IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, 2022
Chisenhale Gallery presents LA-based artist Nikita Gale’s first solo exhibition in the UK.
Gale sculpts concrete and metal, light and sound. Composing atmospheric, large-scale installations, Gale’s practice orbits themes of invisibility and audibility, interrogating the unstable relationship between performer and spectator, structure and ruin.
Building on Gale’s RUINER series (2020-present) — aluminium armatures evoking crowd-control barriers, wrapped with concrete-saturated strips of cloth — this new commission, IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, consists of remnants of a performance rendered in concrete. The exhibition takes Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon as its starting point, notably the character of Circe, who shares her home with a pack of Weimaraner dogs. Referencing a passage from the book in the exhibition’s title, Gale brings to life an ambitious interpretation of Circe’s feral and free domain — once a grand house, now a decaying testament to the greed and violence of the family she previously served but outlived.
Two conical spotlights and pleated swathes of theatre curtain, ten metres in length, punctuate the gallery. Concretised knotted dog leads, which hang chandelier-like from the ceiling, have been woven into the kinds of elaborate knots a dog might make when left unattended with their restraints. Commands used by humans to summon dogs interrupt the gallery’s stillness. The sound activates a lighting sequence — designed with Gale’s ongoing collaborator Josephine Wang — which intermittently illuminates the exhibition, making reference to the dichromatic vision of dogs.
Gale’s installation is a materialisation of what might happen when social infrastructures of visibility and performance turn to ruin. How might the remains be used and navigated by sensory economies that operate outside of our visually dominant, human one?
Photography by Andy Keate
CHISENHALE INTERVIEWS: NIKITA GALE
Amy Jones: I thought we could start with the title of the show, IN A DREAM YOU CLIMB THE STAIRS, which is taken from Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon. Could you talk about how Morrison’s novel has informed the development of your commission?
Nikita Gale: The title of the exhibition is taken from a scene in the novel where we first encounter a character called Circe. Circe is a really fascinating figure because the story is essentially a loose interpretation or reimagining of the Greek epic poem, Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Odysseus, a legendary hero in Greek mythology. Circe is interesting because she’s the only character in Morrison’s novel who retains her original name from the Odyssey. In a way, it’s like she functions as this portal, this very direct link between these two stories. She doesn’t appear in the novel until we’re almost at the end of the story but has a very crucial role in completing a missing piece of information that helps the main character [Milkman, the Odysseus character in Morrison’s story] complete his hero’s journey.
In the section of the novel where we meet Circe for the first time you almost feel as if you’ve entered this other universe, where the logic that’s been applied to the rest of the novel is suddenly suspended. I think that’s evoked in the very dreamy and almost surreal phrasing of the title too. It’s a nice entry point for contextualising the show; as you enter the space, you have this title in your mind, this sense of being out of place or out of sync in some way, which I think is almost the same position that Milkman finds himself in at that point in the book.
AJ: That feels related to something we were talking about in the gallery earlier today, about how the exhibition creates this feeling of crossing a threshold and entering into a space that doesn’t feel right or has an atmosphere of unease. That idea of the atmospheric or the ambient and understanding that as an infrastructure is something you referenced in your work SOME WEATHER (2021), [a series of videos commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with CIRCA which was shown on a series of outdoor screens in London, Seoul and Tokyo.] Could you maybe talk a bit about that relationship, between atmosphere and infrastructure, in this exhibition?
NG: There’s another Toni Morrison quote, from the end of her novel Beloved, where she uses the term “weather” to describe all the little, almost imperceptible things that happen between people: “By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.”
There’s something really beautiful about that passage because what it does for me, is really narrow the gap between bodies and the space that surrounds them. It makes them the same thing, like the idea of comparing breath to wind. I started extending that thought to the way that we create weather and atmosphere for one another, at a social level but also at an experiential level. I first came across the Morrison quote through Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake where she talks about weather in terms of an environment or an atmosphere of anti-blackness; something that’s just always there and is being reproduced through social relations: it’s being produced by other people, to be experienced by people who occupy that category of blackness socially.
That concept draws me back to Circe’s story because she has been working as a servant for this family, in their house. That house was a structure that cultivated an atmosphere of violence and oppression, and it’s been that environment for her for so long, so when the last surviving member of the family dies, it’s almost like Circe casts a spell or a curse on the environment to shift the atmosphere. She’s in the house with this pack of dogs that were left behind, that have been exponentially reproducing and are now, slowly, destroying the house. They’re creating their own logic in this building. It’s presumed from the outside to be abandoned, which protects them in a way. Circe uses that concept of weathering to pursue her own thing inside. It’s like being invisible in plain sight.
AJ: Yes, totally. There’s also something that happens when you start to foreground the ambient or the atmospheric that shifts the way you’re able to make visible the hierarchies that operate within certain systems.
NG: Yes, absolutely. I love that switch flip, that often happens when something that is just so ambient, that’s taken for granted or very hard to articulate, something like weather and atmosphere, is suddenly in the foreground. Sometimes it’s just like a sensed thing. It may not even be something that is intentionally or specifically observed. There is something about thinking about institutions as these ambient structures that are not meant to be noticed. It also makes sense to me that something like weather, which we have very little control over (at least in the short term, I think we are now reaping just a few of the longer term effects of climate change), would also fall into that category, as something that has the ability to influence or affect behaviour. I think that’s something that happens in the exhibition as well. Because we’ve kept the windows uncovered, but we have these neutral density filters that filter out around 40% of the light that comes into the space, the environment shifts in a pretty uncanny way. The gallery is able to fully immerse you in the fantasy, because there’s something about allowing the exterior to leak into the space that feels important.
AJ: Yes, particularly when thinking about time as another ambient infrastructure that’s disrupted within the exhibition. The exhibition is both situated within a linear, repetitive understanding of time, as we see the outside unfolding over the course of each day, but also out of time, as the filters create this feeling of permanent dusk.
NG: Yes, I love that. I think something that inherently happens with installation work is that it’s not necessarily “Institutional Critique”, but it engages with things that are about gallery spaces, that are sometimes just taken as a given. The windows in this gallery are huge. They take up an entire wall. I’m really glad that Rachel [Jones, the artist whose exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery preceded Nikita’s] opened them up during her exhibition because I really didn’t want the gallery to be this space where you walk in and you’re just completely separated from the outside. Instead, you feel shifts in time or shifts in the weather, the atmosphere. It becomes this strange, liminal space, where you walk in and you feel like suddenly six hours have passed just based on the way the outside looks, through the windows. I really like that in terms of, again, thinking about the character of Circe and her relationship to time. For example, we never figure out how old she is. She’s impossibly old, too old to be alive.
AJ: Materials and technologies associated with performance, such as truss, lights, and microphones, often appear in your work in states of disarray, ruin or misuse. What’s your interest in removing these objects from their typically supportive, background roles and putting them “centre-stage”?
NG: JG Ballard has this quote, “All obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born,” and I’m obsessed with pop music. I love going to pop shows. I love going to any kind of performance venue and looking at the gear, seeing how they’re making things look the way they look and essentially shaping and controlling attention. Jenny Odell has a really fantastic term she uses to describe these things: “attention-holding architecture.”
How does something become audible or inaudible? How does something become visible and invisible? How does tension get created through all of this technology? All of those materials that influence attention are in plain sight, but they kind of become invisible through what they’re asking you to look at. When a spotlight is pointed at a figure on the stage, it’s telling you where to look. That’s also a result of instrumentalising the function of typical human vision. 70% of the sensory receptors in the human body are located in the eyes, in that area of the brain. It’s one of these biological facts that’s hard to work against in many ways, because it is so physically dominant and as a consequence, conceptually as well.
This is also the case for folks with visual impairments or who experience blindness. There’s this really interesting TED talk by Lotfi Merabet, a neuroscientist studying how the brain adapts to blindness. He was doing these studies with children who were blind where he asked them to create these maps of spaces, and the drawing process activated the same part of the brain that’s typically activated by vision.
AJ: And this interest in the mechanics of vision is also reflected literally by some of the objects referenced in the exhibition.
NG: Totally. Objects like the spotlights and curtains, operate as very direct shorthands for these ideas about vision. These are the kinds of objects, in the context of a set design or performance, that bring things in and out of vision, they make things visually accessible or not. The curtain obscures and reveals, the spotlights do the same thing.
With these sculptures, I wanted to almost turn these objects into ruins. To make them go against their function. Making a spotlight out of concrete, making it completely opaque, almost like a column, like a structure that becomes the sort of supportive structure. It becomes a different object. But it holds the same shape.
AJ: Similarly with the curtain, it’s this thing that’s built to be flexible and moveable but now...
NG: …Now it’s like a wall, essentially.
AJ: Returning to Circe, she is a figure who has very much influenced the exhibition and one whose presence is felt through her absence. Your work often intervenes in the production of presence, particularly within the relationship between audience and performer. Previous works have mobilised things like lighting, staging and sound to evoke the presence of both named and unnamed, absent performers (Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Big Mama Thornton have all been referenced in previous works for example.) Can you talk about that relationship, between absence and presence, audience and performer?
NG: Very early on, when we first started working together on this show, there was this book, JeanLuc Nancy’s, Noli Me Tangere, which is about the resurrection of Christ. He uses that story as an entry point to talk about how having an audience to witness, distribute and share experiences is crucial to the recognition of something existing or having happened. There’s this incredible line where he talks about how Mary Magdalene is the most important figure in that entire story because if it hadn’t been for her, as this earthly body who witnessed the Ascension, there would be no proof that it happened. There is the absence of a body but what legitimises it is the witnessing of how that absence came to be.
I think there’s something about the relationship that an audience has to experiencing a work that is almost an authorisation through witnessing or seeing. There’s a really great moment in Lorraine O’Grady’s essay Performance Statement #3: Thinking out loud: About performance art and my place in it where she references Heidegger’s conception of ‘preservers’: “that combination of presenters, critics, and audience required for the work to come into existence, into being, after it has been created by the artist.”
It’s the way that the audience or the witness produces the thing, and then reproduces it. This is really closely tied to Stuart Hall’s thinking about media reception and how that site of encounter between objects and audience is the moment at which a new relationship is produced, a relationship that links the audience to what it is perceiving.
AJ: That makes me think of the moment when I watched the lighting sequence in the exhibition for the first time. It makes you suddenly aware of, not only what you’re looking at, but where you’re situated, as a subject within the exhibition and how that is continually shifting. As you move around, the lights move, the sound changes, the outside is shifting through the windows. You are looking at these large, heavy concrete objects but there is also constant movement.
NG: Yes, it’s the instability of vision or the instability of the senses. I almost want to think about that in terms of institutions. Like vision as an institution or visibility as an institution. It guides so much of how things are made and constructed. I want to think about other ways of sensing the world, which is another reason why the character of Circe is so fascinating to me — she’s inhabiting this realm that is dominated by a sensory economy that is not so human-centered. There are things in the exhibition that intentionally go beyond the sensory capacity of an average human.
AJ: Can you speak a bit more about the lighting element of the commission and your ongoing collaboration with Josephine Wang?
NG: Josephine Wang is a brilliant lighting designer and artist who I’ve been working with for the last, maybe, four years. For this show, we were doing a lot of research around how dogs experience sound and light. We learned that dogs have two colour-receptor cones, whereas typically humans have three. In a lot of the research, it would say, “Dogs see mostly in a blue, yellow colour spectrum”, but actually, a more accurate description is that if you take a dog’s eyes and attach them to a human brain, it would mostly see blue and yellow. Senses work in concert not in isolation, so we’ll never understand what a dog’s heightened ability to smell and sense movement is contributing to their vision. I wanted to run with this funny idea of this not-quite accurate description, in terms of trying to simulate dog vision for humans, but the idea of attaching a dog’s eyes to a human brain is also interesting to me because it creates this weird middle space.
AJ: This is a good moment to talk about your interest in dogs and how it’s informed the commission.
NG: It’s funny because initially when I came across Circe and her pack of dogs in Morrison’s book, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to have to deal with dogs in the show. I love dogs so much, so it was really difficult for me because I thought, “okay, I can’t make it a ‘dog show,’” but I also really wanted to focus on what it was that was in operation in Circe’s universe — What is it specifically about Circe’s dogs and her relationship with them?
That’s where I came to this understanding of dogs being used as technology. We get to extend parts of ourselves through them. Circe has really cultivated and worked in collaboration with these dogs to achieve the goal of destroying the institution that’s caused her so much harm. In this exhibition, there are these two objects that touch on this relationship. The first set of objects are the water bowls that are placed across the gallery floor, and filled with water. The water is refreshed regularly so if a dog comes in and wants some water, they’re welcome to drink out of the bowls.
Then there’s a grouping of dog lead sculptures (OBSOLETE LEASH I - XI, 2022) that I’ve dipped in concrete and knotted in different ways. I co-parent a very cute terrier named Rufus who currently lives in Boston with my friend veronique d’entremont, and whenever I leave Rufus unattended, if he’s on a lead and he’s at a table or something, it only takes a few minutes for him to get completely knotted around the table leg or create all these loops and knots. The lead sculptures are these objects that represent what a dog is capable of in the absence of human control in some way. But leads also occupy the space between human and dog. That space between, and connecting species, is also occupied by certain kinds of language — sounds and words that are meant to communicate things between humans and dogs, such as a whistle or a click of the tongue, or calling the dog’s name.
AJ: And those are the sounds which activate the lighting sequence in the exhibition…
NG: Yes, you hear the sound of whistles and clicks. There are these moments of silence, and then other moments that seem like silence, where there’s actually a frequency playing that’s just outside the range of typical human hearing, but is well within the range of dog hearing. The lighting sequence is programmed to insinuate that something is happening, so you get this experience of knowing that there’s something happening that’s outside of the realm of audibility for humans.
AJ: There are also other experiences in the exhibition that only dogs can access…
NG: Yes, the leads are also dressed in dried lavender so there’s a smell component that gets activated because lavender is calming to humans typically but it can also be extremely relaxing and activating for dogs. There’s this little sensory altar, something just for dogs.
AJ: Building on what you’ve been saying about visibility and audibility, could you speak about the relationship between those two things? Because it feels like there’s a parallel for you, between vision and obscurity, sound and silence.
NG: I think there’s this political discourse that says, “make your voice heard”, “visibility is number one.” But those approaches are also tools of surveillance and can be used against people. At certain points in time, those strategies have been important and effective but after a certain point it’s like the mainstream, the institution, or the spectacle just absorbs those strategies and they become tools of oppression. There’s this line that I love, which is that visibility is not representation. We’re in a moment now, especially in pop culture and media, where visibility is misinterpreted as representation when in fact it is often just very exploitative.
For me, silence and invisibility, or lack of visibility, are actually much more threatening and interesting positions. Silence can mean something’s not there, but it can also mean something is there, lurking or listening, preparing, recharging, refusing. That also applies to visibility and invisibility – something that’s so small or so large that it becomes difficult to identify or recognise. That’s also how institutions and infrastructures work sometimes. They’re so large that they become difficult to recognise.
I also want to address censorship in the context of silence. Silence as something that’s imposed versus something that’s chosen are two very different conditions. It is the active resistance or refusal that distinguishes it from being a tool of the state or a surveillance apparatus. In both cases, it’s the difference between choosing to be visible versus being forced to be visible.
AJ: Your work often deals with ruins, both materially and conceptually — ruined objects, or ruined or failing systems. You also studied archeology for three and a half years.
NG: Yes, my whole background up until the last six months of my degree was archeology. I was doing carbon dating. I was going on digs. I was doing the whole thing. It always creeps up in my work, that interest in material culture and objects and how they get imbued with meaning.
Ruins, I think, can do this thing where they become a way of validating a subject position within a political or cultural system. In a place like London, you walk around and you’re like, “Oh, that monument has been here for a thousand years, isn’t that amazing that it’s still standing? It’s still persisting. You’re a part of that too.” It can have this ability to extend your sense of time or connect you to some previous group of people. That thing is there because groups of people have continued to agree and authorise it to be there. And actually, institutions work in a similar way.
Ruins are also interesting in terms of questioning this current discourse around destroying institutions, tearing things down. Even if institutions are removed or destroyed we still have to deal with the ruins and the fallout. Even if it’s not a physical site, it still exists in the minds and ideologies of the people who enacted them and who benefited from them. For me, the question becomes, when those things get destroyed, what do we do with those materials? We now have these fossilised, petrified spotlights and curtains, what happens to those things? They become something else that can be navigated or turned into something useful or foundational for another form to be built on top of.
AJ: And, what are the strategies that we need in order to be able to navigate them?
NG: Yes, that’s the question. And that’s what Circe is enacting within the context of the house. She’s turning it into something that isn’t a house any more. It’s become something else.
AJ: Could you talk a bit about concrete as a material in relation to these ideas.
NG: Definitely. I live in Los Angeles and I grew up in Atlanta – two cities that are covered in concrete. In LA in particular, a very high percentage of the city is covered in concrete and it actually makes the city hotter because of how concrete absorbs solar energy.
I think of concrete as a material of authority. It’s a material that really designates where you are and aren’t supposed to be as a pedestrian. It’s a way of dominating and paving over the environment. In the US, our interstate system, which emerged in the 1950s, has been described as a huge racist monument because most of the interstates were built right through communities of colour, specifically Black communities. There are these massive concrete structures that are cutting across large swaths of what have become economic dead zones. There’s a lot of violence embedded in the material because of that, through how it’s been applied. So many things are made out of concrete: roads, barricades, buildings. When something’s paved in concrete, you know there’s been this suite of agreements made between various municipal and federal state organisations to put it there. To me, concrete is a material that is shorthand for talking about power, without talking about power.
AJ: You also work with concrete in your ongoing series RUINERS (2020 - Present). In many ways, this exhibition feels like a development of that work.
NG: Oh yes, totally. Each work in that series consists of three materials; terry cloth – a towel material which is often used to cover walls, or stuffed under doors when someone’s trying to deaden the sound and you don’t have the money or resources for the nice acoustic foam. Then there’s concrete, which I dredge the cloth through, which is attached to this language of power, authority and fixing things, like pathways or ideas. Then there are these aluminium armatures, which often aesthetically mirror barricades; these porous architectural features that control movement through space.
When I make those works, weaving the concrete dipped cloth in and out of the aluminium structures, I’m thinking a lot about the fugitive gestures that can be made in between these forms that are meant to guide bodies or keep them out. They become these meditations on the possibilities of moving in and out of structures — structures which are often presented as impermeable, but there are always holes in those things!
For me, making those works is about finding ways of working in the open spaces, and all the different orientations and possibilities of that. Essentially what happens is, after I’ve done the weaving in and out, the twisting them around, those holes are completely blocked up and the original structure gets destroyed in the process. It’s turned into a record of all those moves and improvisations that I was doing.
AJ: Yes. That also makes me think about the way light functions in this exhibition. This process of turning, continual movement, of occupying different positions…
NG: Yes, because each move extends the grid. As the concrete hardens and becomes fixed, it’s more challenging every time to find the additional spaces. It’s a metaphor for what we were talking about earlier, about how spectacle absorbs any kind of radical, unaccounted for positions. It continues to do that and institutionalise it. Those spaces, to weave in and out of, get smaller and smaller, but they’re still there. It just requires more effort each time.
Interviewed by Amy Jones, Associate Curator, Chisenhale Gallery, on Friday 1 July, 2022, Chisenhale Gallery, London.