Kenta Murakami on Why the Conception of Human Is Based in the Alien

The curator speaks to Terence Trouillot about the inspiration behind his first group show, ‘Alien Nation’, at von ammon co.

BY Terence Trouillot AND Kenta Murakami in Interviews | 15 JUN 21

Terence Trouillot: Can you tell me a little bit about ‘Alien Nation’, the exhibition you’re curating for von ammon co.? This is your first time organizing a group show, right?

Kenta Murakami: Yes. It’s interesting because I’ve now worked as a curator for a little more than two years, but I’ve never done a group show. The two exhibitions I’ve worked on previously have both been solo shows for Red Bull Arts New York, where I was an Associate Curator: Akeem Smith’s ‘No Gyal Can Test’ [2020] and ‘Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless’ [2019]. We would work with just one artist at a time for a year or more, so ‘Alien Nation’ has been a very different experience – a lot of fun, but also challenging in trying to balance my own ideas with the intentions of so many artists, many of whom are lending work that was not created for this context.

TT: ‘Alien Nation’ is inspired by the work of Gretchen Bender?

Catharine Czudej, Scratch 8, 2021, bismuth and ceramic, 66 × 56 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist and von ammon co, Washington DC

KM: Yes. To give some context: the gallerist Todd von Ammon and I met because he’s a fan of Bender’s work. Prior to that, I had been working on the artist’s archive with Cay Sophie Rabinowitz – who was managing the Gretchen Bender Estate at the time – for about three years. Later, I met Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts and, seven months after that, we were opening her first retrospective. So, it was a very fast transition that only could’ve happened at Red Bull Arts because, as a corporation, they move very quickly, only really planning one show per year and only thinking one year ahead. In the end, we had a good team and managed to organize a great show. Anyway, I met Todd through working on that exhibition, and I really appreciated him wanting to do a group show with me. I thought it was just such a generous offer.

TT: When was this?

KM: About two and a half years ago. The show was supposed to open last spring but it was delayed for a year because of COVID-19. The postponement gave me more time to think through the exhibition. Initially, I had been playing around with this idea that was more closely tied to Bender but, ultimately, I became more interested in doing a show that included a range of artists – from the 1980s to the present – who shared a similar aesthetic. Bender and Tishan Hsu were the starting point, in particular the way they draw on sci-fi vibes from the 1980s – both the slickness of Blade Runner (1982) and the body horror of David Cronenberg. They are critical of it but are also simultaneously imitating and reproducing it. The show follows the ways this alien quality of our society, which is also very alienating I think for a lot of people, has been internalized and naturalized to the point that it isn’t really acknowledged.

Gretchen Bender, TV Text Image (DREAM NATION), 1989, live television broadcast on a

monitor, vinyl lettering. Courtesy: the Gretchen Bender Estate and Metro Pictures, New York

TT: The exhibition is also inspired by the work of the Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter, in particular her 2003 essay ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom’, and this idea that humanism is inextricably linked to outmoded notions around race and gender. Can you talk about how post-humanism plays into the concept of this show?

KM: That was a big shift for me because I was reading Wynter last year, around the time of the police murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. I was thinking about the complete devaluation of human life in relation to the absolute prioritization of capital. ‘Alien Nation’, however, really isn’t about post-humanism in the traditional sense or trying to articulate a counter-humanism, which is one of the more challenging and exciting aspects of Wynter’s project. What I’m interested in is how our conception of the human is fundamentally based in the alien, in the sense of the West’s ideal human as a kind of planetary-imperializing subject. From the outset, humanism has never been interested in an ecumenical understanding of humanity. Rather, it’s always focused on a specific kind of human – the cis, white male so to speak – and its livelihood at the expense of the other. That’s why the work in ‘Alien Nation’ starts in the 1980s, when – particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union – the capitalist logic of limitless extraction, accumulation, and growth is seen to be the only viable way forward, a logic that is in such opposition to the finite reality of our planet that it leaves no alternative but to leave it.

Gretchen Bender, Ghost Busters, 1984, photographs on Masonite, 162 × 143 cm. Courtesy: the Gretchen Bender Estate and Metro Pictures, New York

TT: Can you talk about the artists you decided to include in ‘Alien Nation’?

KM: In addition to Bender and Hsu, the artists in the show are Colette, Catherine Czudej, Pope L., Helmut Lang, Peter Nagy, Kayode Ojo, Jade Kuriki Olivo – also known by Puppies Puppies – Julia Scher, SoiL Thornton and WangShui. The title is a pun on Brechtian alienation, with each artist presenting normal objects in a way that makes you look at them anew or have an altered relationship to them. A lot of these artists do not overtly deal with the alien or nonhuman: I superimposed that idea onto the work.

I also drew inspiration from the 1980s curatorial duo Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, who exhibited works by Bender, Hsu and Collette in various projects. They curated these sprawling group shows that would move from one gallery to the next, involving mostly the same artists. For me, Collins and Milazzo’s curatorial approach echoes my own feeling that I could re-create this show ten times over. Not that I necessarily would, but I do feel that the content is so rich that it deserves several iterations.

Alien Nation’ at von ammon co., Washington DC, will be on view 20 June – 2 August 2021.


Main image: Catharine Czudej, Scratch 6, 2021, ceramic and metal 66 × 56 × 10 cm, Courtesy: the artist and von ammon co, Washington DC

Thumbnail: Catharine Czudej, Scratch 2, 2021, bismuth and ceramic, 66 × 56 × 10 cm,Courtesy: the artist and von ammon co, Washington DC

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Kenta Murakami is a curator and writer based in New York City.