THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Francine Almeda
As the pandemic grinds into its ninth month, the colder days have ushered in a calloused sense of resignation. Trapped in cycles of lockdowns and re-openings, I have gluttonously consumed news in the morning, day, and night in an effort to quell my ambient anxiety. Unfortunately, to no one's surprise, this does little to foster any sense of calm; in fact, it achieves the opposite. With seemingly consecutive traumatic events occurring, it is not an uncommon practice these days to, metaphorically, sigh in exasperation and say, “Well, what next?” And yet, a sense of urgent action is needed now more than ever. Racism is far from being dismantled and the pandemic is in full force. How can we continue to fight when we are burnt out?
Edra Soto’s architectural installation Graft, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) on July 7th, 2020 as part of the group show "Temporal: Puerto Rican Resistance," elegantly exemplifies how the portrayal of trauma can be healing and empowering rather than triggering, and importantly, how art can create space for rest and, thus, resistance.
Graft is the overarching title of Soto’s larger research project which she began in 2013. This project is aptly named after the definition of “graft” in two senses of the word: first, the specific bodily connotations (i.e., a skin graft), and second, the broader usage of the word as a verb connoting transfer. The intersection of these two definitions aids Soto in her exploration of herself and her body, as a migrant from Puerto Rico, being literally transferred and “grafted” into the United States.
Iterations of Graft have taken many forms in different locations over the years. At the Chicago Cultural Center, her installation mimicked quiebrasoles (the decorative concrete blocks which complement rejas) in a delicate pink. In Millennium Park, Soto built a black “screenhouse” pavilion. In this iteration of the project at the MocP, she gives voice to those who have lived through Hurricane Maria, a Category Five storm which ripped through Dominica, Saint Croix, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. Although the United States has remained structurally intact throughout the 2020, the destruction of “normal” life has felt just as severe throughout the pandemic. Soto’s confrontation of trauma in her most recent iteration of Graft, therefore, feels all the more timely.
Graft recontextualizes intimate memories and painful emotions with a restrained serenity. The installation commands the entire back wall of the gallery. Here, she has built a massive replication of a Puerto Rican reja, a ubiquitous part of the island's vernacular architecture. A reja is an iron screen which commonly covers many outdoor patios in Puerto Rico, and in turn is a symbol of home, beauty, and security. Soto has focused on its iconic, repetitive shapes and translated the design into a completely new context, interweaving lines of Xs and Os to create one giant screen. The wall seems to undulate. Yet as one approaches the wall, its solid, weighty presence is revealed. Upon even closer examination, it becomes clear that the Os hold small mirrors with even smaller holes. I peered inside the viewfinder of these mirrors and perceived a tiny image. I found myself moving with the rhythm of the wall, bending, leaning and pacing in an almost meditative process across the room.
The images behind the mirrors are a compilation of found images and photographs Soto herself had taken the day after Hurricane Maria. During a virtual artist talk, Dalina Aimée Perdomo Álvarez (the MoCP’s curatorial fellow for diversity in the arts) nodded along in agreement as Soto described the challenges her family faced in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“I feel like every Puerto Rican defines is able to ‘bookmark’ parts of their lives with different hurricanes,” Alvarez says, jokingly, but simultaneously revealing a sobering truth—destruction is a pervasive, if not normal, part of Puerto Rican life.
Moreover, Soto and Alvarez were in agreement about the harmful practice of presenting post-destruction images: “I was tired of seeing people standing in front of their destroyed houses, over and over [...] when this show first opened, I was nervous to even invite my parents. I thought it would be too much for them,” Alvarez admitted. However, Soto does not present images of the destruction in their entirety; but rather in small, tolerable fragments. Hidden behind the viewfinder, these images feel like a memory, just out of reach.
Soto explains that the mirrors were initially a purely practical solution to a problem: to disguise the hole where the image was.1 However, as more and more visitors experienced the piece, it became clear that people were delighted to be a “part” of the installation—it was becoming a social media phenomenon. People were posting images of the installation that also captured their own reflection. Visitors were invited to do more than just gaze by actively participating with the work. By allowing the viewer to implicate themselves within the piece, Soto invites both parties to exist in the same visual field: for a brief moment, the viewer and the piece intermingle and are viewed as one.
In this way, Soto seems to understand remembrance and resistance as one and the same. Soto describes the experience, saying, “It is a slow arrival [...] you see the pattern. If you are curious enough, you will discover there are photographs embedded in the pattern. And then look through the work and see what is there. The exploration becomes completely voluntary. That’s what I like about this work.”2 It is as if the reja is not a gate, but rather an open door welcoming all to approach. In a time where the news is forced upon us, the ability to gently and voluntarily explore feels like a distant concept. Through her installation, Soto creates a place to rest, reflect and process. In steady steel lines and through personal photographs, she embodies the intersection of strength and remembrance.
As 2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but wonder how we will remember this historic time decades from now. Continuing forward to reach that time feels like an endless task. It would be naive to think that simply slowing down and acting with care will be a magic bullet against the fatigue of constant bad news, and yet Soto’s work envisions a hopeful way to continue forward.
Francine Almeda is an artist and curator. She holds a BA in Philosophy from Boston College and is currently the manager of Chicago's Heaven Gallery, located in Wicker Park.
Graft, Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), installation shot. Photo courtesy of Edra Soto.
Graft, MoCP, installation shot close-up. Photo courtesy of
Curatorial Fellow Dalina Aimée Perdomo Álvarez demonstrates the interactive mirrors in Graft at MoCP. Photo courtesy of MoCP.
Graft, Untitled, Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of Edra Soto.
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