Mud's existence in a state between water and earth allows it to blur past and present, personal and political, bodies and landscapes, feeling and knowing. Featuring works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Diedrick Brackens, Ali Cherri, Candice Lin, Christine Howard Sandoval, Rose B. Simpson, Eve Tagny, and Sasha Wortzel, Thick as Mud—on view at the Henry from February 04, 2023 to May 07, 2023—explores the impact of mud on people, place, memory, and imagination. The exhibition, carefully arranged by Nina Bozicnik, Curator at the Henry Art Gallery, disrupts linear narratives and dominant hierarchies and brings attention to the importance of lesser-known stories, materials and places.
KOOZ Forever caught in an in-between state mud is a material which is both water and earth, “a medium that dissolves binaries”. What prompted your interest in mud and its exploration through the exhibition at the Henry?
NINA BOZICNIK Thick as Mud emerged from a groundswell of conversation around environmental memory and from my own embodied recollection of playing in the mud flats of South Florida, where I grew up. The mud there is composed of layers of decaying organic matter that nourishes new life and sustains a robust food web. It also absorbs human-introduced toxins—including petrochemicals—previously leached into the waterways. To think about the vitality and density of the mud in these ecological terms inspired me to further consider how human history lives in and through the mud. With these thoughts swirling, I started seeing artworks that intersected with this idea of mud as a dynamic medium that animates relationships between people and place. These artworks expanded and enriched my initial musings and the exhibition emerged from there.
To think about the vitality and density of the mud in these ecological terms inspired me to further consider how human history lives in and through the mud.
In her book Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, Barbara Hurd writes about the terrain of the swamp and having her leg sink into the mud: “This is no out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. I can feel every invisible inch of my leg. No wonder the Puritans hated swamps. Think of it this way: in sex, the more a man disappears inside a woman, the more she feels his presence. But if you’re prudish about such things and used to banishing what you don’t like, you can’t stand a damp and slippery world where the banished keeps growing, where what’s buried is so deeply felt.” Despite the narrow heterosexual framework, these words resonate. How might stirring the mud reveal an archive of experience that is present but that dominant narratives do not register? How might attending to the mud—sinking into it—shift relationships to who, whose stories, and which places matter? These were some of the questions that thinking with the mud inspired. As such, the artworks in Thick as Mud activate the unstable ground that mud is, inviting us to think about and challenge fixed structures and monolithic narratives.
How might stirring the mud reveal an archive of experience that is present but that dominant narratives do not register?
KOOZ The exhibition features the work of eight contemporary artists who, across multiple geographies, engage “mud as a material or subject that shapes personal and collective histories, memory, and imagination.” What informed the choice of the eight artists exhibited at the Henry? How are these situated throughout the space of the galleries and along the path of the visitor?
NB All the artworks in the exhibition have a rich sensorial and material dimension, even when the material of the work is something other than mud. Such is the case of Diedrick Brackens’s hand-woven textiles, which are brimming with tactility. Texture and touch are fundamental to interactions with mud. Even the metaphors of mud have prominent physical associations: one slings mud, is dragged through the mud or is stuck in the mud.Though the artworks all share a rich materiality and tactility, each of the artists takes up a unique perspective, addressing a range of dynamics embedded in the landscape, including colonial and racialized forms of dispossession, cultural reclamation, narratives of self-actualization, and ecological loss and adaptation.
The exhibition unfolds throughout the Henry’s original building that opened in 1927 and which comprises a series of interconnected galleries. This layout is well suited for a group show like Thick as Mud, as each artist can make use of a dedicated space to express their ideas. At the same time, the galleries flow into each other, creating dialogue and shared relationships across the artists’ work. It is delightful when a door opens to a gallery showing a video work and the audio spills out, creating a momentary, multi-sonic tapestry across the space.
All the artists in the exhibition explore the question of how to live in a riven present filled with painful histories and extractive forces.
Two artists directly share the largest gallery: Brackens’s weavings and ceramic sculptures by Rose B. Simpson. It is a dream opportunity to bring the powerful, figural work of these two artists together. Brackens draws from his Black American and queer identity while Simpson draws from her Indigenous heritage as part of the Santa Clara Pueblo. They each transmute individual experience, ancestral memory, and legacies of trauma into poignant expressions of survival, pleasure, and vitality. All the artists in the exhibition explore the question of how to live in a riven present filled with painful histories and extractive forces.
KOOZ To what extent do the artworks in the exhibition explore “disrupting finite linear narratives and dominant hierarchies that shape which places and stories matter” as well as mud’s potential for their regeneration?
NB In relationship to those vibrant mud flats and food webs I mentioned earlier, I’m thinking about how organic decay is nourishment for a host of creatures, creating interconnected relationships across time and place. Similarly, the works in the exhibition engage the past as something pressed up into and circulating within the present moment. Take Candice Lin’s work, “Swamp Fat”, composed of swamp creatures made from mud collected from St. Malo, a settlement in the bayou of Louisiana established by escaped indentured Filipino labourers in the mid-eighteenth century. Inside Lin’s swamp creatures, there is a perfume infused with the odor of rotting vermin. This work recalls a long history of connecting racialized bodies with contamination and impurity, a situation that was reinvigorated by the Covid pandemic and which resulted in an increase in anti-Asian discrimination.
Lin’s work is a good example of how attending to the mud challenges historic and dominant hierarchies of worth and worthlessness.
Lin’s work is also a good example of how attending to the mud challenges historic and dominant hierarchies of worth and worthlessness, as they relate to both bodies and place. Lin’s creatures sit atop faux-marble pedestals and occupy a grand rotunda space at the Henry. This space has a high dome ceiling adorned with silver leaf that imbues the work with a ritual, reverent quality. The effect honours the swamp and its history as a place of refuge beyond the restrictions and racial hostilities of dominant society. We might also think about Brackens’s reclamation of the bottom-feeding, mud-dwelling catfish as an exalted source of magical, life-giving sustenance and psychic nourishment for his own Black queer life and personal mythology. It is meaningful that the catfish first appeared in Brackens’s work as an allegorical figure for three young Black men who drowned while in police custody on Juneteenth 1981—a story of local racial violence often retold to Brackens by this mother and grandmother. In Brackens’s work, the memory of these men is alive in the body of the mud-dwelling catfish, moving between planes of existence and temporal dimensions.
KOOZ Specifically, the work of Christine Howard Sandoval explores historical uses of adobe to reclaim cultural memory and to address legacies of colonial violence inflicted on the Indigenous people of California; Eve Tagny’s installation reflects on conditions of alienation and belonging produced through the visible structures and latent histories of the built environment and Ali Cherri’s multi-channel video installation Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022) traces the history of the Merowe Dam, whose construction in the early 2000s led to the forced displacement of more than 50,000 people. At Henry, all three artists thus expand and explore the power and role of architecture beyond its built form. What is for you the value of imagining and addressing these legacies and histories which shape and are shaped by our built environment?
NB These works create connections across bodies, land and built forms through intimate, embodied gestures. Mud animates these intimate encounters, creating counter narratives to the solidity of such ideas like civilization, progress, and history that the built structures in the work symbolise. In Howard Sandoval’s works on paper, there is a visceral tension between the geometry of the architectural pencil drawings and the unruly adobe-mud applied to the surface. Howard Sandoval derived her schematic pencil drawings from models of Spanish missions established throughout California in the second half of the eighteenth century and into the 1800s. The missions served to Christianize and acculturate Native people, who were displaced from their land and traditional lifeways, and forced to build the mission sites. The model kits of the missions that Howard Sandoval utilised to make her drawings are available for sale, perverse objects that invite buyers to re-perform the colonial violence of the missions and the erasure of Indigenous life and culture. Howard Sandoval, who is an enrolled member of the Chalon Indian Nation and traces her ancestry to the central-coast Mission Soledad, uses the textured adobe to reassert the presence of her Native body into the schematic of the mission, mucking up the tidy view of history told through the toy models and official narratives that erase Indigenous bodies and histories.
Mud animates intimate encounters, creating counter narratives to the solidity of such ideas like civilization, progress, and history.
In an accompanying video in the exhibition titled “Niniwas- to belong here”, Howard Sandoval wears a body camera and walks the estate of Mission Soledad tenderly touching the walls of the crumbling architecture and the artefacts of former inhabitants she encounters along the way. The effect is a form of embodied drawing through which Howard Sandoval contends with the intergenerational trauma embedded in the site, while also remembering the people that lived and survived there. Howard Sandoval’s walk unfolds across a barren landscape, which holds the memory of agricultural exploitation of the land, connecting the violation of bodies and the environment through the mission and the legacy of its history. At one point in the video, Howard Sandoval focuses the frame on a sprout of new growth emerging through the dry earth, suggesting the potential of life in spite of the colonial violence that have threatened to erase it.
I consider the exhibition an invitation to reflect on whose bodies and which places have been culturally, socially, and ecologically valued.
KOOZ If one frames the exhibition within the wider architectural discourse and the necessity of swapping concrete for less polluting materials to achieve our climate goals, examples as Yemen's ancient walled city of Sana'a mud skyscrapers—which soar high into the sky—appear to be interesting and important alternatives. As an exhibition which invites to consider alive ecological and narrative histories in mud and the possibilities that this material holds, what are your ambitions for this exhibition and the food for thought that it leaves its visitors?
NB Experiencing the exhibition, I hope that visitors feel the ways bodies and environments are dynamically entangled, and how the past is palpable in the present. As such, I consider the exhibition an invitation to reflect on whose bodies and which places have been culturally, socially, and ecologically valued and how those legacies shape conditions for people today.
Mud is constantly becoming, and as such, I see the exhibition offering up that same possibility to us.
More broadly, I hope that visitors are inspired to consider and interrogate their own relationship to mud, both physically and within their imaginations. We have a lot to learn from wadding into the mud of our individual and collective marshlands and eroding the fears and false perceptions that reside there. Mud is constantly becoming, and as such, I see the exhibition offering up that same possibility to us.
Nina Bozicnik is a curator at the Henry Art Gallery, where she has organized multiple solo and group exhibitions, including most recently Thick as Mud (2023), ektor garcia: matéria prima (2022); Packaged Black: Derrick Adams and Barbara Earl Thomas (2021/22); Elaine Cameron Weir: STAR CLUB REDEMPTION BOOTH (2021); and Will Rawls: Everlasting Stranger(2021), realized in collaboration with Velocity Dance Center. Bozicnik’s curatorial work takes multiple forms and has recently included the multi-disciplinary colloquium Bugs & Beasts Before the Law, organized on the occasion of the artist duo Bambitchell’s exhibition of the same name; and programming in conjunction with the pilot year of the Henry’s artist fellowship program, designed to facilitate dynamic exchange between visiting artists and the University of Washington community. Recent publications include ektor garcia: matéria prima, Bugs & Beasts Before the Law, Appendix A-L, and Carrie Yamaoka: recto/verso.
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