Through a Screen, Brightly: Profiles of Alison Hiltner & Mohamud Mumin

Through a Screen, Brightly: Profiles of Alison Hiltner & Mohamud Mumin

Posted April 27th, 2020 by Russ White

Ahead of their upcoming online discussion, two of the McKnight Foundation's 2018 Artist Fellows talk to us individually about their practices.

Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Artist Fellowship Program

The following is the fourth in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2018 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. (You can read the first in this series here, the second here, and the third here.) 

The McKnight Discussion Series has been moved online, with the two artists in conversation with Russ White, on Thursday, May 7th at 6:30pm Central. Follow this Zoom link for the Discussion. Full meeting info, including ID & phone numbers, is available here.

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

It’s kind of amazing when you dig into an artist’s archive and discover how little their work has changed over the years. I don’t mean that the work is redundant; I mean that it’s consistent. That the artist's voice has stayed true to itself, even as it has evolved over time. Alison Hiltner’s voice as a sculptor has done just that across a portfolio going back almost twenty years, remaining clearly and consistently strange as she creates objects and experiences around science, technology, and the human body.

Her work, at first, can seem menacing. The sculptures and installations are a bizarre mixture of the organic and the mechanical, an often unsettling marriage of medical equipment and sci-fi set design. But the menace wears off quickly, and you soon realize how playful, even hilarious, it all is. Hiltner started out making pieces that were laugh out loud funny — fully realized gags, in essence — like a vintage vending machine that serves up human organs, or the Sweat Sucking Business Suit: yellow vinyl office-wear fitted with ridiculous tubes at the armpits and crotch.

The Ease of Everyday Life in a Sweat Sucking Business Suit, #2 of 6 part Series. Digital Photograph. Part of Sweat Sucking Suits Promotional Display. Mixed media: Latex, vinyl, medical tubing, foam, various medical components, plumbing parts, rubber gasket material, power switch and electrical wiring; 2004.

But in recent years, her playfulness has grown a lot more subtle, more gestural, dialed down to the flick of a wrist or the thump of a heartbeat. In one piece, fibrous, motorized ropes hang down from the ceiling, their tips dancing on the floor en pointe like ballerina shoes. In another, fleshy silicone tubes lay flopped across a table, pumping rhythmically like vaginal robot pacifiers. Yet another, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, presents us with 52 suspended sacks of green algae bubbling away amid a mass of cords and tubes, transforming the gallery into some kind of demented botanical laboratory.

“I am a mad scientist at heart,” she says with a laugh. “I just like to see what I can cook up.”

Fitting, then, that the COVID-19 crisis has moved her operations to her home, into what she affectionately calls her basement lair. Normally art is best viewed in person, but it felt oddly appropriate, during our recent video call, when she placed her laptop on a cart and wheeled me in among her newest creations. Before me, medical-grade bassinets stood waist-high on steel legs, filled with a rubber bouquet of pulsating fingers, which are clamped into bunches and connected to a twisted coil of translucent white tubes. I watched through the screen as the artist placed her finger into the eerie green light of a free-standing metal cylinder, which registers the rhythm of your pulse and causes the silicone fingers to pulsate in time. The synthetic digits quickened their pace, coming more alive, as the artist cooed in the singsong of a proud parent: “There they go.” Hiltner had given the sculpture her own heartbeat.

The goal was to show the piece this month with Indianapolis Contemporary (formerly iMOCA), so that visitors could lay their hands onto the beating bouquets and feel one another’s heartbeats in real time. Because of the pandemic, however, I/C has permanently shuttered, and touching just about anything is now off limits. The fingers keep throbbing, safely out of reach in Hiltner’s basement, waiting like the rest of us for a time when they can come back out.

“Interesting body of work to be doing during a pandemic when everything you do has to be touched all over,” Hiltner says dryly. 

Tethers; silicone, latex, various mechanical components, sensors, pumps, rubber tubing, & stainless steel; 2019-Ongoing.

One of the great lessons of this crisis so far has been how deeply interconnected we are. We’re realizing how the health of both our bodies and our economy have been stacked like dominoes across the entire planet. We have finally been forced to stare, unblinking, at the importance — indeed, the essentialness — of each other: janitors, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, teachers, nurses, and the list goes on. Our connection has been brought into sharp focus, ironically, by our newfound isolation. 

This interconnectedness is at the core of Hiltner’s work. The piece with the dancing ropes, for instance, was inspired by the way that trees communicate with each other —through their roots — in times of stress. (Just another example of how science fact will almost always be stranger than science fiction.) The bags of algae at Mia were bubbling in response to the audience, feeding off of the carbon dioxide we exhale and pumping out fresh oxygen in reply.

And this latest work, entitled Tethers, was inspired by Hiltner’s time as an artist-in-residence at two cardiology labs in the University of Minnesota’s School of Medicine. Curious why stem cells were always cultivated in colonies, she learned that cells did not survive in isolation, unable to pick up signals from each other. “I never knew my cells could die of loneliness,” she marvels. “The building blocks of everything need to have some kind of connection to thrive. Kind of mind-blowing to me.”

Another formative experience in the lab was being invited to hold, in her hand, a live, anesthetized pig’s beating heart. “It was super strong,” she says, “I could barely keep a hold of it… I started thinking about how separated we are from the physicality of what makes us.” It’s a scary thought, actually: the degree to which our survival is automated. Can you imagine if you had to remember to breathe, or will your heart to pump? 

There were no expectations or parameters around her residency, save to connect the strands of an artist’s curiosity with those of the researchers. But Hiltner knew this would become a sculpture in some way. “I make things. That’s how I speak to experiences.” 

And so the sculptor created, through several iterations, this automated system by which we could better understand ourselves. It’s about visualizing another person’s life force, searching for a new way to empathize around physicality. “I like the idea of boiling it down to the basics, having people share a part of themselves and get a reaction, and feel that connection on a really basic level.”

It Is Yesterday; 52 plastic polymer vessels filled with cyanbacteria (spirulina); sensors; video projection; workstation; 2017.

I wasn’t surprised when, throughout our conversation, we veered hard into the relative merits of Star Trek, Star Wars, the Alien series, and the two Blade Runners. We’re both sci-fi nerds, sure, but Hiltner’s work shares more than just aesthetics with those movies. At its best, science fiction uses the fantastical — alien biology, advanced engineering, rifts in space and time — to inspire wonder about the everyday — our politics, our relationships, our own bodies. It uses the future to bring us closer to the present.

Of course our present moment feels like a bad movie plot of its own right now, like some half-baked mash-up of Outbreak and Idiocracy. But despite being out of reach, limited to being experienced in half-measures through computer screens, Hiltner’s work remains more relevant than ever before. It’s uncanny, actually, how well her work fits this moment, as both our physical health and our grasp on empathy are being put to the test. We may not have touch, but we do have connection. Even our cells crave company, it turns out. In this weird moment, still not adjusted to any sense of normalcy, we’re holding each other’s hearts in our hands — across chasms and through screens, in every dystopian detail — and we’re feeling strength, resilience, and fragility all at once. The hard part next will be not letting go.

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Photo by Rik Sferra.

Power is a complicated bit of business. When you frame the concept traditionally, in terms of "people at the top" — in politics or business or religion, for instance — power is something distant and corrupting. In an odd way, it can be righteously empowering in its absence: if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then the rest of us peasants are that much closer to purity, right? We’re off the hook.

But if you look more closely, you’ll start to see the degree to which power dynamics are at play in daily life, from the personal to the professional — in your privilege, your platform, your language, your body. Even here, writing as a critic about another artist's work, there is a balance to strike. 

Looking for balance — for equity — in these power dynamics is a defining concern for Mohamud Mumin, especially since his practice involves representing people from his Somali-American community here in the Twin Cities. Mumin works to reflect and interpret his community’s culture, from his series of striking, larger-than-life photographs of Somali men and women to his site-specific installations paying respect to Islamic traditions that have been transplanted by immigration.

“I like to cede a lot of power to the person I’m making the work with,” he says. “First of all, by not referring to them as subjects.” The people that sit for his photographic portraits, he says, are more like collaborators. He tries to level the balance on both sides of the camera not only by being transparent and open about his concept and vision for each project, but also by inviting the sitters to literally help make the work. For a photo series titled Xusuus Sahmis//Scouting Memory, the thirteen young women whose portraits Mumin took were invited to take photos themselves, pictures of objects in their homes that help ground them in their Somali heritage: prayer rugs, window dressings, flower displays. Their images were collected in a book alongside Mumin’s portraits. To tell their stories for them, without their input, would have been an act of dominance, however well-meaning.

Top, left & center: portraits from The Youth/Dhallinyarada series. Top right & Bottom: A portrait and excerpt from Xusuus Sahmis// Scouting Memory, in which Mumin invited the participants to photograph objects in their own homes.

“Photography has been part and parcel of the colonial enterprise,” he explains. “Even to this day, the way it’s been weaponized, you can pick up any newspaper, and the way things are talked about, what images are used, it’s still here today. It’s more visceral and deadlier than it has been.”

When he was invited to show these portraits at MCAD as part of a group exhibition about immigrant identities, Mumin demurred. To display these people’s faces in a place so defined by the dominant culture, he worried, could cut the participants out of the experience, to be othered in this context, again despite good intentions. He had a better idea. What if, he emailed back, his piece in the show could be a meditation on power at the institution itself? Something that reflected on the need for transparency in all relationships. The concept was simple: he wanted to cut a hole in the wall of the MCAD President’s office, so people could watch him at work. Give them a peek behind the curtain, as it were. 

It’s a brilliantly straight-forward piece, incredibly funny to me in its audacity and directness, and made all the more remarkable because they actually let him do it. On the wall didactics, Mumin included the email exchange between himself, curator Kerry Morgan, and then-President Jay Coogan about the logistics, again allowing them to act as collaborators within the work. In this way, transparency is even further baked into the piece. “Yes, it was my idea,” he says. “But it came to fruition in a process that was balanced.”

Fwd: The “window” into Jay’s office, site-specific installation, 2016. At right: wall didactics that included the email exchange with MCAD in which the piece is conceived, discussed, and negotiated.

It also points to how varied Mumin is in his artistic output. What was once primarily a photographic practice has grown in recent years to include painting, sculpture, and site-specific installations, in part thanks to his involvement organizing the Soomaal House of Art, an art collective that provides space, resources, and opportunities to Somali artists. Working with different artists through Soomaal, says Mumin, “gave me the license to do other things.”

In 2016, the group collaborated on a multi-room art installation at St. Paul’s Darul Uloom Islamic Center, a two-building campus that was formerly the Church of St. John and an adjoining Catholic high school. “I was interested in the idea of spatial succession,” he says, meaning the way that spaces change over time through use and ownership. Research has shown, he tells me, how much spatial succession is involved in establishing immigrant communities in this country, often repurposing neglected, even profane, spaces for completely different uses.

At Darul Uloom, where the school building had not yet been refurbished for use by the Islamic Center, Mumin found the old schoolrooms totally wrecked. Kids had come in and trashed the place, leaving pianos face-down on the floor, debris strewn across the room. His response? Leave it as he found it, but projecting the image of a prayer rug down onto the floor, on top of the pianos. It’s a simple gesture, made only with light. The luminous rug points to the fluidity of the sacred, as well as to both the upheaval inherent to these transformations, these spatial successions, as well as the peace that can be found in them. In a subtle way, Mumin and his cohort, who all conceived of different interventions in different rooms of the building, were themselves pushing the space through a third iteration: from Catholic school to Islamic center to art space.

Even still, the power did not belong entirely to the artists. “Every time I came back, something was moved,” he says, unbothered. The work became a living document of the community’s engagement with the space.

Al-Futuhat al-St. Paul / The St. Paul Openings, installation view, part of Anamolous Expansion exhibition at the Darul Uloom Islamic Center.

Mumin's more recent work seems to show an increasing interest in abstraction. One installation involves dozens of bunches of bananas, laid out on a table in a gallery and allowed to transition over time from bright green to ripe yellow to rotten black, a meditation on color and mortality. 

Another installation involves a line of his own poetry — “Breaths pulled through crystallized patience" — installed in a lightbox on the outside wall of a bar-turned-mosque, yet another example of spatial succession. He sat next to the work, engaging passersby about what the phrase might mean; there were no wrong answers. “Poetry,” he tells me, “is in the lifeblood of Somali culture. It’s venerated. Poetry in some ways, to me, is the highest essence of abstraction. You’re asking somebody to see pictures and make connections through just words.” 

Right now, Mumin is experimenting with ideas for a piece of public sculpture: a sort of geodesic donut shape inspired by the talismans often worn around as necklaces in Somali culture. The small shapes start as strips of paper with prayers written on them that are folded in on themselves, obscuring the message and holding a secret importance for the wearer. 

“The talisman is all about endowing power to objects,” he says. “Is that not what art is? Endowing meaning onto objects.” Through these interventions, these assertions, any object can have power. Any space can become sacred. And any viewer can gain agency, if the artist is willing to give up the necessary amount of control. From Jay Coogan on display in his office to the collaborators taking their own photos, one lesson here is simple, even hopeful: power shared is power multiplied.

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The live discussion between these two artists and the author will take place from 6:30-8pm on Thursday, May 7th, via Zoom. Link coming soon. A recording of the discussion is available here. An archive of past discussions is available here

For more info on Alison Hiltner and to view her full portfolio, visit alisonhiltner.com.

For more info on Mohamud Mumin and to view his full portfolio, visit hundredmp.com.

All images and video courtesy of the artists, unless otherwise noted.


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