“Troubling Disappearance”: (Re-)Constructing Remnants

New Takes

“Troubling Disappearance”: (Re-)Constructing Remnants

By Kelly Kirkland April 3, 2019

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

"If we consider…an ephemerality read as vanishment and loss, are we perhaps limiting ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by our cultural habituation to the logic of the archive?"1   

The above quote, from Rebecca Schneider’s 2011 book, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, agitates the notion that temporal works are in the continual process of disappearing. Schneider proposes that the “traces, glimmers, and residues” of ephemera can be engaged as that which remains rather than that which disappears.2 Though primarily concerned with theater and performance studies, the book raises an important question: What might it mean to make ephemerality durable?

Built Environments, recently opened at San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery, features work by fourteen artists and collectives that respond to this question, at scales ranging from monumental to miniature. Curated by Sharon Bliss and Kevin B. Chen, Built Environments “examines artistic interventions both inside and outside of the gallery space, where spatial relations and the routine materials of architecture and construction will be exploded through artistic experimentation.”3 In doing so, the participating artists ask: How does constructed space affect our understanding of the past, present, and future?

Bessma Khalaf. Burn Out Mountain, 2019; archival pigment print; 34¼ x 51 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The Oakland-based visual and performance artist Bessma Khalaf burns images of iconic American landscapes sourced from vintage art and travel books, scatters the ash from the found images over other landscape photographs, and re-photographs the resulting compositions, often repeating this practice multiple times. Burn Out Mountain (2019) is the result of such a process. At first glance, Burn Out Mountain looks like any other black-and-white photograph of snow-capped mountain peaks—a timeless image that could have been taken in 1890, or yesterday. Upon closer inspection, nearly half of the image consists of distorted rubble exploded over the original photograph.

These incinerated remnants merge with the underlying vista, lending layers of additional texture to the craggy rocks and high-reaching trees. In a 2016 interview, Khalaf describes her process as “a controlled type of burn, obliterating these beautiful landscapes…I think [these works] are almost an act of terror […] you can’t tell where the landscapes end and the burn begins.”4 By extension, her work reduces grandiose myths of the American West to ash; for an Iraq-born artist who migrated to the United States during the first Gulf War, such an act reads as catharsis born from apocalypse. In Ash Mountain (2019), a pile of ashes from burned art books resting precariously on a shallow shelf adjacent to the photograph, Khalaf turns the material remnants of her artistic process into its own meta-landscape.

Lead Pencil Studios. Construction Fragment Series 1–10, Construction #3, 2019; giclée print on paper; 12 x 18 in. Courtesy of the Artists.

Construction Fragment Series 1—10 (2019), by the Seattle-based art and architecture collaborative, Lead Pencil Studio, foregrounds the temporary structures associated with construction sites. Photographed and photoshopped against a flat white background, the urban structures depicted in Construction are ephemeral by design and necessity: the steel beams and wooden planks that form scaffolding and walkways around construction sites are temporary measures, erected for safety not aesthetics. In the photographs on view, these seemingly ubiquitous sites become increasingly unfamiliar, even strange: in Construction #3, a billowing tarp clings to scaffolding, both covering and revealing the bone-like structure of the unfinished building, like a wet shirt clinging to skin.

By comparison, Construction #2 depicts temporary pathways demarcated by lines of conjoining pipes that, removed from their original context, resemble an abstracted grid with no discernible terminus. There is something uncanny about making static the processual: Perhaps it is that stilling these often-overlooked material traces of labor serves as an act of memorialization—a testament to the unseen infrastructural support of all monumental objects and institutions. The event of construction has become the object. Khalaf’s and Lead Pencil Studio’s works resist the Platonic intact whole, centering instead the integrity of re- and de-constructed fragments.

"We understand ourselves relative to the remains we accumulate as indices of vanishment, the tracks we house, mark, and cite, the material traces we acknowledge as remaining."5

As a concept, the term ruins negatively connotes degradation, destruction, and negligence while serving as a romantic ideal of those qualities. We have come to understand remains as that which has become the document, residing in material traces after the presumed original piece, moment, or body has expired. Whether or not we preserve and commemorate such objects reflects a Western cultural value system that privileges certain histories as didactic and others as disposable.

Yulia Pinkusevich engages critically with the degrading effects of time in her sculptures, Tower as Self Contained Universe (2019) and A Wall of Salt Growing While Dissolving (2019). The latter, a curved segment of a wall made from stacked salt bricks, stood outside the gallery in a public-facing courtyard. The past tense is required to refer to this work; the piece has disintegrated as the result of the recent winter rainstorms. The gradual decomposition of a wall, a structural symbol for defense, takes on an explicitly political tone against the backdrop of the current political discourse surrounding immigration. Border walls create some of the most hostile built environments that exist; seeing a symbol of isolationism subjected to the daily micro-aggressions of water and wind, viewers are prompted to imagine the processes of dismantling similar structures of detainment and containment on a broader scope.

Yulia Pinkusevich. A Wall of Salt Growing While Dissolving, 2019; installation view; Built Environments, 2019; 48 x 144 x 12 in.  Courtesy of San Francisco State University Fine Arts Gallery. Photo: Kevin B. Chen.

Schneider, in the chapter “Performing the Archive” writes, “The demand for a visible remain, at first a mnemonic mode of mapping for monument, would eventually become the architecture of a particular social power over memory.”6 This collective need to create legible, inhabitable spaces that hold memories forms the foundation of the archive.

If Built Environments tells us anything, however, it is that sited structures do much more than just document a fixed time and place. The works explored here, and many that were not touched upon, employ and destroy the visibly fabricated architecture of everyday life as a way to remember—to make durable—that which is most ephemeral: a human presence in the natural world.

Built Environments is on view at San Francisco State University Fine Arts Gallery through April 4, 2019.


  1. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 98.
  2. José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8.2 (1996), 10.
  3. Sharon Bliss and Kevin B. Chen, Built Environments exhibition pamphlet, 2019.
  4. Dena Beard, “Bessma Khalaf interviewed by Esther Willa Stilwell for The Lab,” The Lab, August 9, 2016, https://www.thelab.org/research/2016/8/9/bessma-khalaf-interviewed-by-esther-stilwell.
  5. Schneider, 97.
  6. Schneider, 99.

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