Humble and quiet and soothing as mud
Swiss Institute presents Humble and quiet and soothing as mud, Ali Cherri’s first solo exhibition in the United States, which pivots on mud as the primordial material of civilization in creation myths, cultural artifacts and ecology.
From ancient Sumerian mythology to Jewish folklore, Maori and Chinese creation myths to Hindu and Yoruba cosmogony, humankind has time and again been narrativized as originating from mud. Houses, pots, and other vessels made from clay were instrumental to the beginnings of societies, as they were used for cooking, heating and gathering food. It is from the aqueous solution covering the Earth, where water and soil met, that the first single-celled organisms emerged, birthing every living creature on Earth today.
On the first floor of Humble and quiet and soothing as mud, a newly commissioned sculptural installation is fleetingly animated by a choreography of moving lights, retelling the myth of Gilgamesh in a scene surrounding the fabled figure with other characters from the epic poem. In Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh’s rival-turned-companion Enkidu is formed from clay and water to help the semi-mythic king of Uruk on his ventures to achieve immortality. The bodies of Cherri’s sculptures are composed of mud, with masks and fragments of found objects serving as their faces. Cherri buys these sculptural fragments in auctions, where prices fluctuate with changing desires for the objects on sale, mirroring their economic value as cultural artifacts and their political potency in recent discussions of reparations. These objects, which are often forged and then smuggled abroad, are less a question of cultural authenticity for Cherri than about the perpetuation of a lived tradition – an unfixing of these objects from the grips of archaeological time. Yet mud is the material that best preserves archeological finds. What memories might be held by its shifting topographies?
Featured on the second floor is Cherri’s celebrated three-channel video installation Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), for which he was awarded the Silver Lion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. Shot at the Merowe Dam on the Nile River in Northern Sudan, the camera follows a group of brick makers as they shape these fundamental building materials from mud. The construction of the dam – the largest hydropower plant in Africa – in the early 2000s, led to the displacement of more than 50,000 people, social unrest, the destruction of ecosystems, and the submersion of cultural sites and artifacts. In Cherri’s video installation, the gargantuan power plant looms over the arduous manual labor of the brick layers, giving rise to an allegorical tale that merges land and water, drought and deluge, destruction and creation. At a moment when water conflicts and environmentally fueled population displacements are on the rise, Cherri’s work merges past aesthetic imaginings and present planetary catastrophes as a portal for more livable futures to emerge.
This exhibition is organized by Stefanie Hessler, Director, and Alison Coplan, Senior Curator and Head of Programs.