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The mood in Sreshta Rit Premnath’s exhibition Grave/Grove at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego is one of meditative calm. Spare sculptures spread across the gallery’s white and gray expanse, punctuated with reflective silver and tendrils of green. Yet despite this soothing spirit of first encounter, it does not take long for the works to cohere in front of the viewer and assert a wrenching consideration of migration, cruelty, hope, and how we, as a sociopolitical body, value human life. That such spartan aesthetic gestures can raise deeply troubling and urgent questions, while offering a careful optimism, speaks to Premnath’s virtuosic command of medium and form.
Born in Bangalore, India, Premnath moved to Ohio at age eighteen to attend art school at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He has since cultivated a multidisciplinary artistic practice that draws on the formal strategies of Minimalism, conceptualism, and Land art to explore dynamics of demarcation, displacement, and resilience. In addition to such art historical references, Premnath has spoken of his parents as a source of influence. “They run a non-profit in India that does reforestation work on the fringes of a wildlife sanctuary, while also supporting the livelihoods of the indigenous community there and running schools for their children,” he explains. “While I make art ‘about’ pressing social issues they actually make change. Yet, I find great importance and significance in artmaking, even if it isn’t the most socially efficacious activity.” Despite this perceived incapacity, Grave/Grove does effectively elucidate the social efficacy art possesses.
As visitors walk down the stairs into ICA San Diego’s gallery space, they pass three figurative sculptures, wrapped in chain link, hanging in the air from wire attached to the ceiling. The sculptures proffer a bare nod to the human body; truncated, with two limbs, they look like heavy concrete but are, in fact, plaster-covered foam. Their formal restraint powerfully projects their nuanced affect. More of the white forms spread across the lower gallery space. Premnath calls them “slumps”—indeed, they do recline, fold, and sink toward the floor. They appear exhausted, the energy for control relinquished or taken forcibly from them, yet they retain a stark and poetic elegance.
Many of the slumps sit in tableaux with sheets of aluminum, laid on the ground with their edges folded up. In one particularly striking cluster, a Mylar emergency blanket tightly covers a metal barrier and serves as a mirrored backdrop for the slump and its bed of aluminum. These material elements recall artworks by two figureheads of twentieth-century art: Donald Judd’s gleaming aluminum boxes installed in the cathedral to his work in Marfa, Texas, and Robert Smithson’s 1968–69 series Mirror Displacements, in which mirrors partially embedded in the earth call attention to the viewer’s physical relationship to the landscape. These works exemplify the ways in which Minimalism’s legacy of presence and purity, and Land art’s focus on site and entropy, pointedly abstract location, material, and the body’s positionality in the space around it.
In Grave/Grove, these formal elements gesture toward references with a degree of specificity foreign to Judd and Smithson. Premnath’s folded aluminum sheets suggest broken down cardboard boxes, which summon images of unsheltered people using cardboard to craft signs, beds, and makeshift cover. This reference takes on a particular urgency in San Diego, a city with one of the highest rates of homelessness in the United States, as well as the site of grueling attempts at border crossing by people seeking to escape poverty and violence in their home countries. The silver emergency blanket, meanwhile, has in recent years become a symbol—not only for border crossing at large, but also the repugnant treatment that migrant families endure in frigid detention centers run by US Customs and Border Protection.
Moments of beauty materialize where plants grow from soil that fills the cracks between the aluminum boxes. Still small and delicate when I visited early in the exhibition’s run, they offer bits of greenery—of life—amid the industrial materials. Over each group of plants hangs a plastic water bottle, suspended from the ceiling, from which an IV tube feeds water to the flora below. Emerging from the dirt, stretching upward toward the makeshift watering system and the artificial glow of the gallery lights, these plants afford the viewer a dose of hope.
For help cultivating the plants, ICA San Diego turned to Pixca Farm, a POC worker cooperative group that employs diversified, ecological farming. In what they describe as an effort to “advance food sovereignty,” they provide food and flowers to San Diego’s South Bay community, the county’s southernmost region that abuts the US–Mexico Border. The plant species featured in the exhibition include such local flora as the common dandelion, pigweed, milkweed, epazote, eucalyptus, wild oats, yerba mansa, and yarrow. Despite their abundant uses as food, medicine, and as a draw for pollinators, all are generally considered to be weeds or invasive species. The terms “weed” and “invasive” speak volumes in framing botanical migration as undesirable, even dangerous, and parallels the rhetoric used by anti-immigration proponents in the United States to dehumanize migrants. The natural world is, after all, borderless, and Premnath’s work reminds us that in the creation and policing of borders, we all lose our humanity. By reconfiguring our notions of borders, migration, and the categorization of unwanted people and instead cultivating care, we just might regain it.
Two large works on paper, featuring black ink on a white ground, depict the impressions of chain-link barriers. Upon first glance, and in the context of the rest of the exhibition, the patterned chain-link recalls the rectilinear stripes of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings. Yet backgrounds of swirling black ink lend the images a dreamlike specter of fear and anticipation. While Stella may have abandoned outside referents, Premnath renders a particular obstructive form—the fence—that has become a stand-in for debates about migration, composing images that evoke the turmoil of the migrant’s journey and the larger, often barbarous conversation around it.
The exhibition also includes a series of text-based works in the form of emergency exit signs, installed high up on the gallery walls. Instead of reading “EXIT,” they bear pairs of words on either side: ESCAPE/ARRIVE, GRAVE/GROVE, INSIST/EXIST, and WAIT/WAKE. These words initially appear to be opposites, but upon further reflection speak to a kind of interdependence. A traditional exit sign leads the way out, especially important in times of emergency. We are in an emergency—an epic, urgent emergency—right here, right now. How do we get out? Through nourishing that very interdependence, Premnath’s work argues, beginning with those living in the most marginalized, vulnerable bodies.
I am reminded of a statement Donald Judd made in a 1965 interview, in response to a question posed by his interlocutor. “I think most of the art now,” Judd said, “is involved with a denial of any kind of absolute morality, or general morality.” While Premnath may borrow minimalism’s formal language, his practice could not be more conceptually different than Judd’s. Premnath’s work does indeed have a moral center, one rooted in community, care, and growth: the exact kind of moral orientation we most need right now.
Independent Curator and Editor of HereIn Journal