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Another Failure of Language at Nko’s Apartment

July.8.2011
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Five years ago my father suffered a massive brain injury. We were lucky and he made a full recovery from his ruptured brain aneurysm, but it was a slow process that spanned several months. Even to this day, the Neuro ICU at Harborview Medical Center is scarred in mind after enduring seven nights at my father’s bedside through his worst. I always avoid Harborview with the cushion of a few blocks to spare.

Three years after my father, Seattle artist Nko had a similarly serious brain injury, falling off his bicycle sans helmet (he broke his clavicle, another point of sympathy with me as I start my own slow recovery) in June 2010.

On the surface, his latest exhibit, Another Total Failure of Language, is a series of paintings marking his struggle to regain the ability to speak and write during his recovery from brain injury. The show largely features smaller pieces, each done on a piece of dumpster cardboard which he covered in gold leaf, then spray-painted with white. Finally, Nko covered each piece of cardboard in text that was mostly gibberish and nonsense. The paintings were concentrated in the living room of the apartment that housed his recovery, where they were hung salon-style. There were a few more paintings in the kitchen and a couple others scattered about various nooks of the apartment.

At this level, there really isn’t anything extraordinary or revelatory about the individual pieces of the show. Covering trash in gold leaf and painting over them is no surprise from Nko and has been done before.  The texts themselves might have even bordered on cliché.

But while each individual painting was uninspiring, the experience of the show was. Viewing the show was, first of all, a privilege, as a personal email to Nko was required to get into it (the show was in a functioning apartment complex). Upon entry, though, the viewer was put into Nko’s experience of brain injury recovery, his version of my Harborview. In this sense, going to Another Failure of Language was less like visiting an art show than it was like going to a museum, a museum of recovery. In his museum, the viewer saw Nko’s artifacts of recovery on display, both the art on the walls and the functional aspects of living, like vegan cookbooks on a kitchen shelf or his very neatly made bed.

The real value, then, of Another Failure of Language was not in the living room or the three paintings in the kitchen—it was the apartment itself, the place that housed the ritual that was Nko’s recovery. Apartment 309 gave a glimpse of Nko’s life as he recovered. Only amplifying the sentiment was being greeted at the door by his mom yelling inside, “Nicholas, there are people here to see you.” The apartment and its contents were what remained behind when his ceremony of recovery was finished, further advanced when he moved out of the apartment a week after I viewed the show.

In fact, the only things missing from his apartment were the actual ritual and ceremony of recovery itself.  We met the final product of that ritual, as Nko personally welcomed visitors to his home, but the visitors missed his struggles firsthand. In that way, Another Failure of Language engages in a bizarre sort of nostalgia—the show tries to recreate an event, but like a museum we are left to view the artifacts that are left behind after the ritual is done. That’s certainly not to say that those artifacts aren’t powerful, because they are. The emotion is just like the goose bumps I get walking by Harborview. And unless you have lived through his recovery, the feeling isn’t quite the same, only the shell of a horrific experience.

The artifacts around his apartment take us back to the ritual, give us an impression of the ritual, manifests the feelings that the ritual might have inspired. But no matter how well preserved the artifacts are, we were never a part of his ritual. Instead, like a museum, the artifacts remind us of a different time. And for those of us who have experienced brain injury either first or second hand, the show puts us back in our own moment—a negative nostalgia for a moment that, thank God, has passed.

Another Failure of Language is NO LONGER HANGING. It hung at the Dover Apartments, at 6th and Marion Downtown.

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