’s exhibition is thus the opposite of the Baker-Miller sedation: we are left with a feeling of profound uncertainty. Are we ever really in control?

To those currently living in fear of increased fortification along the Mexico-US border, a wall may seem to be anything other than ‘just a wall’: recent history records the power of these structures as divisive symbols, and the very real repercussions they can inflict on human lives. Yet, we also know that walls rarely function as intended. Kiwanga lifted the title of her exhibition from a poem by Assata Shakur, which reads: ‘a wall is just a wall / and nothing more at all. It can be broken down’. This may be small comfort, but it is a truth to cherish these days.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

Most Read

Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson are this year’s nominees
It’s the first statue of a woman placed in Parliament Square, marking the centenary of women’s right to vote
In further news: New York art project fights mass incarceration with house music; Marcia Hafif passes away at 89
From a preview of Konrad Fischer’s new space, to Simon Fujiwara’s thought-provoking commentary on gender bias
The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018