Shanti Grumbine discusses “The Last Color: A Reliquary”


On Thursday, June 2, LABAlive will present “Boundaries,” an evening of multi-disciplinary works-in-process exploring our relationship with beauty. The evening will feature teachings by Ruby Namdar and work by fellows Lainie FeffermanLital Dotan, and Shanti Grumbine, who will present her project The Last Color: A Reliquary.

Here, Grumbine talks about her project and the inspiration she found in our house of study.

Tell us about your project. 

The Last Color: A Reliquary is a multi-disciplinary project where I investigate the effects of information overload on contemporary culture, positing an eventual (or current) privation of meaning. I am exploring the way texts and the interpretation of texts, including holy books, commandments, constitutions and news journals create, maintain or manipulate a community’s beliefs and values. Using installation, drawing, sculpture, performance, and post-apocalyptic narrative, I track the loss and eventual reification of language through repetition, craft and ritualistic acts of beauty.

Shanti_WebFor the past few years, I have used The New York Times as a referent for objective truth. Through the excision of text and images, I’ve been making space for what has been censored or lost in the translation of experience into words. The Last Color: A Reliquary is a last act of redaction — removing the newspaper completely and seeing what is left. In this case, what’s literally left is the plastic bag that carried the newspaper. I started folding the material, cataloging the fold patterns and making textiles. So it’s an absurd gesture, but it’s a way of preserving an embodied engagement with symbols, an exploration of how meaning is made and the importance of creativity. I am also reaching back to ways that geometric ornamentation has been used to accompany sacred text and provoke an experience of transcendence.

How do you see it developing in the future?

Ultimately, I’m going to develop an accompanying video piece using the narrative that I created during my time with LABA, but I’m excited to experiment with a performative iteration first during my LABAlive presentation, since I’ll have access to a black box theater. I imagine that I will be working more with text, live performance and video in the future, so this opportunity is a way for me to dip my toes in the water.

Any new thoughts about beauty?

Grumbine_2I arrived at LABA with some thoughts about how beauty functions in my work. I am always interested in shows or bodies of work that are generous and accessible; that draw me in, open my mind and my heart, move me toward the act of making. This is in contrast to work that keeps me at arm’s length, alienates me, and leaves me feeling excluded, or even uncool. I’ve been thinking a lot about craft and the beauty that is evident in the way something is made, a certain embedded intention cluing me in to the fact that the maker cares about this. When craft is evident, it becomes an invitation for the viewer to care as well. Its not that I’m against quick gestures, conceptual works, or deskilling in general; I work with throwaway materials, I am making up my own techniques, I enjoy philosophy and theory. I guess what I’m getting at is that to me, beauty is tied to democracy and accessibility. I want to make work that most people could walk up to and understand regardless of class or education. When people feel welcomed in, they are more likely to be honest, vulnerable, and curious, they are more likely to go deep, they are more likely to learn and they are more likely to share their own wisdom. I feel that this is a time for generosity and inclusion and beauty embodies these traits. After several recent studio visits, I’ve been thinking about beauty as a choice that we make, beauty used as a verb — an act of “beautying” — rather than as something we are either born with or not born with. A lot of what happens when you read through ancient texts is a re-examining of what a word means. I think that different words need to be re-examined at different times and right now, “beauty” is one of them!

Which of the texts we’ve studied so far, or the discussions we’ve had, have most stuck in your mind, and why?

I think the text that moved me most was on Rabbi Yochanan. There was something about the clash of lived experience and ideas that was extremely powerful to me. Two forms of beauty are present in this story, the beauty of academic learning and physical beauty. As humans, we cannot seem to reconcile them.

How have they, or other texts, inspired this work?

I have a feeling that what we studied will continue to affect me for years to come. I have allowed our studies and discussions to simply permeate my world, my thoughts and actions. Perhaps most of all, the act of reading together and deciphering together was most influential for me and has helped to guide the content and form of the writing and objects I’ve created. To experience reading as a type of visiting and revisiting, a movement between meanings, a collaborative exchange and not just a solitary act of collecting is really powerful, especially when you are tapping into an inherited cultural ritual. The meaning of a text blossoms in the face of curiosity and constricts in the face of narrow-mindedness.

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry states that to witness a beautiful thing “permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure, thereby creating a sense that it is our own adjacency that is pleasure-bearing.”  This confirms for me with grace and poetry that beauty is a call that allows our egos to step aside, that beauty makes room for justice through a lateral movement and an opening of the heart.