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Her Art Is at Odds With Museums, and Museums Can’t Get Enough

Inside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, little pieces of Antarctica were melting: cross-sections of an ice core from the continent’s Newall Glacier, each one about the size of a beverage coaster and encased in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. The artist Gala Porras-Kim watched approvingly during a visit in March, pointing out the air pockets that had started to form.

“The ice cores are an archive of ancient air, because the air gets stuck in the layers of ice,” she said, pointing at the display during an interview at the museum. This particular core, which Porras-Kim had obtained from the National Science Foundation’s Ice Core Facility in nearby Lakewood, Colo., contained ice that had formed some 10,000 years ago, around the beginning of the Holocene period, in geological terms.

Porras-Kim, an interdisciplinary artist who often questions how museums collect material from previous civilizations, was also planning to debut what she called an “ice performance” at the opening of her solo exhibition on March 8: “Gala Porras-Kim: A Hand in Nature.” That night, and at monthly intervals thereafter, an unsealed piece of the core would be placed on a silver tray and allowed to thaw. “The ancient air will get released into this room — a reunion of this old air with the new air, mixing together,” she said, describing it as an “organic de-accession process.”

Her exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver follows a busy year of exhibitions for the artist.Credit…Wes Magyar

The exhibition at MCA Denver is the largest museum solo the 39-year-old artist has had in the United States. It follows her busy year of one-person exhibitions, at the U.C.L.A. Fowler Museum, the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul and the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, among other venues. And next spring Porras-Kim, who is based in Los Angeles and London, will have a solo show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

The artist brings a new and refreshing perspective to some of the most important, and confounding, questions in the field today: how to preserve and display the artifacts of ancient people and Indigenous cultures in prominent museums, and whether to keep them at all or engage in a process of restitution. Her art often unfolds through dialogues with directors, curators and conservators, memorialized in formal letters that suggest ways to restore a sense of spirituality and ritual to objects that have been wrested from their original contexts. In person she has an upbeat, optimistic way of speaking, conveying a persuasive confidence that museums can correct their troubled histories if they are willing to think more like artists.

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