They’re Among Us

reviewing Huma Bhabha: They Live exhibit at ICA Boston

Ancient and alien, artist Huma Bhabha’s sculpted and drawn figures are currently on view through May 27th in her They Live exhibit at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Cumbrous, god-like prisoners of their own isolation, they loom over wasted industrial cities, openly regard their denizens and worshippers, and stare out at the lost and wandering. It’s a haunting collection of artworks, consisting of pieces that seem to be moldering and decaying before one’s eyes, that seem once erected, feverish and unstable, in the firestorm of fanatical devotion by a flock grasping at any earthen ingredients the landscape affords. But these unforgiving environments give way to something timeless, not from the brutal past nor treacherous future; no, Bhabha’s strange, totemic faces search for elements that connect us now, beyond mythology toward something that reminds us of the beings we were before the capacity to truly communicate dissipated in a fog of war.

Installation view, ICA Boston: Huma Bhabha: They Live exhibition; Tupac Amaru, 2010; and Centaur, 2000, wood, styrofoam, and jacket; Photo: ©2019

Bhabha’s aesthetic and thematic wellspring bursts with influences culled from the Aztec and Inca Empires (if they had survived just long enough to be pulverized into a George Miller-flecked post-apocalyptic reverie), the analog futurism of Star Trek and Universal’s classic era of monster horror, and even the burned-out, last-known-photograph-esque landscapes left behind by cultists like Manson and Jim Jones. It’s a grim, desiccated mix, but Bhabha’s works show earnest yearning to perceive and comprehend, too.

Working with clay, wood, cork, Styrofoam, and various other found materials, her sculptures are the exhibit’s most omnipresent item…and its most paradoxical. Huma herself has noted the form is “about time and history…And now in recent history, there is an increased use of fragile, temporary materials that seem to reflect the speeding up of decay—the production of instant ruins.”

Masks, positioned as the first stop, stare out from behind sinewy tubing and with mouths agape, an unholy mixture of textures and artifacts found in the visual imagery of Tobe Hooper and Guillermo del Toro. The masks don’t horrify the way they might on screen, though; here, they’re almost sympathetic, as much in awe of those peering back at them. The diversity of worlds represented by the masks is as sumptuous as what we might offer back as a tribute, yet they show themselves to have been waiting for such recognition for generations, agonized and lonely. The iatric tubes, like viscera, emerge from and penetrate the masks simultaneously, a motif of self-generating sustenance that manifests later again in the exhibit.

Installation view, ICA Boston: Huma Bhabha: They Live exhibition; The Orientalist, 2007, bronze; and six mixed media artworks, 1994-96; Photo: ©2019

Bhabha’s large scale figures, The Orientalist, seated on a tenuous throne, cast in bronze; the cut-at-the-knees Sleeper, eminently robbed of soul as well as body; and Tupac Amaru, evoking both the late hip hop artist and the Peruvian revolutionary and Incan descendant who grappled for independence from the Spanish, at first feel oppressive, then weathered and poignant, forgotten false idols. The latter two pieces were both rendered in clay, wood, and Styrofoam, but Tupac Amaru incorporates wire, aluminum, and a horn, as well, an H.R. Giger infusion of organic and gothic, of bone and cyber parts. It’s not difficult to see the sculpture as either an icon of a survivalist near-future or a Wicker Man pagan effigy of impending cataclysm (interestingly, all elements found in Tupac’s “California Love” video from 1995) or both. It’s also easy to imagine the armatures (Bhabha honed her construction of them through an early job at a taxidermy studio) animated in a Ray Harryhausen or Jan Svankmajer production.

The last room of the exhibit houses more massive statues and totems, reminiscent of Japanese kaiju ready to be roused to life by a native resurrection after a thousand-year slumber. These giants (and giant busts and heads), though, don’t appear to be inciting fearful worship as much as inviting variation in perception, a sustaining way to remain relevant, connecting to what the New York Times described as “our shared present and future.” Mechanic, Four Nights of a Dreamer, and Waiting for Another Game are all peaked by multiple facades, faces that gaze out in all directions (well, four, anyway), again revealing emergence and retreat at once, each visage unveiling its own persona.

Installation view, ICA Boston: Huma Bhabha: They Live exhibition; EVOO, 2016; Constantium, 2014; and With Blows, 2015; Photo: ©2019

The multiplicity extends to the way Bhabha completes—or doesn’t complete—her pieces, too. Indeed, ICA’s Barbara Lee Chief Curator Eva Respini offers that with Bhabha, “intuition [is] driving her process, resulting in works that appear unfinished.” Some are ostensibly, falsely about their facades, while their behind-the-scenes, exposed backsides are graffitied, vandalized, desecrated, yet vitally alive to the process, more so than what’s actually projected. The haphazard way in which prior directions are left scribbled on plywood and creaky boards prop up platforms is nihilistically charming, the backstage wing of a long-ago, Strike Up the Band-style show at the Spahn Ranch. It’s also a sly nod to Bhabha’s affection for the artifice of horror, sci-fi, and history. The totemic deities themselves convey cosmic loneliness, it’s true, but they’re absent of any notion of mystique or romanticism. In a sense, they’re relatable.

The exhibit’s most evocative and affecting pieces, however, are Bhabha’s photogravure prints (inks and etchings over copper plates) from her series Reconstructions, which places towering titans squarely in modern contexts and barren landscapes. Opaque black or simple, vacuous outlines, these figures are inked over photographs of abandoned acres of industry and manufacturing, standing far above and looking down on the wasted emptiness where once there was creation. Some of the giants have even perished, seemingly of their obsolescence: in one print, a mammoth sarcophagus rests prostrate, jutting out from a desolate, weathered coastline, the Colossus of Rhodes laid to rest. Reconstructions is the exhibition’s true example of loss and melancholy.

In another, a skeletal figure is fading to vapor; they’re seated in a dilapidated chair, eyes and nose aligned with the cross-hatched door behind them (is it a wardrobe? a church facade?), an echo of their once integral role in the routine of the landscape, now near invisible, a ghost story written by Kafka. But if Huma Bhabha’s ancient creations have waited this long, “bear[ing]” as she says, “witness to what is happening in the world,” surely they’ll be there when the fog breaks.