Sreshta Rit Premnath’s “Grave/Grove” at MIT List Visual Arts Center (on view through February 13, 2022), explores waiting as action. Curated by Natalie Bell, the exhibition was developed in partnership with the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, where a related show curated by Amara Antilla (with the same title, and on view through February 27), buoys the artist’s conceptual statement.
At MIT, the words “GRAVE/GROVE” form one of four linguistic pairings rendered as plastic signage. Dead ringers for exit signs and positioned accordingly around the space, Premnath’s indicators, however, offer ways in, not out. Viewers see “GRAVE,” then must move to see the flip-side, which reads “GROVE.” Together, the signs, which feature the additional pairings of “INSIST/EXIST,” “WAIT/WAKE,” and “ESCAPE/ARRIVE,” function as clues or code to interpret Premnath’s reductive assemblages.
Both “Grave/Grove” exhibitions were made on-site, with a materials list that includes sheets of raw milled aluminum, foam, plaster, dirt, plants, plastic water bottles, IV drips, water, and LEDs. In Cambridge, the sculptures cluster on the floor; in Cincinnati, they hang from the ceiling. At both venues, Premnath combines a Minimalist context with Arte Povera sociopolitical influences, conveying a narrative that invites reflection on the psychic weight of waiting in relation to the exclusionary experiences of displacement, incarceration, immigration, and disability. He inserts subtle positive actions to create a counter-flow to powerlessness, framing waiting as a universal in order to explore it as an equalizer. Arguably everything waits for something, but Premnath wants it understood that waiting has agency.
Foam skim-coated with plaster creates what he describes as “slumps,” which function as stand-ins for humanity in scenarios that viewers must puzzle out. Premnath’s simplified forms resemble multiple Gumbys drained of chlorophyll, communicating interdependence and a lack of strength. At MIT, these abstracted figures are juxtaposed with weeds growing vigorously in the gaps created by aluminum panels arranged like open cardboard boxes. The raw milled components recall the boxes that displaced populations repurpose for comfort and to seize space. Their slightly bent flaps create gunnels to hold dirt for plants. The pairing of living plants (watered by IV drips attached to suspended plastic water bottles) and industrially produced materials suggests the possibility of endurance despite confining circumstances, reflecting Premnath’s interest in how shared spaces of growth and care, such as community gardens, can sprout up in even the most dehumanizing spaces. Viewers essentially act as witnesses to a triage of political agency that credibly speaks of contracting global frontiers.
“Grave/Grove” is an exhibition contextualized and supported think-tank style, with physical form tilting the scale. Curators Bell and Antilla partnered to sponsor issue 25 of Shifter, a journal founded by Premnath in 2004 (currently co-edited by Premnath and Avi Alpert) that “explores the intersection of contemporary art, theory, and experimental writing.” In 2020–21, MIT and CAC hosted eight virtual dialogues moderated by Premnath and Alpert examining situational nuances related to the action of waiting; those discussions formed the basis for Shifter’s new issue, Waiting, which doubles as an accompanying text/catalogue for the exhibitions. Both documentation and book art, this edition includes contributions from artists, architects, historians, and theorists, enriching Premnath’s exhibitions in a collegial way. Premnath wants to postulate a new if and then of waiting, so that action flips the switch of agency to create attainable new sociopolitical paradigms.