It’s unclear why Fowler Museum has in his possession a sack of unidentified debris. The crumbled pieces and small spots are light brown and packed in a clear plastic bag. There is a handwritten note on the bag asking for a number to be assigned to the bag, but there is no indication as to what the stuff might be.
Gala Porras-Kim, a contemporary conceptual artist, believes these could be breadcrumbs. Founded at UCLA in 1963, The Fowler has more than 150,000 objects in its permanent collection and over 600,000 in its archaeological holdings, with origins spanning Africa, Asia and the Americas. So the crumbs could theoretically come from an old loaf of bread that was broken at one of history’s most momentous meals. Or something completely different.
For Porras-Kim, this isn’t just the kind of oddity one would find browsing the holdings of a major museum. The Weight of a Patina of Time, her new exhibition at the Fowler, includes a selection of her projects from the past seven years. There are reproductions of antique objects, written proposals for museums, and actual artifacts from the outer fringes of the Fowler collection.
Porras-Kim was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1984 and currently lives between Los Angeles and London. He moves between academics and fraudsters. Her work, shown at the Whitney and São Paulo Biennials, among others, includes sculpture, installation and science.
Porras-Kim examines the ethical and practical concerns of how institutions acquire, conserve, and display cultural artifacts—with a particular focus on the bureaucratic labyrinth that transports this material—and often works with the institutions themselves. Her subjects included the British Museum’s vast collection of ancient Egyptian and Nubian funerary art and the development of scholars’ (mis)understanding of ancient undeciphered languages. The seriousness of her investigations is complemented by a playfulness that encourages people to think more subtly about the repatriation of ancient objects and the role of institutions both as custodians and modern-day repositories of colonial possessions. She wants to know, “Can a museum be a graveyard?” Or a box and a barrel?”
In addition to the alleged breadcrumbs, Porras-Kim’s exhibit also includes pottery shards found in an intact ceramic jar donated to the Fowler. Among those broken, unidentifiable pieces was a plastic collar stay, as is common today, which is inserted into a shirt collar to keep it straight. Porras-Kim originally appeared in her contribution to the Hammer Museum’s 2016 exhibition Made in LA, imagining where these fragments may have once belonged. She has sculpted a vase with the cut out shapes of the shards and if you look closely you can also make out the shape of the collar stiffener. She then penciled a scale sketch of the imaginary reconstruction, as an archaeologist would do. “Because the institution says so [the collar stay] “It’s part of that bag, it’s an antique now,” says the artist.
Matthew H. Robb, chief curator at Fowler and curator of The Weight of a Patina of Time, is a little annoyed by Porras-Kim’s suggestion that the plastic waste is now antique because it’s in the same storage bag.
The dialogue and collaboration between Robb and Porras-Kim began in 2016. Bespectacled and scholarly, Robb is one of the leading scholars on Teotihuacan, the ancient Mesoamerican site of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. In 2017, Robb curated the exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, which showcased new objects unearthed at some of America’s most archaeologically significant — and one of the most touristy — sites. Porras-Kim was attracted to two massive stones discovered inside the top of the pyramid using lidar technology. “It took someone a lot of energy to put those stones in the top of the pyramid, all enclosed, with no door or anything — for what?” asks Porras-Kim. “There is a purpose for these stones that we do not know.”
In 2018, she wrote to the national coordinator for museums and exhibits at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, requesting permission to recreate the stones. The replicas are in the Fowler Gallery, imposing, sleek, mute. Robb said the mysterious stones may have been something like the pyramid’s spiritual batteries. Porras-Kim then proposed reinstating her at the top of the pyramid, but was rejected. Now she wonders if their replicas are changing the role of the institutions they travel to.
Another work by Porras-Kim on display, 254 Offerings to the Rain at the Peabody Museum (2021), is an elegant colored pencil index drawing depicting 254 of the 30,000 objects from the cenote at Chichén Itzá, a sinkhole sacred to the Maya -People considered it a portal to the spirit world. Today it is a popular seaside resort for tourists.
Jade heirlooms, bundles of copal (incense made from pine resin), and gold discs depicting battle scenes were just a few of the items thrown into the cenote, possibly as offerings to the Mayan rain god Chaac. The objects were excavated by archaeologist Edward H. Thompson, who owned the cenote in the early 20th century. Porras-Kim has tracked down these objects – some remain in the collection of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, others have been sent back to museums in Mexico – and her goal is to index each one. “Gala’s drawings are the best and most comprehensive public record of what any institution owns,” says Robb.
Beyond indexing, Porras-Kim and Robb want people to think about how institutions as custodians treat their collections and the nuanced and complex nature of repatriating such objects. For example, one of the jade heads found at Chichén Itzá may itself have been looted from Piedras Negras and then taken to the cenote. “When there’s a ‘repatriation,’ the chances of an object going back exactly where it came from is vanishingly small,” says Robb. It is far more complex than simply sending items back to their country of origin.
The Fowler, which received a collection of 30,000 objects from British pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome in 1965, has been verifying the provenance of the collection for several years. The museum “has validated a small number of unethically acquired objects and possessions of crucial cultural importance,” says Erica P. Jones, senior curator of African art and manager of curatorial affairs, “all of which have entered a multi-stage process of restitution to their museum .” Community of Origin.” This includes six objects looted from Benin’s Royal Palace by British colonists in 1897.
Instead of objects with clear cultural heritage like these, Porras-Kim and Robb searched “the weight of a patina of time” in the Fowler collection for more modern artefacts that have baffled restorers and curators.
“Gala and I poked around there and pulled a few boxes off the shelves,” says Robb. “It was the the strangest Stuff.” The artifacts are on display only, with no accompanying artwork by Porras-Kim. One item is a 1959 issue of an old newspaper, aptly titled “Empire News,” which contains an unknown article. The paper is so old that it would crumble upon unwrapping, resulting in the destruction of a historical object in its own right.
The duo also found a box labeled “Mesoamerican & South American Archaeological FAKES.” Presented on a metal shelf, the sculptures of unknown origin are wrapped in individual plastic bags: canine creatures, figurative smoking pipes and modernist-looking decorative objects. They were purchased at auction in 1928. If they are indeed “fake”, it is unclear what they are trying to imitate. “It’s like someone trying to find some sort of neoclassical, old-Mexican art deco vibe,” says Robb. “You can’t be a pre-Columbian specialist and just say, ‘Well, that’s not an ancient thing, so I’m just going to relegate it to the fake shelf.’ Someone made this object – and we really don’t know what their intention was.”
“The Weight of a Patina of Time is ultimately about what we don’t know and never will know about the past. Robb says of Teotihuacan, which is still the subject of fierce debate about its purposes and functions: “Just because something is gigantic does not mean that it retains or retains its importance.” For a work entitled “Frass Monochrome” (2023 ) Porras-Kim asked Robb to collect some frass – the droppings of insects, in this case moths, that ate through parts of the collection – from the Fowler’s storage. The artist then sculpted the object, suggesting that time itself is a material and that the audience for museum objects is not just human.
A thousand years from now, what conclusions will be drawn about the Fowler Museum and the myriad things it contains? Perhaps someone or something will finally recognize the origin of these crumbs.
“The Weight of a Patina of Time”
Where: Fowler Museum, 308 Charles E. Young Drive N., Westwood
If: Wednesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Until October 29th.
The information: (310) 825-4361, fowler.ucla.edu