Home > Culture > Art > Awol Erizku discusses his massive ‘Gravity’ installation for Art Basel HK 2023
Awol Erizku discusses his massive ‘Gravity’ installation for Art Basel HK 2023

Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Awol Erizku recently unveiled his massive King Tutankhamun-inspired Gravity installation at Pacific Place as part of Art Basel Hong Kong’s offsite celebration.

Standing at 10 x 5 x 10 meters in height, the installation ties into Erizku approach to art — addressing topics like race, identity, politics, and cultural history, while drawing from references spanning diaspora-ed culture. The artist comments on the piece with, “His [King Tutankhamun’s] image is both ubiquitous and appropriated throughout art history – something I connote with the inflatable nature of the work you see here. King Tutankhamun’s image continues to be used in popular culture as a paradoxically singular and vacuous emblem for an intricate and complex culture and history – one which often remains misunderstood, unknown, or even erased.”

Alexie Glass-Kantor, curator of the Encounters sector for large-scale sculptures and installations for Art Basel, reveals that the large inflatable display was actually intended for Erizku’s Slow Burn show with Ben Brown Fine Arts back in 2018 but has remained under wraps and has never been presented in public until now. We managed to catch up with the artist himself to uncover the origins of this large-scale project. Read the conversation below:

How is Hong Kong treating you so far?

I love Hong Kong, I could not wait to be back after it opened. I love Hong Kong, it is one of my favourite cities. So very excited to be here to present this work. And it’s, you know, full capacity. So yeah, I’m very excited to be here.

What have you gotten up to so far?

Just work really. We haven’t really done any touring but I’ll take some recommendations when we’re done.

So you’ve said before that you never do the same show twice. Is Gravity a one-off installation?

I wouldn’t call it a one off. But I think it’s a continuation of a body of work that was conceived in 2018. The first show that I did in Hong Kong in 2018. And it was completely neon. Because my first sort of experience in Hong Kong was through cinema — Wong Kar Wai and other great people putting Hong Kong on the map. Neon has been a very important kind of component and I’ve always thought about Neon as something that I wanted to do. When I had the opportunity to do a show in Hong Kong, it was like, perfect. I want nothing but neons in this show. So we ended up making neon for that exhibition, but then I thought I had this other idea also to find a way to make a hub for like cultural exchange.

So I have this idea for King Tut inflatable as a way to bring people in, and then once they’re inside this little arc, then I would stage something that would elicit a conversation or some sort of dialogue for people that don’t know the work or are interested in Egyptology. So it’s actually kind of nice that it didn’t happen in 2018, and that I had time to kind of reconsider certain things. And then in light of the recent global tragedy or whatever, it has just given me more time to kind of think about it, and recontextualize it. So yeah, it feels right to show it now, actually more than it did back then.

So how did the context change for you?

Globalisation has a huge impact on how we deal with each other. Obviously, like, I think social media, and the Internet also has a lot to do with that. But I kind of see them one in the same. We borrow culture now, very fluidly. I mean, again, maybe I’m speaking as an American, but I think those things are interesting for me. Like when I go out I wear this vintage shirt of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but I got it in Tokyo, you know what I mean? It’s so weird. I was in the Bronx visiting my parents and then this old lady saw the text on the back and she was like, “oh my God! That’s such an amazing shirt. Where’d you get it?” And I’m like telling this old lady in the Bronx that I got it in Tokyo. You know what I mean? It’s so gnarly, but it’s just, that’s just maybe my experience. To bring it back to the work, I think it for me, it kind of spoke to that, specifically the objects that I was able to gather and bring to that to the ark.

Let’s talk a little bit about the objects. Why the books?

I thought because the scope of the inflatable itself was so such a grand gesture and it was more of aesthetic draw, when, you know, I like works that draw you in by way of aesthetics, but then also kind of leave you either questioning something, or you know, inform you of something or give you something to think about. I think the books which are also sourced from my studio, the incense are things that I’ve used in my own practice to make drawings out of. I burned incense in my studio. I burn frankincense quite a bit actually. And once that smells going like then I’m able to work.

I’ve read somewhere that Benjamin Franklin used to keep rotten apples underneath his desk. And like that smell generated the sort of creative juice for him, you know what I mean? So it’s, for me, like frankincense incense become that. So I’d be able to kind of tap into other things psychologically. I went off on a tangent.

The work is from 2018 to 2023 so there’s a there’s a kind of feedback loop, you know, where you see the still life. And then there’s like the staging of those objects. But ultimately, it’s meant for the audience to engage with it, and the fact that it’s in a place where there isn’t such a democracy or hierarchy on how you view and interact with the work. I think it makes it an ideal place in space for this work as well.

That brings me to my next question. This is such an accessible location. A lot of artists and institutions have really ramped up on advocating accessibility in art including blue chip art institutions. Where do you kind of see this going?

I don’t know that I have a very specific vision of where I think that sort of practice can go. Personally, I would like to keep making these. I like to call them social sculptures, or objects of I don’t know, like, for cultural exchange, or something like that. Things that didn’t elicit the understanding of globalisation.

And so I think in that way, art and ideas are most important. So I think it’s important to keep pushing for works that will be accessible to as many people as possible without the hierarchy of like the art, you know, art with a capital A. It’s community, you know what I mean?


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A post shared by Awol Erizku (@awolerizku)

Does that mean more public works of art?

Yeah, I would love to make more public art. I mean, this is not my first public art. Fortunately, I’ve done light boxes on bus shelters with a public art fund with a curator, Daniel Palmer, in New York, in Chicago. So it was an exhibition that was concurrent. Both in Chicago and New York at the same time. They ran on bus shelters, and that had a different tone because I was sort of making this show right at the height of my fatherhood with a new baby, and I was a new dad. Things that I was going through at that time were sort of then put in to this work. I think it’s an ongoing conversation, and I’m just sort of just adding more pieces to the bigger puzzle.

Your practice has no borders. So, what is the next frontier?

I’ve been thinking about AI. I’ve actually been playing around with AI, like those image generators quite a bit. I use it as a way to kind of do a quick mock up or a sketch of an idea that I might have. I remember like I wanted to do like a basketball hoop but with steel bracelets. I could sketch it sure, but then was like, “wait, why don’t I just use this image generator to generate the actual thing.” It’s not quite there yet for me anyways but I think it’s exciting. I think it’s something to look forward to. You can do AI with text, and you know, all these things. So I think it’d be interesting to kind of make a show fully generated by just algorithms.

From your experience, how the blue chip art space become more receptive to kind of new perspectives over say, the past five years?

I don’t know. I really try not to focus on that aspect because that’s very more about the business of art.

Yeah, I get it. Let’s go back to what kind of drives you. History… historical figures. Can you talk me through it a little bit?

My philosophy is like, everything is a metaphor for life. So, you know, whenever I think about making work, initially, there’s a kind of poetic sort of gesture. I say poetic as a way to kind of make it broader than the secular, closed off, hermetic kind of work. There are things that I feel are intended for a specific kind of demographic, but it’s not at all the way I think about my overall practice.

So it really depends. When I do shows outside of the States, I’m more aware that there’s an international audience as opposed to just focusing on one specific demographic. I always try to keep it open for interpretation. I don’t necessarily suggest anything or try to make it didactic. It’s not supposed to teach us a lesson about Egyptology or the history of Egypt. It’s just more so my perspective on these historical things, how they’ve informed our society, our civilization, allowing other people to understand their own kind of background and history.

(Interview: Vanessa Lee)

Awol Erizku discusses his massive ‘Gravity’ installation for Art Basel HK 2023

Always on a journey to expand his knowledge, Ambrose is a blend of old-school charm and modern curiosity.

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