Why this artist is frying American flags and inviting guests to bring their favorite batter seasonings

While many Americans enjoyed Memorial Day barbecues last weekend, artist Kiyan Williams was concocting a completely different kind of barbecue: this Sunday at the Lyles and King Gallery in New York, the artist will fry American flags.

At the event, the artist will dip nylon flags that once flew above the United States Capitol building into pans of splattering oil. VVisitors are encouraged to bring their own regional seasonings for the dough.

A dozen pre-cooked flags have already been installed in the gallery as part of the personal exhibition of the New York artist, “Disinterment.” Crispy like corn dogs, the objects look both delicious and disgusting; more like something you would find at a state fair than an art exhibit.

Installation view of the exhibition “Un/earthing” by Kiyan Williams, 2022. Courtesy of Lyles and King.

The sculptures and the performance belong to a group of works entitled “How to fry an American flag properly?which the artist began in 2020, during the pandemic, when Williams participated in the Recess residency program.

“A source of vitality for me during the pandemic,” said the artist, “was cooking on the phone with my friends and sharing recipes… It became this way of being with people and of s to engage in a kind of community ritual without being able to be physically with people.

By then, Williams was already collecting Capitol flags, which, apparently, are available for purchase. The kitchen provided a suitable processing agent.

“I started to realize that cooking was this kind of non-traditional way of manipulating materials, a sort of sculptural process,” Williams recalls.

Doing anything with a flag is a political gesture, and, of course, cooked – fried? — in Williams’ project, it’s a send-off of Americana and the passive nationalism it entails, not to mention the country’s love of fatty foods.

But there is also another side. While the project extends beyond the sculptures to include a participatory event – a “piece of social practice”, the artist said – its intentions also extend beyond self-righteous criticism. Inviting participants to introduce their own spices and culinary traditions into the recipe, Williams also asks them to reflect on our own relationship to the flag, the country and our national hobbies.

“I think it’s about messing up all these controversial ideas” about what America means, the artist explained, noting that they are also documenting the project with a video. “It’s really the transformation of that bubbling, charred crust that comes out of frying that I find particularly compelling.”

Installation view of Kiyan Williams exhibition "Un/earthing”, 2022. Courtesy of Lyles & King.

Installation view of the exhibition “Un/earthing” by Kiyan Williams, 2022. Courtesy of Lyles & King.

Also on display at Lyles and King are six human-sized figures from the artist’s “Sentient Ruins” series, each constructed from steel and earth. This latter material is particularly important to Williams, who often sources samples from historic sites of racial subjugation and environmental violence and then combines them into totemic earth creatures. Much of the soil used for the “Un/earthing” sculptures, for example, came from the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia, where escaped slaves established maroon communities in the 18th and 19th centuries.

By combining earth from different parts of America, the sculptures, Williams said, “engage in a collective experience or story that speaks to all of the territory of the United States and how the country was built. “.

In addition to “Un/earthing”, Williams has just opened a personal exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and is included in the Public Art Fund’s current outdoor exhibition, “Virgin Atlantic.”

Kiyan Williams: Un/Groundis on view through June 25, 2022 at Lyles & King in New York.

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