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Amalgam – A Stirring Installation at the Palais de Tokyo

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

Amalgam – A Stirring Installation at the Palais de Tokyo

Theaster Gates’ Amalgam is showing at the Palais de Tokyo through May 12, 2019. If you haven’t seen it already, you have roughly a month to get yourself over to the museum and experience his powerful and stirring installation. 

I announced the opening of the exhibition in a blog post called “Theaster Gates at the Palais de Tokyo” a few weeks ago.  I saw it on a Friday afternoon, just after the museum opened for the day, and was pleased to be able to view it in relative calm.

As a reminder, Gates' inspiration for this show is the story of the expulsion of black, white, and mixed race residents from Malaga Island off the coast of Maine in 1912.   He learned of the story when he took up his artist-in-residence post at Colby College in Maine in 2017.

I realized that my pre-occupation with racial mixing is in part because I can't fully identify where my nose, complexion or skin type comes from.  My mix is far from me.
~ Theaster Gates

Amalgam is installed in a huge space, yet the number of works is relatively small.  Gates has created the exhibition in four parts, each of which is eloquently described on a wall panel that also includes a quotation by the artist.  The works themselves are not labeled, which I found disconcerting at first.  (This is the first time I have seen a Gates exhibition and I do not know if this is his normal practice.)  But after spending some time at the show, I came to feel that labels would have detracted from the experience.

The first section, called “Altar,” is sparsely populated.  The expansive space around what first appears to be a slate roof emerging from the floor of the museum began to feel like the interior of a cathedral once I read and digested the information presented on the panel. 

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The second section is called "Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism."  Here, Gates has stepped into the gaping void of physical remnants of the Malaga community and created a mini-museum of imagined artifacts from the island.  A neon sign that says "In the end, nothing is pure" offers contemporary contrast to the wooden curio cabinets that evoke museum installations from past eras.  On the right wall, a massive slate wall is covered with snippets of the history involving black subjugation around the world mixed with information about the establishment of the mixed-race community on Malaga.

Island Modernity Institute and Department of TourismIsland Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism
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Island Modernity Institute 6Rear of Island Modernity Institute Curio Cabinet
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Island Modernity Institute Slate BoardIsland Modernity Institute Slate Board
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"Dance of Malaga" is the third section of the exhibition.  While there are works installed here, the primary attraction is a video, produced by Gates, that combines archival footage with song and choreography to emotionally transport you to the island.  Interspersed among scenes are written quotations about miscegenation, including one by Abraham Lincoln.

Dance of Malaga4Dance of Malaga
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The final section of the exhibition, entitled "So Bitter, This Curse of Darkness," evokes the forest that was razed by Maine authorities once they displaced all residents from the island.  Wooden pillars host bronze casts of African masks and conceal Amalgam sculptures that Gates created from mixed media.

So Bitter 2So Bitter, This Curse of Darkness
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So Bitter 4

Amalgam sculpture (foreground)
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Through Amalgam, Gates endeavors to shine a light on a largely unknown / forgotten slice of U.S. history as well as give a voice to and make tangible a decimated community.  In my view, he has succeeded.

Palais de Tokyo
13 Avenue du Président Wilson
75116 Paris

Metro: Iéna and Alma Marceau (Line 9)
Open from noon until midnight, every day except Tuesdays.