The top gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art felt like church for a moment.

With its airy, cathedral ceilings and Rashid Johnson’s new temple-like art installation, the space turned spiritual when the First African Baptist Church Contemporary Choir walked around the pyramid-shaped sculpture, belting out “Hallelujah!”

Two exhibits opened at the ICA on Wednesday, the first set of new exhibitions since the art museum opened in April: “Provocations: Rashid Johnson” featuring “Monument” in the top gallery and “Hedges, Edges, Dirt” with work from five artists in the first two floors.

“Richmond has so many monuments, that some treasure and others find problematic,” said Johnson, a 41-year-old artist originally from Chicago. “I think of this piece as a monument.”

It’s a different kind of monument—an artist’s take on a monument: a 20-foot-tall steel-grid structure filled with lush green plants, books by James Baldwin, video of dancers and shea-butter totem sculptures.

Every Friday and Saturday, there will be live performances in response to “Monument.” Free drop-in performances from DJs, musicians, dancers and spoken word artists will occur weekly throughout the installation’s nine-month stay.

“I want this to change every time you come see it,” Johnson said. “It gives you the opportunity for the long look. You can experience it with different voices, instruments and performances, even yoga. Or you can come on a Wednesday afternoon when it’s completely quiet. In three to four months from now, you can come back and see the growth and the evolution.”

Many of the plants were sourced from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, which also provided cuttings for “Hedges, Edges, Dirt.”

Johnson’s sculpture explores black creativity and his experience as an African-American, among other issues. This is his first major commissioned work below the Mason-Dixon Line, according to organizers.

Johnson talked about why he used shea butter prominently in the exhibit.

“Shea butter was a staple in the African-American community, but now, it’s everywhere, like Jergens. Everything has shea butter in it.”

Blocks of yellow shea butter in its raw form can be found throughout the sculpture. Others are shaped like totems that represent the artist himself.

“Anxiety Man,” he called them. “We live in a time that makes us pretty nervous and anxious,” he said.

Johnson’s “Monument” is the first in the museum’s series called “Provocations.”

With its soaring ceilings and sharp angles, the top gallery was designed by architect Steven Holl as “a provocation for artists to engage.”

Johnson’s exhibit is the first to take up that charge. His exhibit will run through July 7. Each year, the ICA will invite another artist to explore that thought-provoking space.

Stephanie Smith, chief curator for the ICA, described Johnson’s “Monument” as “a site for both contemplation and collaboration.”

While the new exhibits aren’t as overtly political as the inaugural ICA exhibit, “Declaration,” Smith described the new exhibits as “political in a different way. They’re nuanced and complicated.”

On the first floor, a line of cedar hedges from Iran-born artist Abbas Akhavan marks the entrance to “Hedges, Edges, Dirt.”

“It’s about boundaries and borders in a direct way,” Smith said. “Borders and boundaries have to be navigated by people with power and those without. It’s about public vs. private, who’s welcome and who is not.”

Many pieces in the new exhibits are lush and green, engaging the senses. Cedar scent from the hedges fills the gallery, and the soft twinkling of chimes evokes the outdoors.

Pascale Marthine Tayou’s “Plastic Tree” seems to grow off the wall, a series of branches with multicolored trash bags tied onto the ends like blooms. Smith described it as a “forest of detritus that connects us all.”

Upstairs in the second-floor gallery, Julianne Swartz takes on sound with “Sine Body.” Created from blown glass, porcelain and electronics, the pieces create an eerie, tonal sound that ebbs and flows. The artist will be on hand to “activate” the piece at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Especially striking is a drone photograph from artist David Hartt that has been turned into a tapestry, woven by a firm in Belgium. From afar, it looks like a drone photo of a desolate urban space: rows of commercial trucks, a partially built highway bridge, an old brick church and a forgotten speed boat sitting at the water’s edge.

But up close, it is a dense, woven piece where ancient art meets modern high technology.

The ICA commissioned the tapestry for the exhibit, as well as Johnson’s “Monument.”

“It’s important for us to commission new work and to connect with the community,” Smith said.

Dominic Willsdon, the new ICA executive director, made a special trip from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where he is finishing out his current role. He officially starts at the ICA on Dec. 1.

“It’s a great moment to be here,” Willsdon said. “It’s only when you see second exhibitions that you see what the venue can be.”

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Colleen Curran writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch

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