Reflecting Back on Rashid Johnson’s Plant-Filled Within Our Gates
Back in 2016, from March 17 to August 31st, Chicago-bred, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson produced an epic plant-filled installation for Garage Atrium at the Moscow Museum of Art. The towering grid structure that formed the bones of Within Our Gates housed a unique, living ecosystem of plants and cultural objects that visitors to the Museum could enter and explore– and while the piece itself was always politically charged (if subtly executed), in this time of tough diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia, the concept feels more relevant than ever.
Using botanical elements as a living, growing focal point of the piece, Johnson’s beautiful architectural ecosystem transcends politics, instead shining a light on plants as a unifying medium for exploring “fictions and facts, histories and speculations”. (The name “Within Our Gates” references the title of a 1920 silent film by Oscar Micheaux that portrays the contemporary racial realities of American life for black people in the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Klu Klux Klan, and the emergence of the “New Negro”.)
As the Museum once wrote of the installation: “Constructed as a maze-like environment for all the senses, Within Our Gates integrates tropical plants such as palms, dracaenas, ficus, and ferns, with sculptural elements, moving image, sound, and everyday objects to immerse the viewer in the artist’s poetic manifestation of a world where fictions and facts, histories and speculations converge.”
The structure itself is inspired by everything from Soviet Modernist Architecture to the artist’s memories of a visit to Turks and Caicos, where unfinished edifices were overrun by the lush tropical landscape. “It was when the place was full of anticipation, but the buildings were never finished and it looked to me like this incredible, deformed dream,” Johnson said at the time, perhaps reflecting on the still racially complicated but aspirational dream of life in America. “There are a lot of different ways to interpret that,” he said, “but it’s the contradictions that I keep thinking about in relation to the new work I’m making for Moscow.”
Closer inspection of the work, however, reveals cultural symbols and artifacts that carry their own weighty meanings about class, nation, and race– including books by W.E.B Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon; Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Fellini’s 8 1/2, and Micheaux’s title-lending Within Our Gates; as well as shea butter and African rugs, which act also as reference points and literal building blocks within the plants. (Watch a time-lapse of the installation process, below.)
The project was supported by Hauser & Wirth and was designed to fill the 31-foot high, 10-meter wide installation space in the entrance hall of Garage Atrium, where it remained for six months. (Then and now, the atrium can be viewed from all floors of the building; viewing the installation inside is a centralized experience.)
As a result, from above, Within Our Gates was both literal and interpretive. The elaborate system of interlocking grids and greenery-filled shelves almost looked like an elaborate maze or a conduit for circuitry– a configuration that honors Johnson’s description of the work as “a brain”: a place where thoughts, facts, feelings, and interpretations collide with our ultimate understanding of reality.