In the early months of 2020, artist Gala Porras-Kim embarked on a journey to Gwangju, South Korea, that would profoundly influence her artistic vision. At the Gwangju National Museum, she discovered something extraordinary yet unsettling: human remains from a 1st-century BC shipwreck, meticulously categorized by bone type rather than preserved as whole bodies. This experience sparked a deep contemplation in Porras-Kim about the treatment of these remains, transforming from their intended resting place to mere archaeological artifacts within a clinical museum setting.
Her exploration led to the creation of the series “A Terminal Escape from the Place that Binds Us.” Porras-Kim employed the ancient method of encromancy, allowing the unpredictable patterns of ink stains to form abstract landscapes on paper. This method was her artistic approach to visually represent the spirits’ preferred resting place, symbolizing a step towards acknowledging their personhood beyond mere historical objects.
Porras-Kim’s work consistently interrogates the delicate balance between the tangible and intangible aspects of historical relics within the confines of modern museums. Her encounter with Mayan artifacts at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, originally offerings to the god of rain, Chaac, further exemplified this theme. In her project “Precipitation for an Arid Landscape,” she fused copal from cenotes with dust from the museum’s storage, creating a piece that reunites these objects with the essence of Chaac when doused with rainwater.
In 2023, Porras-Kim was named a finalist for the Korea Artist Prize. Her triptych “The Weight of a Patina of Time,” showcased at the national museum’s “Korea Artist Prize 2023” exhibition, offers a multifaceted view of South Korea’s Gochang dolmens. Each panel represents different perspectives: from the original person buried under the dolmen, the contemporary historical site status, and the natural moss-covered state, reminding viewers of the shifting purposes and meanings of such antiquities.
At Seoul’s Leeum Museum of Art, Porras-Kim’s “National Treasures” solo show presents a compelling juxtaposition of her creations with 10 museum-held national treasures. Her piece “530 National Treasures” brings together treasures from both North and South Korea, challenging the modern classifications of cultural heritage and prompting reflection on the role of national identity in the preservation of ancient artifacts.
Porras-Kim’s artistic endeavors transcend the current global conversation about repatriating looted cultural heritage. She emphasizes the broader responsibility of contemporary institutions as caretakers of these ancient objects, advocating for a representation that respects their sacred, intangible functions within the modern context. Her work is a profound reminder of the need to bridge the ancient past with present-day curation practices, ensuring these relics are honored not just as artifacts but as bearers of rich, spiritual histories.