A low concrete wall outside Hamburg’s main train station made the news recently when people began to cover it with ‘blessing bags’ for the homeless. The plastic bags, filled with food and clothes, were tied to a metal fence bolted to the top of the wall, which had presumably been constructed to keep the homeless out. For her exhibition at The Power Plant, ‘A Wall Is Just a Wall’, Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga considers a history of such barriers. Skilfully articulating her research on this subject in formal terms, she exposes the silent-yet-pernicious control that architecture exerts over our bodies and behaviour, and contemplates how we might resist it.
The exhibition comprises two works. In the first, pink-blue (2017), visitors enter a corridor painted Baker-Miller pink. Trials conducted at a correctional facility in the late 1970s found this particular tone to have a uniquely tranquilizing effect on subjects, reducing their muscle strength as well as slowing their heart rate and breathing. The effect was far from pleasant: inmates left for too long in too large a cell were found to have scratched the pink paint off the walls with their nails. The second half of the corridor is bathed in a neon light found in public bathrooms to deter intravenous drug use. An intense, disorienting blue, the light makes it harder and more dangerous to find a vein.
Alongside this installation, the artist’s new film, A Primer (2017), focuses on the front and back of a makeshift, tripartite structure painted olive green, beige, white and Baker-Miller pink. The camera pans over objects – a house plant, a standing fan, a wooden blind – redolent of mundane corporate and institutional decor, from doctors’ clinics to school classrooms and office cubicles. Art-historical allusions are present in both works – primarily the colour field painters and light and space artists working in the years just preceding the Baker-Miller experiment. Kiwanga manages to strike a difficult balance between the sensory romanticism of Mark Rothko or James Turrell and the more dingy, oppressive uses of colour by corporation and state. From behind one corner of the gallery, a voice-over relays a history of architecture and design specifically devised to coerce, denigrate and exclude. I was forced to lean awkwardly against the wall in order to understand the muted audio. As with the immersive installation pink-blue, A Primer compels gallery-goers to high-tune their senses and observe the structurawl conditions of their environment.
This is the exhibition’s greatest strength: rather than simply provide us with information, Kiwanga adopts minimalist formal language to communicate her research more subtly. The gallery is never a neutral space; museum visitors are always subject to the effects of small-yet-authoritative curatorial decisions regarding wall colour, layout and lighting. While such choices are not always obvious, they impact both our perception of the works and our behaviour. The final outcome of Kiwanga’s exhibition is thus the opposite of the Baker-Miller sedation: we are left with a feeling of profound uncertainty. Are we ever really in control?
To those currently living in fear of increased fortification along the Mexico-US border, a wall may seem to be anything other than ‘just a wall’: recent history records the power of these structures as divisive symbols, and the very real repercussions they can inflict on human lives. Yet, we also know that walls rarely function as intended. Kiwanga lifted the title of her exhibition from a poem by Assata Shakur, which reads: ‘a wall is just a wall / and nothing more at all. It can be broken down’. This may be small comfort, but it is a truth to cherish these days.