That Which Sings and Contemplates in You / The Studio Museum in Harlem 2013-14 Artists-in-residence exhibition catalogue

Abigail DeVille, Negation: Dusk to Dust, 2013

Abigail DeVille, Negation: Dusk to Dust, 2013

Building upon the Big Bang theory as a cosmological model for the origins of the universe, Abigail DeVille further explores the interconnectivity of matter and the spatiotemporal confines that limit our understandings of the physical world. DeVille straddles the fertile expanse between archeology and futurology, excavating the ephemera of pasts buried or forgotten to resituate them within new contexts. DeVille’s site-specific works recycle the histories inscribed on our sociocultural detritus to discuss the human condition and the future of modern society. Her immersive, bricolage installations are all at once Gibran’s streams and banks, sites of progressive movement and respites for meditation.

DeVille’s unique aesthetic visualizes elements of Afrofuturism and gives shape to contemporary discourse surrounding notions of race, space and place. Channeling the poetic curiosity that drives Octavia Butler’s literary observations of society and culture, and the soul animating the musical riffs of George Clinton and Sun Ra, DeVille’s itinerant works sing as much as they contemplate. Works like Harlem Flag (2014) —pieced together from discarded clothing, collected debris, and local heirlooms—deconstruct issues affecting people of color, historically and today right here in Harlem. DeVille uses rubbings of local streets to create the rich texture of the flag’s fabric, and mines Harlem’s collective memory to unearth the relics of shared importance that adorn it.

By staging familiar objects in new settings, DeVille forces us to confront the stereotypes, behaviors, and memories we attach to concrete forms. Furthermore, she stages this confrontation within a greater unraveling of mainstream aesthetics, inviting beauty to shine through in the sheer essence of materials, scavenged from dusty attics, trash heaps and wastelands. DeVille’s Street Work (2014)  is a series of public sculptures assembled from discarded materials that evolve in reaction to the community’s engagement with them, embodying the transmutation that some theorists assert occurs through sheer observation of the material world. Deville agrees, saying, “Everything is connected. In Quantum Mechanics, the observation of a subatomic particle changes it. You can never really be sure if it even existed before you looked at it. Since you looked, you actually interfered with whatever was before. We affect everything around us just by how we see it or what we believe. In drawing, cutting and smashing materials to an altered state, I hope to talk to a larger question of time, the time we live in and reoccurring societal problems, all the way back to the beginning of everything.”  Through characterizing the spatial and temporal links that bind subjects and objects in eternal rotation, DeVille’s works investigate how human attention and behavior can change the universe on a spectrum of scales.

Through shifting perspectives and positioning viewers as co-authors to her own observations of the physical world, DeVille paves the way for a new genre of storytelling and model for engaging the collective imagination. Science Fiction writer David Wyatt asserts, “Speculative fiction is a term which includes all literature that takes place in a universe slightly different from our own. In all its forms, it gives authors the ability to ask relevant questions about one’s own society in a way that would prove provocative in more mainstream forms…it is a literature of freedom, freedom for the author to lose the chains of conventional thought, and freedom for the reader to lose themselves in discovery.”  Speculative fiction challenges the status quo and democratizes access to free thinking, opening up inquisitive space in which cultural critics such as DeVille can investigate the social responsibilities that parallel this autonomy. In said space, DeVille challenges the legitimacy of the histories we’ve been taught and asserts that all facts are fiction and the only truth lies in the lifecycles of objects.

It is in DeVille’s handling of her own personal history that this suspension of disbelief materializes and we are able to witness the interconnectivity of all matter in human terms. She recalls, “In 2009, I discovered through Google and interlibrary loan that my maternal grandfather, Francisco Antonio Cruz, had written multiple books of poetry before his death. In translating his poetry, I found that he was writing about the infinite and the cosmos, a discovery that happened after I had already begun thinking about the structure of my work in relation to supernovae and black holes. When I was a child, my parents said that I drew pictures with my finger in the air and I never told them what I was drawing. I was drawing my grandfather’s face, invisible pictures of a man deeply concerned with the infinite. I was animating an unspoken history of my own.”  What resonates here is the presence of forces beyond human cognition, memory and language that bind us to the otherworldly; DeVille’s shared theology with a man she’d barely met and could only describe through gesture, is only comprehensible in a world where all matter is finite and the lifecycle of this matter is dynamic and limitless.

Inspired greatly by her grandmother—a dynamic fixture of her Bronx neighborhood known for collecting and transforming neighbors’ discarded belongings—DeVille translates the act of collecting into not only a tool of sociocultural archiving, but also one of self discovery and explorations of otherness. Traveling through the dark wormholes forged in DeVille’s works, we are first introduced to the versions of our past selves we know all too well and called to atone for the attitudes and behaviors that have come to define us as a society. Once we’ve come to terms with our incalculable position along the vast timeline between creation and extinction, we are drawn deeper still, past the familiar, to a light on the other side that reflects the future selves we have yet to meet. — Nico Wheadon

Published in The 2013-14 Artists-in-Residence Exhibition Catalogue, Summer 2014 Issue

Material Histories exhibition on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 17 July – 26 October, 2014

Find the digital issue here

"Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch it’s flowing. Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, and knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream. And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space." — Khalil Gibran, The Prophet