Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials | Art21 “New York Close Up”

Does the past have a sound?

Celebrated for his material-oriented practice, Kevin Beasley juxtaposes sound, silence, and sculpture to examine the legacy of cotton in the American South. Set to the beat of his improvised drumming, the film shows Beasley at work in his Queens studio finishing his multipart exhibition, “A view of a landscape,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art—his most ambitious work to date.

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The installation is centered around the motor of a modern cotton gin—a machine originally invented in the late 1700s that streamlined the most labor-intensive part of cotton production, separating the fiber from the seed. Acquired on eBay, the motor was in operation from 1940–1973 in Maplesville, Alabama; in parallel to an era of intense social change that encompassed both the Great Migration and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Housed in a glass soundproof chamber, the running motor is a visual, yet silent experience. Divorcing its sound was inspired by the motor’s former owner, who was unable to articulate its sound to Beasley upon purchasing, but as a feeling that will “shake your insides.”

The industrial roar is channeled into an adjacent gallery, recorded by an array of specialized microphones surrounding the motor in the vitrine—a complete sensory switch from the gallery next door. A noted musician, Beasley manipulates and enhances the motor’s tones through a soundboard, each vibration embedded with a sonic history of the Southern soil. For Beasley, “sound is just as tactile as any other material, and has increasingly become a way to process the world.”

Revealing the personal story that inspired the installation, Beasley describes his emotional response when he saw cotton growing on his family’s Virginia farm. “Why am I so mad at this plant? This plant is not doing anything except growing and being beautiful.” This creative journey is chronicled in three large “slab” sculptures. These wall-like assemblages are composed of seemingly disparate materials—a Yale sweater, durags, and sound equipment—set into place by a wall of Virgina-cotton, and mirror the contemporary complexity of race in the United States.

Kevin Beasley (b. 1985, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA) lives and works in Queens, New York. Learn more about the artist at:

CREDITS | Director & Producer: Christine Turner. Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Editor: Troy Herion. Cinematography: Jon Chen & Nick Fitzhugh. Location Sound: Edward Morris II. Production Coordinator: Danielle Brock. Music & Sound Mix: Troy Herion. Color Correction: Jonah Greenstein. Design & Graphics: Chips. Artwork Courtesy: Kevin Beasley. Archival Media Courtesy: Library Of Congress. Thanks: Casey Kaplan, Stephen Decker, Em Joseph, Veronica Levitt, Shani Strand, & Whitney Museum Of American Art.

This film is possible thanks to Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull. Additional support of “New York Close Up” is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; and by individual contributors.

© Art21, Inc. 2019. All rights reserved.

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