Those Who Wait
Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver
October 11, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Curated by Kimberly Phillips

The word “knot” describes a fastening, a difficult problem, or an uncomfortable mass, tightness or tension. Sreshta Rit Premnath charts his artistic practice through the multiple definitions of this term: it is a making-visible of knots. Anchored to his work as a teacher, writer and collaborator, and entangling a number of philosophical and artistic inheritances, his installations—which incorporate sculpture, video and photography—posit the gallery as an open platform upon which to pose urgent political questions.

For the past six years, and through a number of linked projects, Premnath’s questions have focused on two interconnected concerns: the contradiction between the occupation and ownership of space, and the conditions of invisibility and misrecognition that define migrant experience. Across many of these projects, a particular sculptural form resurfaces: thin rubber and foam shapes that imply the scale of a human body, soaked in plaster, tar or clay. Incapable of holding their own weight, they slump over and lean against rigid steel scaffolds—material stand-ins for the architectural contexts that contain and detain human bodies. In each exhibition, Premnath’s abstracted “slumps” are placed in tension with photographic or filmic elements, which ground the installation in a particular context. One such example is the single-channel video Sleeping Dogs (2016), where the camera is steadily trained on stray animals in Kathmandu who make claims to the space of the city—street corners and sidewalks coursing with people—through the simplest and most basic act of slumber. In another instance, Una Doble Vida (2019), a video monitor propped upon the gallery floor records the horizon at sunset, cut against long views of milk-crates on a Brooklyn street corner that undocumented day labourers use as seats while they wait for work. The audio relays testimony of one such undocumented day labourer as he reflects upon the home he left behind in El Salvador, his desires for the future and the challenges he faces daily as he waits for work that may or may not come.

For his first solo exhibition in Canada, Premnath’s interest in the occupation of space extends deeper into an examination of the architecture of waiting. This substantial new installation at CAG considers the physical forms and ideological structures that impose temporal delay or stasis on bodies, separating some from others. Numerous cultural analysts have noted that political, climatological and economic changes around the world are forcing increasing numbers of people into situations of chronic waiting, where access to political freedoms, social support or economic resources is delayed, often indefinitely. Once again, Premnath’s artistic response is informed by his own observations: the artist’s studio in Brooklyn overlooks the mammoth Metropolitan Detention Center, currently being used as a space of incarceration for immigrants who await legal proceedings and possibly deportation from the US.

In Those Who Wait, the artist substitutes his usual representational elements for new and highly charged counterpoints: the arranged metal fencing that both supports and separates the “slumps” incorporates mirrored surfaces—emergency blankets stretched taut—which vividly reflect the bodies of exhibition visitors themselves. By both literally and metaphorically implicating us within the work, Premnath asks us to provide the context. High upon the walls, three text-based works, scaled to resemble exit signs, are hung so that terse pairs of words on either side—SEPARATE/SUPPORT, WAIT/WEIGHT and EXILE/EXHAUST—are made inextricable. Just as the heavy plaster-caked forms are at once separated and supported by their armatures, these tension-filled text pairings suggest the knot of recto/verso relations—and the impossibility of considering one thing without the other—that is threaded through the entire installation. As Premnath writes in a suite of accompanying poems, “to lean / is to be held.” In this way, Those Who Wait might propose that waiting can also be understood as waiting together, and that spaces of stasis and uncertainty also hold the potential for empathy, solidarity and the seeds of political mobilization.

A new monographic publication, with commissioned texts by US-based scholar Avram Alpert and Brazilian curator Tiago de Abreu Pinto, accompanies this exhibition, and will be launched at Emily Carr University of Art + Design on January 9, 2020.

Those Who Wait is generously supported by the Embassy of the United States, Ottawa, with additional support from Brigitte and Henning Freybe. The forthcoming publication is partially funded by a Faculty Research Grant from Parsons School of Design, The New School, New York. We acknowledge the support of Emily Carr University of Art + Design towards Premnath’s initial research visit.