“Wall Sits”: Diamond Stingily at Kunstverein München
by Gabriela Acha
“Those who can and those who cannot, that’s the race.” This is one of the slogans stuck on the more than seven hundred trophies spread across five rows of metallic shelves in the Kunstverein München’s main room, as part of the installation In the Middle but in the Corner of 176th Place (2019), by Chicago-born artist Diamond Stingily. The binary logic expressed in the slogan illustrates quite accurately her conceptual approach to topics such as competition, inequality, and access, tackling the pervasive and enduring condition created by systemic classism and racism, which excludes certain disempowered groups of people from many social privileges.
Approaching all these trophies, it becomes clear that the material they are made of is a cheap, synthetic alternative to the traditional metals used for such objects. Trophies symbolize achievements and success, yet being eligible to win one is too often not available to all equally. Moreover, in a highly economically and socially hierarchical society—like that of the United States— trophies can also act as symbolic filters for access to certain opportunities such as a college education, which is often available to poor youth of color only by means of excelling in sports in the hope of receiving a scholarship. Stingily’s discount trophies stand not just for independent success but also for the aspirational struggles of those who can barely enter the competition. They depict an omnipresent separation between social strata, conveying an inherent binary logic: one is either a winner or a loser.
These symbolic thresholds recur often in Stingily’s work; at times, however, they materialize as literal dividing structures like fences or doors. At the Kunstverein, the works Entryways (2019) and Outside (2019) welcome visitors in the first room, yet without confronting their gaze directly. The works require the viewer to look up, or to the side, to be noticed. The first is a linear series of five baseball bats, each leaning against a decrepit standing door. The anonymous doors, extracted from an unrevealed location, honor the practice of the artist’s grandmother Estelle of leaving a baseball bat leaning against her entrance door to prevent break-ins. The latter work is a series of spiky silver fences, absurdly blocking the too-high-to-reach windows of the Kunstverein. They seem to prevent a stranger’s intrusion, but from a place that is already inaccessible both from within and from without.
Doors and fences commonly help to keep strangers away, and they determine the line between the safety of one’s intimate sphere and the potential threats of public space. In these works, elements such as baseball bats and fence spikes evoke the fear of being intruded upon, of aggressions against one’s right to live peacefully. For many, living peacefully isn’t a right at all but, as the artist affirms, “a very privileged thing”1 for a select few.
The idea of systemic fear infuses the whole exhibition. From the fear of failure to the fear of violence or exclusion, fear is real, and it is meted out to certain population groups by the structures of disempowerment they have to struggle against—structures mainly built by others. Such is the reality of those like Stingily, growing up and living in marginalized neighborhoods like the bitterly ironically named Country Club Hills in the Chicago area. Due to their lack of financial means, some of the neighborhood’s children, including Stingily herself, often used telephone cables instead of skipping ropes to play, improvising with the elements available in their environment. Recalling this childhood memory, the work Double Dutch Ropes (2019) represents the culmination of the exhibition in the final room of the Kunstverein. A series of knotted telephone cables form circles and hang in a uniform line. Their positioning is another example of the meticulous serial placement of every element in the exhibition, in a quasi-Minimalist fashion.
Diamond Stingily masterfully gestures toward general issues by addressing her own immediate surroundings. Conceptually defined in advance, her works crystallize as readymades that, in their presentation, bring awareness to the power of materiality. Abstracted from their original context and placed in this new staging, the chosen materials reveal truths around the and their sometimes fatal consequences.
Despite the overall sense of unease, the works in Wall Sits are not devoid of a glimpse of irony. Even in the flawless manner in which the works are presented, imperfection is acknowledged and welcomed. Little broken pieces of the trophies, for example, are kept as part of the installation, and the otherwise worn-out cables and doors are treated with especial dignity in the way they are taken care of and placed. Stingily’s focus on the ornamentality of the banal and the aesthetic presence of the otherwise undervalued adds an element of hope to the equation. Moreover, the persistent repetitions of the objects on display and, especially, of the trophies’ slogans seem to troll the structural glitches that infect our behavior. Self-created infrastructures of care and support might represent a way to neutralize and transcend the dominant binaryism. Could not one’s race be a form of epistemology rather than a marker of inclusion or exclusion? Stingily may not provide the answer, but she posits this overwhelming question.
1. Francesca Gavin, “the world needs more artists like diamond stingily”, i-D, January, 25, 2018, https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/gyw7nb/the-world-needs-more-artists-like-diamond-stingily
at Kunstverein München
until 17 November 2019