Artist Kahlil Robert Irving shows how a streetscape can tell a community's story at the Walker Art Center

Imagine walking down a city street. You see pavement, bricks, power lines, pipes, windows, lights, maybe some graffiti, a tree or two.

Artist Kahlil Robert Irving thinks that a city street landscape can tell a community’s story.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently opened an exhibition by Kahlil called Archeology of the Present. Kahlil joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about his latest exhibit.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: I want you to imagine right now walking down a city street. You see pavement, bricks, power lines, pipes, windows, lights, maybe some graffiti, a tree or two. Our next guest, artist Kahlil Robert Irving, thinks that a city street landscape can tell a community's story. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently opened an exhibition by Kahlil called Archaeology of the Present. Kahlil joins us right now to talk about his work.

Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Many artists create in order to help make them-- help them make sense of or process the world around them. You describe your sculptures as three-dimensional concrete poetry, which sounds-- which is beautiful. I like how you describe that. Can you tell me your process?

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: The process is kind of like in a moment or intuitive with me being in the studio using tools that I've been amassing and collecting over the last several years. So, I mean, some days when I'm in the studio, I'm moving boxes around or I'm picking some things up or I'm firing things in my kiln or using my printing press or contacting the company to help me fabricate something. So the process is kind of all over the place.

CATHY WURZER: It's a lot.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Specifically for the Walker Art Center, I was pressing-- I was pressing clay into the molds and making tiles. And then we're also presenting a few works that are made with industrial materials. So in the exhibition when you walk up on the platform, you can touch an industrially-produced pipe that we painted black for the installation. And then you can also touch a brick tiled structure that resembles something similar to a chimney or like a fragment of a wall of a building.

CATHY WURZER: Now, you mentioned this is a-- folks walk into this room. It's a large plywood platform. And people are going to stand on the platform in order to view the sculptures that are kind of inset into it, as you just said. We--

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: And protruding from it.

CATHY WURZER: --often interact with art-- yes, and coming up from it. We often interact with art either at eye level or higher, depending on the piece. So I'm curious about how you have-- why you made the decision to have more of, I guess, a grounded installation, in a sense.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: In a lot of ways, I've been working over the last 10 years to deal with ownership or proprietorship engagement with objects. And when I started making these sculptures that look like asphalt or the starry sky, they meant to sit on the floor because they're resembling something of the ground. And so the largest work that I've made to date is 9 and 1/2 by 16 feet, and it sits on a platform on the floor, but you can't walk on it.

And so presenting collaboratively Archaeology of the Present at the Walker Art Center. It's an experience for the viewer to kind of understand or experience the next evolution of where and what I've been doing is gone. So the experience of walking up onto the platform, looking at, seeing things from above, looking at reflections or ideas from a different perspective is just a part of the course of my desire for people to be involved in a completely different way.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. You use the word archaeology when describing your work. Why use that term?

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Well, we think about-- we can think about the application and use of ceramics throughout the last several thousand years. And ceramic is used in the Southwest by Indigenous people to build adobe houses. And the adobe can withstand weather, a certain kind of weather. In St. Louis where I'm from, we built a lot of buildings over the last 200 years, 300 years out of brick because the clay in the Earth is valuable. And it can produce something that can serve a function.

And so when you think about how-- when you think about archivability, when you think about painting or a certain kind of sculptural production, fibers or concrete, we think about how long will something last. And when you go to a dig site or you go somewhere that's really old, first thing or something that you're most likely going to find is something made out of ceramics.

And so when you think about the complication of living in contemporary society where we're constantly willing to tear something down to build something new or we just let something fall, it's falling in a place. And thinking about and comparing or contrasting or like elucidating a little bit further on archaeology and relationship to the present, it's just making notice of this place in which we're in still also having value or space for reflection.

CATHY WURZER: And how does that then reflect-- in my introduction, I talked about a city street landscape can truly tell a community's story, or at least a part of the community story. Can you expand on that a little bit in terms of how your art reflects that?

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Yeah, I mean, you can go into a white neighborhood and not see any trash on the ground, but there's somebody there picking it up. So there's a certain level of privilege that's being communicated, a certain kind of heightened expectation of way-- what power is supposed to look like. And so when you engage in a series of sculptures that I'm presenting, there are certain things that are illuminated or ambiguous to certain audiences and completely understandable by another.

And so the ceramic floor tile sculptures are about memorial of experiences, but they're not necessarily communicating or narrativizing any specific experience because it's not meant to. It's the act as-- those objects act as memorial to the possibility of something or the memory of something, but it's not necessarily telling you Billy Joe died here or it's not a landmark. It's just a signifier for me.

CATHY WURZER: I'm curious about why you decided to open your work, this exhibit here, in Minneapolis at the Walker. Tell me a little bit about that.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Well, in 2021 or-- yeah, in 2021, the senior curator Vincenzo at the museum, who's no longer there now, wrote me and asked me to have a studio visit. And he had no-- he knew the programming and what else he was working on. And I think he saw a connection between his other programs that he was doing at the time and including me a part of that conversation.

Recently, Italian artist Jannis Kounellis had a-- Vincenzo curated a long-term survey of that artist's work and so for me to be in the other room, and then currently still on view at the Museum, Paul Chan, just like it was a concert. A museum's program is all about concert, what all the different parts look like and sound like together.

And for me, this exhibition at the Walker is a very specific commission. It's like an experience when someone invites an artist to do something and the whole institution supports the project. And so continuing to work with William, the way he organized the exhibition, I just wanted to give the audience a way into the work that maybe-- to interject a little bit more participation maybe could allow the audience a little bit more access to the content. And so pushing forward my interest in making a more dynamic installation, but also user or visitor experience is kind of like this exhibition, and this installation is trying to sit in the middle of that.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. It's been open for, gosh, exactly a week. Have you heard about reaction yet?

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: A lot of people have shared some response, and they're really interested in its dynamic issues between walking and seeing videos from above. There's a video work that you can see from above. The fact that you can touch something, I think, really excites people.

And they can touch two things. I mean, the installation really is bridging all of my thoughts from the last several years into one space. So it's really-- it's been-- I think for most people, it's going to be a real pleasure to enter the museum and see and interact with something that is pretty new.

CATHY WURZER: I'm excited to see it. Thank you, by the way, for your work. And thank you for your time talking about the exhibit today.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Thank you. It's such a pleasure, and it's a real blessing to be able to continue to make work and exhibit my work. Last year-- or in 2021, I opened an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and I'm so glad that I got to celebrate that opening. And I took my grandma with me. This will be the first exhibition I'll see of my own work, and my grandma won't be able to, so.



CATHY WURZER: Oh, I'm sorry.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Yeah, it's a real blessing to do what I do. But it's just-- yeah, I make-- I make and I do because what my grandma provided for me helped me to be able to be here. So it means a lot.

CATHY WURZER: I bet your grandma's spirit is still with you. You know what I'm saying? And she's probably maybe creating through you.

KAHLIL ROBERT IRVING: Yep. She's moving with me every day, so.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Thank you so very much, and best of luck in the future.


CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to artist Kahlil Robert Irving. You can see his new exhibit for free at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. By the way, arts programming on MPR News is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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