Credit: "Lullaby" by Georgia Saxelby

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Georgia Saxelby’s “Lullaby” is a refined experience. Her two-channel video installation is a project that the Australian-born artist has been working on since she arrived in the U.S. in 2017. The piece features Saxelby and two others dressed in red jumpsuits performing mysterious rites and dance-like gestures along columns and fountains at commemorative sites around the National Mall. Before the work’s debut at the Embassy of Australia, Saxelby even re-staged and re-shot scenes from an earlier edition of “Lullaby.”

Tae Eun Ahn’s Open Site is something rawer. Her show at the Korean Cultural Center features sculpture, photography, and video centered on ceramics. Clay pressed into a long, low bench and scattered in pieces on the floor testifies to a performance she executed for the show’s opening. Photos and video document several other studio actions and performances, including “A Day,” a 24-hour effort to build a clay structure with the same dimensions as her body. The sculpture crashed 22 hours into Ahn’s demanding performance, but the process is what matters most.

Both shows highlight emerging women artists. Both artists are foreign born. Both solo exhibitions were even organized by curators from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. But the comparisons end there. Despite their similarities, Ahn and Saxelby’s projects—the summer’s best gallery shows—come to wildly different conclusions about process and performance. 

Ahn’s project tracks an ongoing experiment in the Korean-born artist’s studio practice. Her work with performance and ceramics started with 2014’s “A Pot,” a work she executed as a sculpture student at the Rhode Island School of Design. For the project, first conveyed as a video installation and later as performance, Ahn made a clay pot on a traditional ceramic wheel but shaped it with her bare body instead of her hands. That original insight still reverberates through works in her show today. “Surface” is a silicon sculpture suspended from the ceiling comprising impressions of her arms, legs, and torso molded in clay and cast in silicon. A lower element of the piece features silicon impressions of her body turned inside out and sewn together. These disjoined elements of a figure, hanging from the ceiling or piled up on the floor, resemble a skin shed by the artist.

This process of becoming is key in Ahn’s works. She navigates through and around her chosen medium (ceramics) without working the wheel in a traditional way. In the photograph “Untitled,” Ahn appears to be trapped in a block of clay, either emerging from it or being subsumed by it. In another photograph, “Cycle,” the artist lays in the fetal position encased in a clay trough. For “You Walk Wrong,” which Ahn performed at the opening, she traverses a narrow bar like a balance beam covered in clay, molding it with her feet. Bulges of clay on the beam and splattered on the floor stand as documentation of the performance, along with two videos. But in the leftovers, her action has also generated a new sculpture. 

Through all these projects, Ahn appears to be circling around some intersection between performance, ceramics, and visual imagery, but never fully finds that point. In “Jumping,” she grunts and gasps as she pounds a chunk of clay into submission with her feet. The exhaustion that she exudes as she struggles with her medium helps the audience to identify with her effort, according to Betsy Johnson, the Hirshhorn curator behind Open Site. The trial behind each piece is as important as the final result.  

By comparison, “Lullaby,” Saxelby’s video installation (which shares the title of her show), is polished. Recorded at dawn around various national sites, the video relishes in the smooth texture of marble and rippling surface of water. Saxelby nestles her figure against the fluted columns of the Lincoln Memorial and curls her body around a basin at the World War II Memorial. Where the video screens in this two-channel installation connect, the structures of the National Mall sometimes double or divide in kaleidoscopic effect.

Only a viewer with an encyclopedic knowledge of D.C.’s monuments and memorials would be able to pick out the specific structure from the features in “Lullaby” alone. That’s another trick of Saxelby’s editing, which makes these sites look like they could belong to any Western city with Greco-Roman monuments. The rites that the artist and her co-performers pantomime at these sites are intentionally anachronistic, according to the Hirshhorn’s Sandy Guttman. Indeed, Saxelby and her cohort, sometimes mirrored and multiplied in the two-screen presentation, look like caryatid sculptures from ancient Greek temples come to life.

“Lullaby” is an effort by Saxelby to find a place as a woman within these power structures, whether they be in Washington or Sydney. In this piece, performance is a means of conveying the kind of unstated exchanges that happen between a people and a monument. The performance is a means to an end: Saxelby’s gesticulations contribute to broader statements about the symbolic language of nationalism. The performances aren’t the project.

Open Site and “Lullaby” hail from totally different traditions. Ahn’s work is sculptural and post-minimalist; Saxelby is narrative and socially oriented. Video, installation, performance, archiving, intervention—the newest of the modern techniques—can be just as singular and identifying as an artist’s brushstroke.

Gallery at Embassy of Australia, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 797-3000.

Korean Cultural Center Washington D.C., 2370 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 939-5688.

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