The irresistible, transcontinental art of Gala Porras-Kim

Alexandra Pechman

‘I was interested in how a museum defines the objects inside of it, instead of the other way around’

When I met Gala Porras-Kim in her Los Angeles studio earlier this year, the Bogotá, Colombia-born artist was obsessed with demolitions. Her new studio, inside a former bank in Hyde Park, had just been renovated: She and her partner tore down walls and beams, and set about replacing the 1900s-era electricity in the abandoned space. Wearing her dark hair in a long braid down her back, Porras-Kim slyly pointed out to me where the bank vault used to be—now a patchy, sketchy outline of a square. ‘We did most of it ourselves. It’s like a sculpture’, she said. ‘Little by little.”

Porras-Kim’s studio had already been filled with many of her large-scale works, namely drawings from a three-part series that had been recently shown between Mexico City and Los Angeles. The drawings depict holdings from LACMA’s Proctor Stafford collection, a large group of ancient Mexican ceramics. Porras-Kim’s images of what were once ceremonial burial figures had an added poignancy in the raw space she’d excavated herself. In her work, similarly, Porras-Kim preoccupies herself with why and how the definitions of art and objects change when they enter different spaces, or if those spaces disappear. She spoke of a recent public sculpture that was just a wall on the beach—with the idea that the combination of waves and salt suctioning would cause it to collapse. ‘I wanted to find demolitions that are not necessarily like... bam!’ Porras-Kim clapped her hands for emphasis. ‘How do you dissolve a brick without breaking it?’

In just the past two years, Porras-Kim’s work, ranging from drawing to sculpture to installation, has been shown at LACMA, the Whitney and the Hammer Museum, along with honors such as being shortlisted for the BMW Art Journey (selected from emerging artists who show in Art Basel Hong Kong) and receiving awards from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. When I met Porras-Kim, the  Tina Kim Gallery in New York was about to mount a bicoastal presentation with L.A.’s Commonwealth & Council, for which Porras-Kim contributed work on her years-long inquiry into the Mexican oral language, Zapotec, which only as of recently got archived into writing. 

‘It’s the point where language becomes a drawing, basically,’ she said to me of her research, explaining herself in her typical style, asking ever more questions. ‘Obviously that happened with every language, but to see that happen live, it’s crazy, no?... How do you put all the sounds into paper? Like, how do you spell’—she made a guttural sound—‘H-h-h-h?’ she asked, laughing.

The child of academics, Porras-Kim was born to a Colombian father and Korean mother, growing up at research sites. Her father, a historian, obtained political asylum in the U.S. when she was 12, and the family landed in L.A. Porras-Kim grew up on the west side, later attending UCLA and then Cal Arts. While she was in school, she worked for a local architect, and noticed many employees on the sites speaking Zapotec. She said, ‘These guys I was working with were using whistles to be like, “Bring me the hammer,” and I was like, “I want to do that,”’ prompting her to return to UCLA for a master’s in Latin American studies. Of the academic bent to her work, Porras-Kim noted, ‘The methodology is the same; I just don’t write a paper at the end. I make something.’

Her interest in Zapotec and ancient Mexican culture, particularly after coming of age on the West Coast, led her to the collection of Proctor Stafford, the American collector who donated his archeological finds in Mexico to LACMA decades earlier. Porras-Kim separated the objects into three different drawings based on state—Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima—though technically they are all categorized as West Mexican in the collection. ‘I was always interested in museums that hold art but also antiquities,’ Porras-Kim said. ‘How do you define them? And how are they separated, because LACMA, categorically, does not have any artifacts in the building. They’re all artworks once they enter the building… I was interested in how a museum defines the objects inside of it, instead of the other way around.’

Porras-Kim’s research-based approach could be seen recently in several shows at academic institutions, such as ‘Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy and Activism in the Americas’ at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and ‘A grammar built with rocks’ at ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, and she’s planning works for an upcoming show in Singapore. Despite her increasing reach, the L.A. native noted, ‘I can’t imagine living anywhere else.’

Up next in her hometown, Porras-Kim will participate, interestingly as a curator, in ‘Open House’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2020. For the show, she and other artists will pull from the museum’s permanent collection.‘It’s more like iterations,’ Porras-Kim said, describing what works she would include. ‘How does an artwork change its state based on its material or authorship? After 40 years, can an artist say, ‘This has changed because plastics from the ’60s aren’t the same anymore?’ If it doesn’t look exactly the same, is it still an artwork?’

I asked Porras-Kim what she’d like to do next, and the conversation ranged from taking classes with an archeologist specializing in laser technology in Alabama to, perhaps unsurprisingly, Indiana Jones. ‘Have you seen Raiders of the Lost Ark?’ she asked. ‘The scene where he has the scepter and the sun is coming through the hole and all that? I want to make a sculpture that reacts to the weather, so it’s only a sculpture for a very short time. The sun makes it a sculpture, or it only works when it’s raining,’ she enthused, already excited by the idea. ‘The sculpture has to be activated, by something you cannot control, to be fully realized.’

Gala Porras-Kim, photographed in East Harlem in New York City. Photo by Weston Wells.
Gala Porras-Kim, photographed in East Harlem in New York City. Photo by Weston Wells.

This story originally appeared in the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach magazine, which can be downloaded here.