Ten Thousand Things is a relational encounter between two artists, Miriam Cahn and Claudia Martínez Garay, orchestrated by curator Xiaoyu Weng at Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, China (8 November 2020–23 May 2021).
The exhibition's title refers to an ancient description of the world's networked intricacy, as articulated in the I Ching and the foundational Taoist texts. 'The ten thousand things all come from the same seed, and with their different forms they give place to one another', states the ancient Zhuangzi: 'Beginning and end are part of a single ring and no one can comprehend its principle.'1
That fluid totality—in which everything is at once connected through a shared origin and yet distinct—is what binds the expressive universe that Weng has conjured among Cahn's and Garay's works.
Opening the show is a site-specific installation by Garay of tarot-like tapestries made from brightly coloured tufting that references the Andean concept of Pachakuti, a Quechua word that translates to the return or overturning of space-time; a total transformation.
Each tapestry contains an assemblage of symbols whose associations are at once specific and universal. In the case of Huk Pacha (2020), a branch cutting across the top of the frame bears a half-eaten apple, a wood and stone pick, two hanging snakes, and an eagle's head; while in Suqta Pacha (2020), a pair of arms break free from green ties binding their hands as a leopard lunges forward above.
Across the museum's three floors, Garay has created a staging of three time-spaces. The second-floor 'upper world' includes El Creador / The Creator (2019), which was included in the 16th Istanbul Biennial (14 September–10 November 2019): replica clay figurines referencing unexcavated objects from the Moche civilisation, famed for its pottery, are installed in a soil mound.
Punka/Portal (2020), a python-headed gateway based on the Gate of the Sun at Tiahuanaco, leads to the basement underworld, where Garay's video ÑUQA KAUSAKUSAQ QHEPAYKITAPAS (2017), recently shown at the 12th Shanghai Biennale (10 November 2018–10 March 2019), is installed.
The title loosely translates from Mochica, a native language in Peru that was spoken across the Inca Empire at the time of the Spanish invasion, to 'I will outlive you'—a statement that is not lost on the ancient tombs and mausoleums of Nanjing, one of the oldest capitals in China, where Sifang Art Museum is located.
Over surface scans of ceramic artefacts, Garay imagines the life of a human figurine that is more than 1,200 years old, exhibited at the Berlin Ethnological Museum through the prism of her own. The work functions like an overturning of colonialism's ongoing erasures by interrogating its embodied legacies, in which the textures of time, memory, trauma, resistance, and becoming intermingle in open space.
Garay's activation of multi-sensory, multi-relational dimensions connects with Cahn's paintings, the most recognisable of which show figures emerging from rich and dynamic washes of pigment, as showcased at documenta 14 in 2017 and the Aichi Triennale in 2019.
It is at this junction where Cahn and Garay—or as Weng puts it the Andean highlands and the Swiss Alps—meet: in a space where things open up to their histories and affects.
But while a series of these figurative works are included in the show, such as the oil on canvas im weg liegen [lying in the way] (2013), in which a man and child lie ominously on a rum-red wash, Ten Thousand Things foregrounds Cahn's landscape paintings. In heutefrüherinnert (die Strasse nach La Paz) [reminded today (the road to La Paz)] (2016), a rolling desert becomes a fleshy shape sandwiched between brilliant blue edges above and below.
Early works on paper enrich Cahn's worldly cartography—as Weng notes, the artist's work should be taken as a single body, rather than as individual pieces.
The overlapping drips and streaks that congeal to echo mushroom clouds in the atomic bomb series (1985–1991) speak to the veils that bring Cahn's painted surfaces to life. While a triptych showing figures caught amid swathes of charcoal in L.I.S (mit den kindern und den tieren) blutungsarbeit Frauen, Kinder, Tiere, Pflanzen nach 1984 [to read in the dust (with the children and the animals) bleeding work women, children, animals, plants after 1984] echoes the bodies that seem to melt in Cahn's canvases.
Cahn has talked about showing older pieces with newer ones, describing an old work as 'an old space, now'.2 To explain, she brings up history, which she does not see 'as something past'—rather, 'history is formed of layers, but it all belongs together.'3
It is at this junction where Cahn and Garay—or as Weng puts it the Andean highlands and the Swiss Alps—meet: in a space where things open up to their histories and affects. Be it the surface of a terracotta vessel, a grain of dirt, traces of pigment, or even the context of Sifang Art Museum itself, known as 'the museum in the mountains'.
Inevitably, this trail of intensities—an opening up of relational geographies—leads back to the artists themselves, whether Cahn's penetrating saturations or Garay's complex mediations of history's objects and bodies.
In her curatorial essay, Weng starts by introducing the artists, noting a lack of commonality between them 'at first glance'.4 Cahn was born in Switzerland in 1949 to Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and France, Garay was born in 1983 in the Peruvian Andes during a civil war.
These experiences and memories of war, 'however unique', Weng writes, infuse both practices with 'embodied empathy', 'visceral intimacy', and 'an uncompromising power'5—a power that charges both practices precisely because they deal with spectres and spirits that translate across registers, both familiar and less so.
In Cahn's paintings, a body is never just a body, after all, just as the objects that Garay brings into focus are more than artefacts—they are at once points of connection between lands and peoples, whether traumatic or intimate; and transitory signifiers of stories, temporalities, ancestors, and lives, whether remembered or not.
Here, the point of connection in a universe of ten thousand things is everything the world holds. To focus on this shared point, no matter how divergent, is where Weng locates this exhibition as an attempt at imagining a different kind of globalism in which histories can be read in conjunction, and beyond the confines of the nation-state.6
'Is it possible that refracted between each artist and their artworks,' Weng asks in her curatorial statement, 'we find a subtle and poetic way to radically rethink the representation of humanity, and the relationship between nature and culture?'7—[O]
1 'The Complete Works Of Chuang Tzu', translated by Burton Watson, The Anarchist Library, Accessed 15 December 2020, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/chuang-tzu-zuangzi-burton-watson-the-complete-works-of-chuang-tzu
2 Miriam Cahn, David Roberts Art Foundation (30 September–17 December 2011), exhibition leaflet.
4 Miriam Cahn and Claudia Martínez Garay: Ten Thousand Things, Sifang Art Museum (8 November 2020–23 May 2021), exhibition brochure.
6 As articulated in an email with the author.
7 Miriam Cahn and Claudia Martínez Garay: Ten Thousand Things, Sifang Art Museum (8 November 2020–23 May 2021), exhibition brochure.