What will we do with the museum when all the objects it contains have been returned? “A Heap of Random Sweepings,” Sameer Farooq’s first major solo exhibition in Toronto, imagines just such a reparative future. Integrating sound, sculpture, poetry, printmaking, and photography, Farooq and his collaborators have transformed the gallery into a space for contemplation. The show’s proposal is that, once emptied, these sites might be used to reckon with their histories of violent appropriation and colonial accumulation.
Using museum-display strategies to choreograph visitors’ movements, Farooq’s immersive installation invites viewers to visit six different stations positioned around the gallery, each featuring a low bench surrounded by movable screens of images and text. At each station, viewers encounter framed photographs from his “Restitution” series, 2020–21, depicting artifacts in museum vitrines from all over the world. Hanging from laddered supports, the pictures of swords, masks, minerals, statues, hieroglyphs, and dinosaur bones are made dizzying through the manipulation of the camera’s gaze: By re-photographing the images as they move past the lens on a dolly, the artist creates a sense of movement and blur. The result makes otherwise familiar techniques of museological lighting and display feel eerie and strange. Three large plaster slabs complete the series. Marked with negative indentations in the shape of objects removed from them—including arrowheads, urns, and the figure of Buddha—and with positive reliefs cast from molds of the same items, the slabs’ repeating forms conjure the acts of disappearance and reappearance that the museum facilitates.
Each station is also bordered by concrete supports on wheels that provide the ballast for glass plates protecting a series of letterpress poems by Jared Stanley (“24 Affections,” 2019), their white text on black ground ruminating on fragility, love, and physical contact. Written to mimic the form of museum wall labels, complete with acquisition numbers, the poems are prompts to imagine the materiality of the objects on display as constantly in flux. does what is above know what is above? one inquires. a wobble, an ooze, then it / all goes up in wildfire smoke, another warns. On the works’ verso, pairs of superimposed monoprints featuring colorful organic forms seem to visualize the poems’ imaginary prompts. Floating on dark fields, the shapes suggest abstracted landscapes in buttercup yellow, charcoal, deep red, and cerulean. Drawn from Farooq’s daily investigations into visualization exercises as a form of meditation, the compositions act as internal artifacts from an elusive psychic space that tends to escape representational capture.
At the exhibition’s center is If it were possible to collect all navels of the world on the steps to ASCENSION, 2019, a stepped plinth featuring six rows of what appear to be rocks, minerals, crystals, and fossils, organized by size and hue. Upon closer inspection, one sees that the objects are made from clay, shaped by hand and fired by the artist. Annotated with poetic prompts along each step, the onyx-, rust-, and coral-hued forms elicit a desire to touch their glossy surfaces, while their hollow centers suggest a ghostly absence. A twenty-five-minute sound environment, composed by Gabie Strong, envelops the modular exhibition design; six crescendoing movements, divided by the sound of a bell, invite the viewer to move between points of contemplation.
The act of imprinting—found in the plaster casts, the fingerprint traces left on ceramics, and the letterpress poems—is a leitmotif that threads through Farooq’s work. The process suggests that the museum’s rapacious hunger for objects has left its own set of psychic imprints: on the communities whose cultural objects have been brutally transformed into artifacts, on the staff who have held them in stasis for centuries, and on the visitors who have come to understand this museumification as natural. By questioning and reworking the display practices that have shaped our habits of seeing, Farooq has created a space for reflection, offering viewers the support structures necessary for imagining the future of these institutions differently.