Missouri History Museum's See STL ToursMissouri History Museum's See STL Tours

Traversing the Great Rivers Biennial

Category: Visual Art

Author: Melissa Fandos with photography by Aida Hasanovic

Traversing the Great Rivers Biennial

Scanning the seventeen wall-mounted ceramic tiles on view in Kahlil Robert Irving’s At Dusk, it is difficult to comprehend meaning. Viewers lean in close, searching for anything to grab onto amidst layers and layers of illegible text—a sentence here or a word there—but their efforts fall short. Even the preceding table of contents offers insufficient support. There is little logic in this text.

Throughout At Dusk, Irving collapses time and history across multiple bodies of work to explore the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism within the St. Louis region and across the U.S. In the wall-mounted White Matter, white text [Department of Justice *memorandum document*,{Darren Wilson, pgs 1 - 86}], 2020, Irving uses the Department of Justice’s 2015 criminal investigation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson as source material. Irving prints and fires pages of the report onto ceramic commercial tile, often repeating the process and layering text over and over until the report is rendered illegible. Irving then isolates the Department of Justice seal on individual tiles, emphasizing that viewers are accustomed to accept this report, written in legal language and stamped with the seal of justice, as objective, cohesive, final, and fact. But as the report concludes that Darren Wilson’s actions did not constitute prosecutable violations, despite the compelling case that Darren Wilson committed murder, Irving exposes this assumption and the authority of the Department of Justice. The text cannot be cohesive, final, or even read, because there is no justice here—a notion echoing across our nation this summer.

Directly across from this seventeen tile work stretches a six by sixty-six foot vinyl wallpaper print. In Wet Wagon Wheels; [(Shelved/stacked MAXED Media) - Change is needed but you have to change first!] Saint_Louis, 2020, Irving assembles screenshots of social media posts, personal photos, memes, infographics, news articles, and Google and YouTube search results from the past three years. These digital texts and images often address violent realities of white supremacy, and memorialize traumatic instances on the museum wall. Irving’s own assemblage practice—what’s included, what’s left out, and what’s worthy of being cemented in time—challenges the dominant media’s truth-making practices. By staging these works directly across from each other in the gallery—in which viewers can turn one way to see an official government document, and turn the other to see a meme—Irving challenges how we think about truth and the mediums in which we see and receive it. And for museum goers turning from government documents about the murder of Michael Brown to screenshots of social media posts about the murder of Breonna Taylor, it feels crucial for audiences, and specifically white audiences like myself, to interograte their own role and responsibilities in this cycle of injustice. Yes, change is needed, but I have to change first.

In the 2020 Great Rivers Biennial, artists Tim Portlock and Rachel Youn join Kahlil Robert Irving to engage the St. Louis region and the country at large through built environments and kinetic sculptures. The Great Rivers Biennial, now in its ninth edition, is a collaboration between the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Gateway Foundation. The initiative recognizes artistic production in the St. Louis region by selecting three emerging and mid-career artists to receive $20,000 and a solo exhibition in the museum.

As visitors shed the digital ephemera of At Dusk, they enter the wide open expanse of Tim Portlock’s Nickels from Heaven. In these large-scale archival pigment prints, Portlock draws inspiration from visits across the U.S. to craft 3-D modeled city blocks frozen somewhere between construction and destruction. Portlock pairs shiny new buildings—often mid-construction or complete with rooftop gardens—with buildings that have fallen to neglect. This pairing obscures what is being created and what is being destroyed, thus questioning who can enjoy these new developments, who they displace, and how we define progress in American cities.


Portlock’s works feel like a modern update of the Hudson River School of painting, active in the mid-1800s and known for its dramatic, grand, imperial images of American landscape ripe for settlement and conquest, often without regard for the indigenous populations already settled there. In Portlock’s update, vast construction and demolition sites lit from the heavens replace valleys and hills. Cranes sit on empty lots dotted with out-of-place trees. As Assistant Curator Misa Jeffereis notes, Portlock’s 21st-century update uses computer gaming software to imagine and create these digital worlds layered with symbols, thus “thinking about nationalism and what it means to be American, and the American spirit historically.” The Hudson River School painters were in part responsible for developing notions of manifest destiny and the American dream—this could all be yours if you want it. Portlock’s visual references to the painting tradition with a vastly different subject matter thus emphasize what has become of these 19th century American ideals.

These 3-D modeled worlds are often anchored by real buildings and their histories. Two buildings from the St. Louis region feature prominently in Nickels from Heaven. In Just Steps Away, 2020, the Spivey Building in East St. Louis towers in the left foreground next to a shiny new building complete with a rooftop lagoon. The Spivey building—nestled between the Mississippi River and ancient Cahokia—was built in 1927 as an office building for a then bustling downtown East St. Louis. The building has been vacant since 1980 as the city’s population declined drastically. In Sculpture Garden, 2020, the failed Lewis & Clark Towers in North County sit in the shadow of another new development adorned with a rooftop sculpture garden. The Lewis & Clark Towers were constructed in the 1960s as a self-contained living community, but were condemned in 2014. As these buildings fall to decay in our region, Portlock questions who has access to American progress.

As visitors move through these desolate landscapes of massive scale, glimpses of movement, flickering light, and music bekon them through a doorway to the third and final gallery space in the biennial. In Rachel Youn’s Gather, forty kinetic sculptures flail and move about together in space to the soundtrack of a Korean church service fused with club music reminiscent of a queer dance party (the latter of which was produced by the local and aptly titled band GodsBod, whose members incude two of CAM’s exhibition preparators).

By fusing together these two seemingly disparate sounds, Youn addresses the similarities of bodies moving together on a dancefloor and bodies moving together in a pentecostal church service, shouting and flailing in ecstasy. When speaking with Youn, whose father is a pastor, they reflected on the nature of collective identity and vulnerability in both settings. Youn emphasized the importance of Christianity among Korean communities by stating, “It's what gave them a sense of national identity or liberation from being colonized for so long...Even if they aren’t Christian, a lot of people still go to church because they want to be around Korean people. And that’s not super unlike the queer person going to the queer dance party to find some sort of family or sense of belonging.” In both settings, community members embody an emotional, physical experience of vulnerability.

To craft these kinetic sculptures, Youn sources secondhand massagers from Facebook Marketplace to serve as motors. A large part of their studio practice involves driving. They speak of crossing the Mississippi River to meet a seller in Belleville, following the river south to meet another in Arnold, and crossing the Missouri River to St. Peters, thus traversing the great rivers to realize the exhibition. As Misa Jeffereis noted, Youn could have sourced the massagers through online shopping, but chose instead “to meet with people and spend time with them...They tracked all the places they went, and plan to invite the sellers to the show to let them know their former massagers are now pieces of art. It's about the local community and making connections with people who are here.” Youn elaborates on their time spent traversing the region as a chance to “explore what St. Louis looks like to so many different people...because there is such a diverse amount of experiences. It was really fun collecting these objects—these massagers—because they ultimately have a history to them” as secondhand objects.

Just as these secondhand massagers teter on the edge of obsolescence in basements across the great rivers region, Youn makes an intervention. They rescue the objects, transform them, and display them in space together. And as we reach month seven of the coronavirus pandemic and gathering as we know it faces forced obsolescence, Youn’s Gather provides a moment of refuge as we dance and flail about.




The exhibition was curated by Misa Jeffereis and juried by José Carlos Diaz, Christopher Y. Lew, and Amanda Ross-Ho. It is on view through February 21, 2021. Other exhibitions on view at CAM include Ebony G. Patterson’s ...when the cuts erupt...the garden rings..and the warning is a wailing…; the LEAP Middle School Initiative’s Lost Islands; Interiors by New Art in the Neighborhood; and Yowshien Kuo: Western Venom curated by the Teen Museum Studies program.




Suggested Reading

  • The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson, 2020
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, 2011
  • “Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson” by the United States Department of Justice, published March 4, 2015
  • “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, published March 4, 2015
  • “The Gangsters of Ferguson” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published March 5, 2015, in The Atlantic
  • “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” by Jia Tolentino, published May 20, 2019, in The New Yorker