Author Archives: danielsalamancasaic


Interview with Nicky Ni
By Daniel Salamanca

LITHIUM is a Chicago-based gallery in favor of thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

1932 S Halsted, Suite 200 Chicago, IL 60608 | 773-998-1712
Gallery Hours:Saturday 1-6 p.m., and by appointment

1. Can you tell me a little bit about the founders and team behind the space? Has it changed or evolved? And also, what’s the story behind the beautiful name that you chose? 

In October 2017, three alumni and one graduate student from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) formed an anonymous collective that started a gallery space called LITHIUM. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, LITHIUM is dedicated to providing a gallery setting for time-based art. The mission is to promote thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

The managerial team has changed and evolved over time: a few left and we’ve welcomed a new temporary member as well. The anonymity has dissolved a little bit though we never really officially announce who’s behind LITHIUM.

The name “LITHIUM” is more than an appropriation of Nirvana’s song of the same title – which apparently all co-founders enjoy immensely – and has several symbolic meanings. One interpretation of the name is that it comes from the “lithium batteries,” which power the electronic devices we use. The other refers to a type of psychiatric medication that includes lithium salts as an ingredient. Lithium salts is frequently used as a stabilizer for emotional instability and bipolar disorder; we intend the projects of LITHIUM to be a “stabilizer” for unstable media such as time-based art.

2. Why do you think that a time-based art gallery was necessary in Chicago art scene, back in October 2017 and today?  

Historically, the term “time-based art” was coined by British artist David Hall in the late 1960s, amidst an international artistic landscape where video was beginning to be widely applied in artmaking. In the decades that followed, time-based art usually described any technology-based art ranging from expanded cinema, videos, to kinetic installations that involve light and sound. The emergence of the Internet coupled with the postmodern environment in the early 1990s displayed an interdisciplinary tendency in the art world, and medium-specificity was no longer an issue for contemporary artists. However, though the cross-disciplinary approach to art-making is certainly exciting, it does create an unbalanced situation for exhibiting certain contemporary art. Artworks that are deemed too difficult technically to show can easily be curtailed due to lack of equipment support; ephemeral art such as multi-media installations and live performances also encounter great obstacles finding a dedicated collectorship and patronage.

Though Chicago has a prominent scene of underground cinemas and independent theaters, there is a lack of space in the entire city that explores the possibilities between the black-box cinema and the white-cube gallery. What the city needs is a grey space that welcomes artists of various time-based practices to experiment and to present their work in unconventional ways. Therefore, while acknowledging and encouraging interdisciplinarity, LITHIUM sees itself becoming a dedicated platform that attempts to breaks this “black-and-white” dichotomy. Additionally, we intentionally define time-based art more openly, which yields beyond technology-based art and can refer to video, film, computer simulation, reading events and live performances, with a solid commitment to support art forms that share an intangible, unstable, or ephemeral nature.

3. What where your motivations and expectations back then and now? And what have been the people, artists and scene responses? How the space has changed during this period of time?

I don’t think our motivations have changed. It has been pretty clear since the very beginning and it is to support time-based arts. I think people’s positive responses to the gallery has something to do with this fact that we’ve been very upfront about what we do and what we support. However, we do always adjust our expectations of every show as part of the curatorial decisions: what’s possible and what’s beyond our reach. What we can provide in terms of financial compensation and equipment have been quite limited due to our very small budget, so the main aspect that we can focus on and be creative about is installation. The space remains more or less the same given that we can’t build and rebuild drywalls for every show; however, we can be creative about the placement of the work and how we program each exhibition or exhibitions series. It is actually more exciting when you have quite a set of parameters that you have to work against.

4. Can you describe the programming, in terms of planning, scheduling, choosing projects and artists to be exhibited? Both from a practical point of view but also conceptually?

We strive to either bring older work that has never been exhibited in Chicago to the city or premiere new work by Chicago-based artists. Either way, it is to showcase new perspectives and to not repeat what has been done already. Back then when we had a bigger team, choosing artists was a team decision, meaning that every artist we choose has to be approved by each member on the team. Gradually as the team becomes smaller and as we get more and more proposals—from both artists and curators from the SAIC community, how we plan for future projects grows to be more organic, meaning by recommendations from people around us.

From my own stand point, I’d love to spend more time on curation and researching new artists outside of the SAIC community (but off the record, that’s just something that you could achieve only when it is a full-time job, not when it is a project that runs parallel to your graduate studies J). With that said, I would always have studio visits or conversations with interested artists/curators before deciding whether to offer the space to them or not. Conceptually, I prefer projects that are malleable, ones that are like water and can fit into different containers. The infrastructure of LITHIUM is by no means ideal so I especially appreciate artists who would be willing to work around what the space can offer.

5. Does the space partnership with other institutions in the city, in the neighborhood (Pilsen)? How is that relationship? And also, if you had to name spaces that share similar visions and interests as Lithium, what would those be?

Very recently I was talking with directors from other artist-run spaces around Pilsen, such as Baby Blue, ACRE Projects, Ground Level Platform, Annas, and Prairie, and we were thinking about forming an unofficial “East Pilsen” art coalition. This May we did social-media cross-promotions and in the future, we will try to coordinate with our openings as well. The exhibition that you were part of was one of our collaboration with SAIC. There have also been projects (such as solo by Adela Goldbard) that was partially sponsored by SAIC grants.

I don’t think Chicago has a space that shares the mission of LITHIUM. Slightly similar ones are the VGA Gallery, D.A.D.S (aka Digital Art Demo Space), and what Aspect Ratio used to be some years ago. The Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn is a good model but they have very different aesthetics.

6. How does the team balance the time between the School and the space?

Good question! It has been very difficult mainly for me because the rest of the original team have graduated already by the time we started the gallery. For me, I just use LITHIUM as my arts admin’s class project. For example, there’s this Management Studio III class where you should build your own exhibition/project, write a proposal and realize it. And I just used that to further develop LITHIUM (for which I wrote a business plan that project the fiscal year 18-19).

7. Who is in charge of the graphic design?

If you have to know, it’s all by Yan Zhou unless otherwise specified. He received his MFA in Visual Communication from SAIC in 2015 and has been working as a professional graphic designer and new media artist. Having him on the team also means that we are a very design-driven and design sensitive organization. Since last year, we try to also create more time-based publicity materials for our FB and Instagram accounts.

8. What is the best way to describe Lithium now and in the future, in terms of economic model? Can you give us some insights (challenges, lessons and discoveries) of this endeavor?

The lease for the space will expire by the end of June and the future of LITHIUM is still pending. I personally will continue to do it, also graduating at the moment, I probably will migrate it to an online platform or make it a nomadic project. The financial model for LITHIUM as how it is now is not sustainable at all (the entire budget comes from the co-founders’ pockets and some programming budgets come from school-wise grants) and we haven’t been doing any fundraising events due to not having a 501c3 status. I’m hoping to potentially get a fiscal sponsor in the future since I won’t be able to get any more school-wise grants. Maintaining a financially sustainable model is huge for any arts institutions and it’s much easier said than done.

9. To finish, and going back to the team and founders, does the project collide with each individual interests and plans? Or on the contrary does it blends harmonically?

It started off as a perfect team with each of the member having their particular interest and specialty that they can bring to the team. We have two dual MAs, one from Writing, one from FVNMA, and one from VisCom, so, we did have very diverse point of views. However, after the first year of operation, life changes and people find full-time jobs, and the team has dissolved a little bit due to that aspect.


ASMA is an artist duo composed by Hanya Beliá (México City) and Matias Armendaris (Ecuador). Although they are not based in Chicago anymore, they started there project here in the city in the past spring (2018) and keep coming back and forth between different places in Latin America (México City, Sao Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, Santiago) and Chicago. I was interested in interviewing them because of that nomadic experience that includes Chicago as a satellite but not necessarily as their main hub.

1. Can you tell me when does ASMA begun and why did you choose that name?

ASMA was officially born a year and four months ago, but before that we were collaborating informally for about two years. We both suffer from asthma and it was one of the first things we talked about when we met, it became one of our first things in common. Investigating the word “asma” we found that one of the first readings of “asthma” was a kind of paranormal event where the patient received a divine visit. This aligned with our interest in generating value from those first approaches to knowledge that come from individual experience and that are not governed by reason or logic necessarily.

2. You describe your practice as an active collaboration and also like the overlapping part of a Venn diagram? Can you talk about the challenges of combining two individual practices and how that mutates into a third being, a third space?

It is a hard thing to collaborate. A lot of the times in collaborations people hold onto their own individuality and it becomes a clear assignation of roles. We have made our core focus to explore how collaboration is a tool to play, expand beyond your individual limitations and lose control. To be able to generate this third space, something new between the two, we believe that it is necessary that all our efforts are 50% and 50% in what we do. A lot of it is material experiments, we like that a lot and it makes everything easier in some way because it acquires a certain autonomy, in the end it is something that we would never have thought of doing in our individual practices. Within this active collaboration we have payed attention at the interrelations of everything and how things change each other; in this way through our work we enact this same interrelation, within the works, materials, ourselves, feelings, ideas, spaces, and people.

3. You use to define your collective work with one word: Love. Can you expand that idea? And maybe articulate on how love might change, evolve, disappear, grow, expand, explode and so on.

As we are romantic partners, when we started ASMA our process was very raw. We did a lot of exploration and play and it was mainly a search without much clarity, and what drove that search was our love. Things haven’t changed much but our language around our interest have. In a very simplified form, love is a cohabitation of difference; in some way, it works much like the Venn diagram, the third space, the space in-between is a togetherness. We can explore this within and between us but through materials we push this understanding of interrelations, cohabitation, difference and hybridity.

4. One of the most beautiful things about your work is that the essence relies on very small gestures and almost invisible details that are related to the origin of the materials you use, or part of the process of making. Can you make a list, like a long label or an informative poem, so that the reader understands what I’m talking about?

We have played a lot with material specificity. We made some pieces where we moistened the raw clay with eye drops, we used gray hairs to make a brush, dried Jamaica flowers like gravel for a cement sculpture, and many other materials. Perhaps the best example of this is a piece of poetic composition that we made in Sao Paulo where basically the label is a classic sonnet that we wrote:

Mano grabada en placa de metal,
bolsa de té rellena de cristales,
dos esferas de barros tropicales,
tetera de cobre, flor oriental.
Trenza tejida con hilo dental,
placa de dientes postizos frontales,
semilla con dos colmillos iguales,
dibujo en azul de eclipse total;
frasquito de Givenchy con mercurio,
esmeralda con orilla pintada…
un sobre de sal para el buen augurio,
dije atado a una cadena dorada,
corazón de lámina de telurio,
vela de color rosa perfumada.

Hand engraved on metal plate,
tea bag filled with crystals,
two tropical clay spheres,
copper teapot, oriental flower.
Braid weaved with dental floss,
front false teeth plate,
seed with two equal fangs,
drawing in blue of a total eclipse;
Givenchy flask with mercury,
emerald with painted edge…
a sachet of salt for good omen,
locket tied to a golden chain,
tellurium plate heart,
scented pink candle.

5. What are the responses of the audience to those little secrets, or ghosts, embedded in the work?

Sometimes these little gestures can create a certain personal recognition in people where it can trigger individual narratives for different viewers. Some of these gestures are hidden and play more with the way in which it might or might not change the essence of the thing. Sometimes it can generate more interest or strangeness and sometimes it may confuse people, because these details spread the “meaning” of the work, people do not like that there is not such obvious clarity, but it allows for multiple interpretations.

6. Is ASMA a nomadic project? Can you tell us about the travels you have made and how they have influenced your practice?

Since the birth of ASMA we have been able to travel a lot, especially last year. This has definitely marked our practice and changed it because each place has offered us different experiences and materials. We have taken much advantage of our shared experience in each trip to incorporate it into our process. The central imaginary of ASMA is influenced by these multiple contexts and interrelations.

8. What is the future of ASMA? Where do you want to travel, what pieces you want to make, what kind of career you expect for the collective?

After traveling last year, we have spent a few months in Mexico and have taken the opportunity to reconnect with the city and produce a body of work as a result from that; related to the historic center and the lake that lays underneath. We are interested in generating more immersive spaces in the future. We are looking into some residences in Europe. This year we plan to be in Bogotá and Miami for art fairs and we are currently preparing two shows, one of them in Chicago at New Works in November.

9. To finish, if you had to choose a tarot card for ASMA which one would be and why? 

The mad man, the magician and the emperatriz if they all had a child.

Trompe L’oeil or Primary Sources

In 2011, the Brooklyn based artist Anna Plesset did a trip to Europe. She visited different places in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, trying to retrace the journey of his grandfather Marvin R. Plesset who recorded, on a 16 mm film, part of his experience as a division psychiatrist in the US Army, during WWII. Her encounter with the original film and then her own travel are the points of departure for her latest exhibition, Various Records, currently on view at Patron Gallery, from March 23 to May 4.  

At first sight, the show looks like a contemporary display of a personal, as well as historical archive. Near the entrance, to the right, there is a wood table with a surface that seems used and, on top of it, various vintage objects: the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, 3 old Kodak boxes for photographic and cinematographic film, a VHS cassette, an instant picture, a micro SD Card and a blue notebook. This piece is called Primary Sources and was made from 2015 to 2018. Then in the center of this main space of the gallery, there is a freestanding room titled Travelogue (21st Century Room) made out of the same wood than the table and produced between 2013 and 2018. Inside, we can see another collection of mementos. Museum’s and train’s tickets, photographs, the page of a philosophy book, pieces of a paper note, etc, all of them attached with tiny pieces of tape. Suddenly, a minuscule trace of a brush in these elements reveals itself. The tape is not tape, the photographs are not real, the marks on the white surface are illusions, and so on with everything in the small, intimate room. Using trompe l’oeil painting the artist is tricking the spectator with incredibly precise and precious copies of all the elements of her memory puzzle. At that moment, the show starts to make much more sense and open multiple questions. Are the Primary Sources painted as well? Are they real sources or it is a kind of fiction? Does the use of painting add another layer of time into the work? Does illusion make something more real, more engaging, than the real document?

Well, while all these questions start popping up into your head, you continue through the show and find another table like the first one but this time supporting a map of her travel, and a projector that shows parts of the original film of her grandfather edited along her footage from her travel –Document of a Travelogue by Lt. Col. Marvin R. Plesset, Division Neuropsychiatrist (2013)–.  Once again, there is a play between the original source and the one produced by her. The same game of the painting but through a different medium. So, part of the puzzle is finally exposed. There are primary sources, documents and film excerpts from the 1940s but then, what you are seeing are exact painted replicas of that material. What the artist is doing is involving herself in those documents through the slow act of painting and, as a consequence, is engaging the viewer in those multiple times. The time of her grandfather’s journey, the time of the encounter of this archive, the time of her trip to Europe, the time of painting and finally, the present time of the exhibition. In other words, is like a dissection of what memory can be. According to the artist, in conversation with Orit Gat: “Institutions, books, and media construct our knowledge of history” and “the faith that holding onto the memory of how you learned something means really grasping the fact that stories are all constructs”.            

Unfortunately, after those instants of excitement and discovery, you continue to a second space of the gallery, expecting new clues, or new parts of the puzzle but, instead, the trick is poorly revealed. Two hyperreal pencil drawings of two of the mementos just seen in the standing room are replicated, and over explaining what you can discover slowly by your own. Like if a magician, after impressing his audience, decides to boorishly tell them how he did it. This is a poor decision whose only justification is the fact that the exhibition is happening in a commercial gallery and that those 2 drawings, as well as others in storage, might be easier to sell than the video, the room panels or the boxes and books replicas. But it definitely kills part of the beauty and delicate strings of thoughts that hold the show. This doesn’t happen with a small cabinet of ceramic objects, Obsolete Objects from the Golden Mile and the Golden Arrow (2014-2018) that once again trigger the questions on reality, documents, memory, archive and fiction.   

Note: the exhibitions at Patron gallery tend to resonate with the ones at Document Gallery. Both spaces seem to be pushing the boundaries of what is usually shown in other galleries of Chicago.   

The spectator as a lost pilgrim

There is not worst way of sabotaging a short art review than starting by quoting, or even worst, paraphrasing a French Philosopher. Nevertheless, I am going to take the risk, even if I lose a few readers. I’m referring to one of the thesis of Regis Débray, argued both in Life and Death of the image as well as God: an itinerary. In some parts of these two long essays he basically explains how, in the past three decades, at least for a Western Liberal and educated mass, religion and faith have been replaced by a cult to entertainment and culture: “When the ‘living stones’, believers or militants, dry out and crumble, the stones themselves regress from relics to mere residues. Museums have begun to fill up as churches have gradually emptied out. And a church, too, can turn into a museum.”

Although we could write pages and pages on this subject, what interests me is the analogy between religion and art as a lens to look at the recent exhibition of the Italian born artist Enrico David, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. Titled after one of the main works on view, Gradiations of Slow release, this 20 years first survey of David in the U.S., proposes a very Catholic experience.

First of all, the way the artist expresses himself in the didactical video of the entrance is already setting the mood. “Signal the possibility… a sense of mystery… initiate your own journey… traumatic thing… visualizing energies… emerge… decipher something… proceeding blind faith… own spire and energy…”, he says in front of the camera. Unconsciously, there is a sense of spirituality that get stocked in the back of your head. Then, once you are about to enter the show, is unavoidable not to think of it as a threshold into a Catholic church. The Foyer or Narthex, in this case, is generated by the big wall in front. This one is holding, at the right side, a giant canvas with a pink and black figure made out of wool and acrylic. At the left, it works as a background for one of his uncanny body sculptures made out of a mix of poor and sophisticated materials that turn into a reddish flesh color (See Figure 1). This simple gesture of generating a barrier that makes you stop before seeing the totality of the space is a very similar experience to the one of a church.

Once inside, whether you decide to turn left or right, you realize that the space is arranged in four squares formed by four floating walls and marking a giant cross with a void in the center. The curatorial approach and its premise seem very simple: wander around, do your own connections, avoid chronology and show all the wide range of techniques and materials used by the artist to approach the body. Or should I say the body of Christ? I’m talking about figures trying to stand, to levitate, to come back from the deathly weight of gravity. Faces and legs, arms and torsos, hands and necks, deformed figures that usually start from a drawing and then get transformed, or copied, into a tapestry, a Yosemite sculpture, a cast, wire and stone, a painting, etc. The multiplicity is evident but not really justified, as for example in Figure 2, where the translation from some kind of brut object made out of austere and precarious materials becomes an unexpressive weaved caricature, probably easiest to sell, but that doesn’t reflect the precious sensibility of materials and play embedded in the preliminary sculpture/toy. In a general sense, although there are very beautiful and mysterious pieces (See Figure 3), I feel that we are being tricked to see a modern artist as if it was contemporary, instead of presenting it as it is. And maybe this is why I started with the religious analogy. Because even if the curator Michael Darling wasn’t thinking in a subliminal display to convert us to David’s faith, it is obvious that there is an excess of discourse about cycles, transformations and process.

In that sense, I’m missing the risk of bringing more difficult meanings and connections. As for example the relationships that this could have with the imagists and the tradition of Chicagoan artists depicting figures. Or maybe tracing the legacy of Italian craftsmanship as well as their material tradition in fine arts and architecture (he even has a Roman aqueduct structure instead of a pedestal. See Figure 4), just to name a couple of possibilities. Instead, the spectator, like a lost pilgrim in a church, is confronted with 50 diverse works arranged at the level of the eye or timidly pointing into the floor. Or, to put into the exhibition itself, a chaotic walk in between two pieces that for me frame the whole exhibition and this idea of the museum replaced by a Roman church: Life Sentences (See Figure 5) and Tools and Toys III (See Figure 6).