Ima-Abasi Okon @ Chisenhale


Emoji summary: 🔘 🔶 🔲

There’s something going on at Chisenhale atm, you know. I don’t think I’ve seen a show by a white artist there since… maybe 2017? But woah woah woah let’s just slow it dahhhn, hold our collective horses & wait for it. First, the work:: Ima-Abasi Okon’s commission for Chisenhale Gallery.

The first thing that hits you when you walk in is this smell of humidity/aircon. I don’t know HOW you can specifically replicate that smell, of damp, cold air moving. You look up and across half the room, the ceiling has been lowered. Like office ceilings with the tiles and the slats. When I was at school we had this exact same ceiling and since literally everyone in my form hated my form tutor, we all unionised into a cohesive prank squad. A girl in my form smuggled out a battered fish from the lunchroom on a Friday, lifted a ceiling tile above our form tutor’s desk & hid the fish directly above her. When we came back in on Monday the smell was absolutely rank. Our form tutor raged about the smell for days as it progressively got worse, and we all snickered with our hands over our noses too. When she finally moved a ceiling tile, a cloud of flies burst out of the opening and into her peering face that was raised to meet them. Honestly, I can’t look at these ceilings now without recalling that smell or that image; flies bursting out of the ajar ceiling tiles; the smug hilarity of cutting off our noses despite our faces, but still loving every moment of it. Fixed into the lowered tiled ceiling are these beautiful cut crystal light fittings. I stg before my mum got the downstairs redone in 2011, we had the same glittery light fittings fixed vertically to the wall in our living room. On bumpy patterned wallpaper, painted magnolia. In the cut crystal light fittings was this orange goop resting @ the bottom; the press release says it’s palm oil and Courvoisier VS Cognac. It casts this beautiful amber glow on the shards of light thrown by these fittings. They’re placed in pairs, with different cut patterns, and you can see the difference in how they throw the orange light across the floor. It’s this strange, beautiful, snug segment of a room - it conjures a very specific image that I’m happy to return to. On the far wall, the length of the gallery is filled with air conditioning units. The wires trail across and up & then down, hanging from unit to unit. They hum in unison, rising and receding, slowing and speeding, all in harmony. It feels like the sound piece is coming from behind them? But as the air conditioners play on an instrumental loop, an ambient slow jam noise track plays over top. At the end of the gallery are some sticky looking wall mounted pieces: chipboard? Covered in a sticky red/brown lacquer. They’re framed in what looks like fancy dark wood. Idk what teak looks like, but I imagine that’s one of them. It all mixes into this swirling cacophony; disquieting in a way, damp and orange, feels like it’s flickering. I feel like I should be warm, but I’m categorically not.

As Gab and I were picking apart our reactions, she said she felt like there was something that feels confrontational about the space itself. Like the actual room; in its shape or its longness, the fact it sees no sunlight most of the time, its concrete floor & perfect white walls. Like it’s an awkward space & it’s been stretched out from corners that little bit too far to fill the space. A post-digital kinda warping, free-transformed. Gab scrolled on her phone for a while and showed me the tweet with the 4 pics of ‘Rick Owens’ Paris Home’ - sparse, where scarcity is a novelty for the ultra-rich, a costume for those trying to exercise high-taste. I think I felt ok with that; imo there should be space for scarcity or sparseness in a black/poc artists’ practice. We see it assimilated as a given for a white artist - and anyway, this wasn’t empty. The difference between something being scarce & a show being empty felt rly palpable here; bc while the work was kinda only half-present, background noise items like air con droning & the lights shimmering in;; it was full & tangible. I feel like being able to point to these things & say, ‘this is background or has the potential to represent a background’, is fullness enough.

But,,, now this is something I feel I have danced around in a few previous texts. And I’m almost sorry to bring it up here, in the earshot of an artist whose work I really truly enjoyed! I really really want to stress this: the work was absolutely not the sticky patch. But I see what Gab means about Rick Owens’ Paris home. I think most things I’ve seen in the Chisenhale have felt like that same vacated aesthetic. I think the actual room is aCTUALLY oppressive. Then the works in that space feel like they’ve been strung out, stretched to fit. The air con & the light fittings, the damp smell all take on a different frame of meaning and context in this weird sunless room. The palm oil and cognac have a different, more bodily meaning; abstraction or material gesture as fullness, or sparseness as a thing that just happens around you on a timer (a controlled environment playing on loop, wet paint). What do these things mean in the gallery @ Chisenhale? What happens to this aesthetic of living when it’s picked up and stretched across a gallery where currently the entire commissions team is white? The entire senior team? If its audience is the same? (It’s always going to have been anyway). Like, is it now a backdrop for white curatorial staff & edgy gallery visitors to project something else on to? Something vacated and academic? Is that necessarily wrong? (Imo ye, it is). What - tbqhwy - happens when a gallery in Mile End could be anywhere bc of its lack of serious or sincere, meaningfully visible engagement with the residents in the surrounding streets? Is that valued or taken seriously as an integral part of the gallery's daily function? Is it that it could be anywhere? Bc anywhere else also has a locality too; maybe it’s that it could be nowhere - vacated of sensibilities & bodily implications. The space is always blank, empty, boneless; this is why I never fully love any of the shows I see here, this is the flimsy membrane holding me back from falling head over heels. It’s taken me a while to realise that Chisenhale is a white cube.

It feels pointed and like a summary of the problem with Chisenhale, that so much of the hand-out blurb simmered on this one line about ‘exhibition-making as an exercise in syntax’. Bc ye cool, ‘adopting linguistic and grammatical structures within .. installations as a way of complicating the construction of knowledge’ sounds rly great and lofty and impenetrable. But I got the feeling this wasn’t the bottom of it. In the handout, the interview with Ima begins by interrogating this sentence & Ima’s response is that, ‘my use of syntax .. is fleshing out a language that is appropriate for my gait’. 
The two sentences are not synonymous, though at a first glance they seem to be saying the same thing. The latter is a sentence that references the body, her body, speech as it leaves the body (rather than as it is inscribed on paper/screen), and the body in context. (Like fish in water // fish on plate // gait is contextual and read relative to its surroundings). This choice, for Chisenhale’s official bodiless blurb text to latch on to the first sentence, feels like the hinge upon which a lot of its problematics can be examined. The way they perhaps whitewash (?) the work?? Or, no, maybe something softer… strip the work of valuable academic and socio-political context. The body & an artist’s personhood is not marginalia; it is valuable to make works, experience, motivations, all these things, to make them attributable. To not turn them to spectacle or exceptional item. Ima goes on to say, ‘I don’t just turn up as an artist, and whatever that identity may mean, I turn up with all the other aspects of who I am, or who I am attempting to be. I’m working through this all at the same time. There are these other factors that contribute to how I approach making work: did I wake up ok? Did I floss this morning? … There is an idea that some of the actions or feelings are ‘proper’ for a particular context and some of these feelings are not. I want to do away with that preconception of what certain professional space warrants of me, because I don’t find it helpful… Because I genuinely feel a dissonance between my experience, and the apparatus that I have been given to communicate verbally.’ This is a dissonance and an alternative framework that the gallery and curatorial team should be able to support or help to assemble, yet somehow, every show they’ve ever framed has felt like a replication of the same apparatus Ima identifies as unhelpful or restrictive. That means something, does something, and I would genuinely like to know; if a gallery’s entire purpose is to plop out 4 commissions a year, what could they do to make this framework the artists operate within better? Is it as simple as hiring one crumb of a poc in a senior enough role that they could affect serious change without fighting back against too much? It could be! I rly think it is! But I reckon I’m not actually the person to ask, I reckon Chisenhale know what they have to do; they’re just too invested in reproducing a specific line and ~intellectual~ calibre of exhibition.

Ima’s work is immaculate, painstaking, finely-tuned and balanced like considered plating. I like the work, but was jarred (and consistently am, every time I’m in that enormous room) that I felt I had to justify my like for it because of the institutional coating it was delivered to me in. From the blurb to the building to the institutional practices that build a praxis; I rly feel like the Chisenhale is ill-equipped to house the works of practitioners of colour as sensitively or tenderly as needs be. Care is important when handling an opacity that is/acts as the first layer. Maybe, ye, the artist had a positive experience working on this show. And none of this criticism is meant to suggest that these artists that have been showing here haven’t had any agency within this whole exhibition transaction! There was just a bit in the interview that made me sit up straight a bit, where Ima is answering a question about a material. The ceiling tiles in the lowered ceiling have been smeared with an invisible, inconspicuous layer of morphine, insulin, ultrasound gel & gold. Ima says; ‘if I’m going to be hosted, … this gesture… prepares the area for me to come in. What do I need to prepare to take up this offer so that I can enjoy it and thrive in it? If either of those things are possible? … How do I constitute a body without allowing it to be a spectacle, without allowing it to be consumed in a particular way? Because again, those conditions are not present. I don’t know when they are going to be right. Until then I don’t want to make a spectacle of anything.’ None of what I said sounds like it was unexpected or unanticipated by Ima, and I think that’s why the work’s palpability is still present and affective. But this anticipatory stance, this should be something that is also adopted by the gallery, that they anticipate with the artist (rather than it feeling like the artist is anticipating alone). We left feeling like there was a middle missing. What should’ve been there to support the work, implicitly, through soft capital & framing, kinda wasn’t. How are others reading this?

Ima-Abasi Okon's show is on at Chisenhale until 1st September

the white cube gallery space has a lowered ceiling on one end made up of those squares that office ceilings often have, and on the other side there is a row of outdoor air conditioners

a tweet showing pictures of rick owen’s paris home which is very sparse and industrial
outdoor air conditioners are running all along the wall, and connected to one another with drooping black wires
a crystal ceiling light in an amber colour is hung from the office ceiling squares and casts out reflections in diamond shapes onto the rough pattern
zarina holds the camera below her so her silhouetted head is visible below two of the crystal lights
four square framed artworks along a wall, with totally dark centres
a close up of one of these dark artworks shows a busy textured spiky wood that has a resin or laquer over it