Lately, Coleman Collins has been cutting, marking, and converting his DNA sequence into videos, sculptures, and prints. Using iterative processes, he tests the limits of his materials, producing errors, variations, and gaps that probe the concept of inheritance. These experiments are on view at the new location of the gallery Brief Histories as part of “Body Errata,” the artist’s first solo show in New York.
In some works, genetics are a starting point for considering what else might be inherited, from family narratives to generational trauma. In a series of works made of plywood panels finished to look like stone, Collins used a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine to cut out different compositions that incorporate the letters A, C, G, and T–the nucleotides that make up DNA. In Tetrad (all works 2022), these relatively abstracted letters label different planes of a geometric figure positioned above a more narrative text: 04-010/XMFM WAS BORN A SLAVE IN NORTH CAROLINA. HE NEVER LEARNED TO READ, BUT WAS EXTRAORDINARILY GOOD WITH ARITHMETIC AND GEOMETRY. Different kinds of information meet and change form: while the text is inspired by Collins family lore, its subject is referenced by a genealogical numbering system. The geometric figure attempts to reconcile these two strands of information visually; however, the actual connections remain elusive. What kinds of information can DNA testing restore? How do they interact with our long-held beliefs and defining personal narratives?
In another piece in this series, Sequential Shift, the artist juxtaposes a section of his DNA sequence with partial renderings of an Ife head, an icon of West African culture and artistry. Some of the heads are set off in tetrahedrons, a shape Collins terms an ideal form. Here, the CNC machine interpreted the artist’s digital files with varying ease, and the results form a blended temporal register: while the tetrahedrons’ sharp lines are controlled and exact, repetitive speckles give the heads a pixelated look, and clusters of markings around several of the head fragments give the surface the appearance of having been worn down over time. In this collapsed plane, Collins seems to place himself within an artistic lineage.
In one corner of the gallery, an installation titled May be the last time, I don’t know references the paradox of the “Grandfather’s Axe.” Is a family heirloom still “authentic” if all its parts have been replaced over time? This thought puzzle is typically used to contemplate the identity of a single entity. However, it can also be used to think through the relationship between a descendant and an ancestor and how much genetic material they actually share. At the gallery, six indistinguishable axe heads are each laser engraved with the phrase THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME, suggesting an uncertain but ongoing duration. They are arranged on top of an MDF board on the floor; two flat squares of steel in opposite corners slightly elevate two pairs of the objects. The work plays with both physical and philosophical dimensions of the paradox: faced with identical objects, a viewer cannot distinguish an original from its copies. The axes’ placement in a mostly symmetrical pattern and in pairs suggests an effort to evaluate similarities and differences. Divorced from their handles, axe heads are less functional than symbolic, lending the work a cool and contemplative tone.
In another corner of the gallery, two stacked monitors display alternating video works. In Dispersion, the bottom monitor plays a short home movie of a boat trip Collins took in Nigeria in 2017: beginning outside the coastal town of Badagry, near the border with Benin, he traces a former slave route that leads to the “Door of No Return,” a port where many enslaved people last set foot in Africa. In the top monitor, the same video slowly degrades with each repetition, breaking down into pixels and primary colors, growing more abstract each time. Its disintegration (which Collins achieved by exporting the video again and again) both parallels the artist’s deteriorating memory of the trip and invokes the violent erasure of Black people’s origins through the transatlantic slave trade. While DNA testing might pinpoint information about one’s ancestry, this work, like Tetrad, insists that a return to one’s origins is always incomplete, and alludes to the diffuse effects of generational trauma.
In the center of the gallery, Data self-portrait 2 ties together all of Collins’s iterative processes. A computer motherboard engraved with the artist’s gene sequence, the work is the most direct instantiation of his DNA (the exact code needed to produce another Coleman Collins), yet it is also the least guided by his interpretation. In its starkness, the work brings an existential dimension to the show: “What does it mean to have a body, and specifically this one?” the artist asked when speaking about the exhibition. “Body Errata” presents some hypotheses, finding new forms at the breaking points of data, narratives, and materials.