Koak’s “Letter to Myself (when the world is on fire)”

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Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco // January 17, 2023 – February 25, 2023

In the middle of 2020, much of Northern California was on fire. With the pandemic in full uncertain mode, with many of us stuck at home, the skies changed from grey to blood orange, a chilling sort of out of body, out of the world experience that was almost incomprehensible. I remember walking down a pier in Sausalito, not seeing 15 feet in front of me, as a stillness and smoke and calamity of the natural world seemed to pause time. Now, a few years later, with time almost steamrolling ahead with reckless abandon, those days of the sky burning and the smoke holding time hostage seems beyond surreal. And, yet, its the most real memory I feel I have had over the last few years. 

Koak made the work for her new solo show, Letter to Myself (when the world is on fire), now on view at Altman Siegel in San Francisco, as the world was burning around her and, in her memory of how it felt to feel the world sort of take the unpredictable turns that only a Hollywood disaster film had taken before. “I have been making this show as a letter to myself,” Koak writes. “The show is about disaster—or about disaster and panic and failure. We get our news interspersed with kitten videos and go from California fires to California sunsets in the span of minutes. The line between danger and safety, calamity and calm, feels unmitigated—we move too quickly between the two to remember when to laugh or how to cry. Everything starts to feel like a mix of amplified emotion with the catatonic state of burnout blasé. I’ve tried to infuse humor, to froth in the absurdity that often accompanies tragedy, and to leave space for calmness when we are too tired for distress.”

There have been times where I kick myself for not writing more during that time about what I was seeing, what we were feeling in California as climate and health crises hit an apex that year, and although we are still in the midst of it all, that particular moment was paramount. Koak’s stunning work is a reminder of how important the artist is in reminding us how we can feel, or have felt, and how time is perhaps never quite linear. —Evan Pricco

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