ICA i’m yours: Encounters with Art in Our Times

By Isabella Berg (I), Staff Writer

The Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) latest exhibition, i’m yours: Encounters with Art in Our Times works to define the role of art and museums in the age of a pandemic. i’m yours is set up as a raw architectural space with a series of small galleries, each showcasing a different artistic perspective. There are paintings set on top of exposed wood and metal framing, a stark contrast from your typical museum with crisp, white walls. When entering the Karen and Brian Conway Galleries, you can still hear a faint echo of music from the neighboring exhibit KABOOM!, a World War I exhibit. The music is eerie, which adds to the feeling of demise created by i’m yours. In addition to the auditory sensations, the lighting in the exhibit is dark to reflect the nature of its content. 

In the first gallery, Opening Act, you witness a human figure. Three works make up the gallery: a faceless figure with outstretched arms; hands in a mirror and an embracing couple. The faceless figure, Cupboard IX, serves as a “physical manifestation of the persistent anti-Black racism in the United States,” representing the role of Black women in America, according to the artist, Simone Leigh.

The piece is fitting considering the role of the Black Lives Matter movement during the COVID-19 pandemic, with people of color being hit the hardest. Feminist painter Joan Semmel’s Green Heart, an oil painting of an intimate couple, created her pieces with women in mind. She wanted to show femme expression in sexual acts to make a statement about humanity. Semmel’s work provides a stark contrast to the role of women in a global catastrophe. In the news recently, women have been praised lately for being stay-at-home mothers and teachers, but Semmel’s piece covers erotic intimacy as a subject for women, illustrating the duality of the feminist movement.

The next mini-gallery, Unbound, focuses on the “stories of land, history and the body.” Boston Latin School students will be drawn to the stop-motion animation of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of the hero’s wife, Penelope. Or maybe will notice Caitlin Keogh’s Blank Melody, Old Wall, which depicts a disembodied arm bound by rope, representing the patriarchy and violence against women. Domestic violence cases have risen over quarantine, with nations reporting a 30 percent or higher rise in calls to abuse hotlines. In the nearby gallery, What Remains, the tale of death and destruction continues. Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson) by Cornelia Parker displays the aftermath of catastrophe: in this case, a destroyed building. The Messengers, an oil painting by Marlene Dumas, shows motifs of birth, life and death. Dumas has anxiety surrounding mortality, so she turned to the canvas as a means of support, stating that “painting is about exploring one’s fears.”

In Home Again, artists grapple with the idea of what a “home” is during the quarantine. Artists in this exhibit, such as Rania Matar, provide narratives for family, gender roles and care during COVID-19. Matar’s series Across the Window: Portraits During COVID-19 details intimacy during isolation, showing two sisters hugging one another, separated from the viewer by a window. Within another gallery, In Material, artists discover the history and symbolic significance of materials such as sugar, American flags and walkers. These minimalist sculptures, including Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Pins), explore topics such as “the moment where the conditional relationship of part to whole breaks down” (Donovan).

When you walk into the largest gallery Looking Out, thirty portraits of front-facing subjects look you right in the eye. These paintings raise the question, “Where is power located in the act of looking, and what does it mean to be seen?” and forces the viewer to see the contrast between unhealthy power dynamics and emotional tenderness. This is the final gallery in the i’m yours collection, and it highlights artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Henry Taylor and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

Overall, this exhibition is meant to tell stories from different points of view. Boston University Radio, Boston’s NPR news station says, “The show seems to suggest that the old museum canons are melting away, along with rigid and exclusive ways of describing the world.” From the unfinished gallery walls to the seven unique mini-galleries, this exhibition certainly represents “provisional times.”

The pieces are widely varied in style and topic, but that is the whole point of the format. It has been a strange year with the pandemic, so this exhibit is designed to be out of the ordinary. The exhibit will remain at the ICA through May 2021. The arts have been suffering lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is recommended that Boston residents visit the ICA and if possible leave a donation, so the museum can stay open and workers can be paid sufficiently. The ICA has staggered arrival times, contactless entry and spaced-out galleries to ensure proper social distancing. The ICA is open Tuesday through Sunday, and students get in free!