Memphis at the Tennessee Triennial

Published March 23rd 2023
By brittany Ashley

Brick x Brick: A Billion Pounds of Cultivation, Mama's Sundry (2023) Photo: Kai Celeste Ross

When the Inaugural Tennessee Triennial for Contemporary Art was conceived, co-founder Brian Jobe had two specific goals: to be different than other biennale-style exhibitions and to unite the state through its differences. The “horizontal model” he implemented accomplished both. It provided an overarching theme (RE-PAIR) set by consulting curator María Magdalena Campos-Pons, then allowed each participating venue to interpret the theme however they wished, including curating and selecting their own artists and exhibitions.

Somewhat isolated from the other participating cities, Memphis makes up the “West” portion of the show. Although it has far fewer venues, its exhibitions are no less successful, exploring the ideas of self-care, communal identity, and human-nature relations. Together, they address a key tenant of RE-PAIR, laid out by Campos-Pons as “in order to heal, one must find the wound.” Within each of its four major exhibitions, Memphis displays its wounds and how it’s healing them.

Eye is Another, Tommy Kha (2022-23) Photo: Brooks Museum of Art

The Brooks Museum of Art, the institutional heart of Memphis’ arts scene, presents Tommy Kha’s Eye is Another in their iconic rotunda. Amid stark white marble, a pseudo picnic area jars you immediately upon entering the museum. A ground-level display of grass mats and a collaged picnic blanket invite you to lie back, as if the dome above you is open to the sky. Instead, Kha’s eye hovers there, arranged out of photographs depicting the skies of Memphis, his hometown, and New York City, where he splits his time. Simultaneously grounding and disorienting, the work serves not only to link humanity and the natural world in your mind, but also connect you to Kha, a reminder that even physical distance cannot fully isolate you under a sky shared by all. Coinciding with this communal form of repair is a more personal journey – Kha is an artist split physically, between two cities, and culturally, being gay and Chinese American in the South. Eye is Another offers a uniting force, much like the Triennial itself, to bond us to ourselves and each other. 

Tend To Exhibition Opening, UAC (2023) Photo: Noah Stewart for UAC

The UrbanArt Commission’s exhibition Tend To also probes questions of self-repair. It is the city’s only group exhibition, featuring the work of Verushka Dior of the Mane Wilding, Sarah Elizabeth Cornejo, and Joel Parsons. The orientation within the storefront of the Commission’s office building immediately places each work of art in contrast with what we imagine an office space to be. Along the walls, floors, and even visible from the windows as you approach the pop-up gallery, all manner of green things grow thanks to Dior’s botanical art piece Tethered to Teague. Amongst the fruits and moss are circles of twisted vines, conjuring ideas of the repetition of time and the circle of life. Stepping off the sidewalk of a bustling street and into the space is itself a sharp contrast – the horns and squealing tires become muffled and replaced by a gurgling fountain, the air is cooler, the light softer. And, of course, everywhere you look is green.

Tend To Exhibition Opening, UAC (2023) Photo: Noah Stewart for UAC

Along one wall, spears of spray-painted twigs and flowers seem to sprout from the very foundation. In the neighboring windowsill, the second piece of Cornejo’s Disturbance Ecologies sits on a blanket of sand. The sculpture is nearly volcanic in shape but alien in appearance despite being made of what is most familiar to us – rocks, bullet casings, shattered glass. Disturbance Ecologies brings natural materials such as plants and minerals alongside human debris. Like the sand beneath Cornejo’s sculpture, our presence is laid bare for us by the installation, reminding us of how we impact the world around us and especially what we leave behind. Amongst the natural materials are several pieces that primarily use human-made supplies. These works by Joel Parsons provide the necessary human element that connects Dior’s wilderness and Cornejo’s interspecies creations. His series of wall-hangings and sculptural works contain arrangements that poke at deep human emotion, such as a single, perfect rose in the center of swirling water or the mirrored lock that remains closed despite having the key inside it. As devastating as they are, there is also an element of nourishment in each piece – a stack of books in one sculpture, or the water fountain that provides the exhibition’s ambient sound. Together, Parsons, Dior, and Cornejo have created a space for self-confrontation and healing. To repair, you must first care for yourself and only then will you be able to care for others. Proactively, Tend To functions as a space where you can begin that care while in the gallery.

Brick x Brick: A Billion Pounds of Cultivation, Mama's Sundry (2023) Photo: Kai Celeste Ross

At TONE HQ, viewing the exhibition also serves as an active first step in the process of RE-PAIR. A partnership with the wellness collective Mama’s Sundry, Brick x Brick: A Billion Pounds of Cultivation is an interactive piece. The familiar white-walled gallery is transformed into a community garden – piles of dirt flow over the concrete floors, a pick-up truck holding soon-to-be-planted saplings is parked seemingly magically in one corner, and in the middle of the front room, a large plexi-glass greenhouse houses growth-in-progress. As the visitor, it’s your job to pitch in wherever the project needs that day. Seek and you shall find markers in every color, use them to draw or write on the pick-up truck and the greenhouse, adding your words and doodles to the hundreds who have already been there. When I went, I was also asked to do some gardening – filling small tubs with water and packing the dirt into each okra-seeded pot. At other times, there are musical performances, film screenings, even a book club. But the consistent message is this: do your part to repair your community. Sundry isn’t only interested in showing where the community is broken – Brick x Brick is designed to raise awareness for food insecurity in Memphis – but they’re also interested in the solutions, such as teaching visitors to grow the food their city doesn’t offer them. The result is a relaxed, open space that can seem intimidating at first, especially for non-artists, but demonstrates the necessity of personal responsibility in community repair.

All Power to All People, Hank Willis Thomas (2017-2023) Photo: Memphis River Parks Partnership

Finally, the River Parks Partnership’s exhibition All Power to All People consists of just one sculpture – an eight-foot aluminum Afro pick designed by Hank Willis Thomas. Its placement on the former site of a confederate statue already imbues the exhibition with immense meaning: this is a symbol of Black culture, a tool for Black hairstyling, and a historical symbol for Black Power and the larger Civil Rights movement. That it sits in place of the representation of someone who fought against those communities speaks to RE-PAIR already happening in Memphis. The height of the piece ensures that each visitor can see themselves reflected in the shiny surface, if only in vague colors and shapes. It brings you in, forces you to be a part of the history of this sculpture in this spot. The elevated size also allows the Afro pick, a traditionally tiny object, to become as large as the amount of meaning it has held since its first conception in Ancient Egypt as a status symbol. Through a singular work of art, All Power to All People communicates not only the history of communal identity the Afro pick is a part of, but also the current values of the city it resides in. Unlike many of the other exhibitions, it does not use natural imagery, but instead focuses entirely on the human to become a physical representation of Memphis finding its wound and healing it.

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Brittany Ashley (she/they) is an art historian and writer. Her thoughts are on display on Instagram @stilllifewithart.