In Her Kunsthalle Basel Exhibition, Tiona Nekkia McClodden Contemplates Breathing and Mercy

Philadelphia-based Tiona Nekkia McClodden is among the most closely watched artist working today, having won the 2019 Whitney Biennial’s Bucksbaum Award and having figured in several major exhibitions, among them “The Condition of Being Addressable” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (in 2022), “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” at the New Museum (2021), and “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2017).

Last month, she opened her first institutional solo show in Europe at the Kunsthalle Basel. Taking over the Swiss institution’s second floor, the poignant and beautiful exhibition is spread across three rooms. In the first room includes several head gates, used to control the movements of cattle, alongside leather straps with short sentences debossed into them. In the center of the room is a compressor that hisses out air at specific intervals. Further along in the exhibition are nearly all-black paintings with elegantly tied ropes that reference Japanese bondage practices, as well as two video works by McClodden.

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To learn more about the exhibition, which runs until August 23, ARTnews spoke with McClodden by Zoom just after the exhibition’s May 26 opening.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: How did the conversation for your current exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel begin with Elena Filipovic, the Kunsthalle’s director?

Tiona Nekkia McClodden: It’s actually a very strange narrative. Elena got in contact with me last year because she was interested in talking to me about my work and had been following what I had going on. I think the push came from my piece [Achaba de Ogún, 2022] that was in Parcours last year. She actually didn’t get to see it, but she came to New York. The day that we met happened to be the same exact date that I was tending to a repair for my work at MoMA [The Brad Johnson Tape, X – On Subjugation, 2017]. We went upstairs to the cafe and had about an hour-long conversation about the work, and later, she offered me a solo show.

A black-painted head gate sculpture hangs on the wall, flanked by two leather straps on each side.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel

How did you start thinking about what you might want to do for the show?

The Kunsthalle Basel is so legendary in terms of its architecture. Kunsthalles, in general, have a different vibe to them. I had spent some time there last year during a previous visit to Basel and then during another walking visit to pick my site for Parcours. I was taking in the architecture, as well as the natural lighting on the second floor, where the show is, and what that could provide for whatever work I decided to do. The idea started from me thinking a lot about these devices—the gesture of the device of a choke valve, quite frankly, as it being something that can switch a direction or stop the flow air or fluid. I was interested in thinking about the architecture of the space and how to choreograph an exhibit around that concept. I had told Elena that I was interested in thinking more about the cattle chute head gate, expanding on that idea and thinking about notions of mercy, control, and flow. Several of the works on view are coming from past studies but executed in a more pointed display or exploration around these ideas of mercy, intention, and control.

The big reveal in the show deals with my sleep apnea, which happened well into the show’s planning. I got that diagnosis around two months ago. I was already thinking about the flow of air control, so the diagnosis put something else into the show that brought in this interest that toes the line between consent and non-consent. My own interaction with having this disorder is one hits on the same notes: I breathe fine when I’m awake, but I go to sleep and, all of a sudden, I can’t breathe. And then I have to use this device that steps into this place of control, mediating my breath. It’s strange for me.

A black painted head gate artwork hangs on the wall.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden, A MERCY III, 2023, installation view.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel

You mentioned tension, control, and mercy as ideas that you’re thinking through in the making of these works and throughout your practice. Why do you feel that’s important and worth considering for you as an artist?

I think it’s a gift to be able to consider it as an artist. It’s just inherited as a human—or the human that I am, that’s what I like to say. Or even, as a particular person who occupies an intersection of identities and ultimately becomes—whether I want to or not—a representational figure. The things that I end up looking at and the critique that I get to enter in, and why this comes into these works, and the works that I have been doing, is a way for me to speak on a range of ideas in a way that feels comfortable for me and doesn’t feel, quite frankly, reactive or even triggered, something that’s just a spurt. It’s a very deep way of trying to make a statement or a critique on a particular moment in my life, a moment in society, or a moment in this idea of art history that’s still being written.

Leading up to this work, I told folks, “I’m not exactly somebody who’s going to be called on to get their opinion on most things that affect me in this world.” And the art for me, especially these notions of mercy, control, threat, desire, consent/non-consent, pulling all of them into one place is not something that people would ever give me the space in a larger room to speak on. There are all these other people who are deemed experts who tend to speak on these things. In my way, looking at a lot of these hardcore points or ideas is me trying to say that within my lived experience I’m an expert on how these things affect me. I can also find an objective space to figure out how to distribute them or abstract them, so that they can become something that other people will give some time to. But I don’t want to shy away from the idea that I do feel that this is about me. I’m not trying to make these a hyper conversation on different experiences. It’s a product of being who I am in this world right now.

Installation view showing black-painted head gate sculptures hanging on the wall, flanked by leather straps.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel

Right, you’re not necessarily trying to create something that’s universal or that can touch on notions of a universal experience.

I don’t start off that way. I know it does, and I see that as perhaps a success. You want everybody to have a place. But I think it’s important to note that I do try to start from within my within my own experience. There is a lot already that has been put on me, thinking that I’m trying to speak for [others] or deliver a kind of sermon. There’s no answer in this work. You’re not going to find it here because I haven’t found it. It’s an unending question.

When people come to your work, what do you think they find? What do you hope they might leave with?

Something that is hard to shake off. That’s as much as I can gauge because I want to set things that are hard for me to shake off. This show did something very different and specific because of the distance. I’m making all this work in Philly. I’m going off a memory of a space, even though I have the floor plan and have [the Kunsthalle Basel team] take images and videos so I can keep the space in my head. But I wasn’t able to go in and match the space one to one. Transferring the objects overseas and putting them in that space in their brutal forms against this elegant architecture gave me my first view of how they can work on somebody because they had to work on me again.

I had such a close proximity to the head gates in my studio that I didn’t see the full power and the different avenues that one could take in looking at them. I found them extraordinarily beautiful [here]. In my studio, they were very terrifying. There’s something that is very strangely romantic about their violence from the viewpoint of a human figure. I don’t mind people finding these things beautiful. I also hope that they find them a little terrifying because that’s still there. That is something that I allowed myself to think about—the aesthetic value of them, seeing them in that space. I’m interested in beauty. I came out of this show, thinking I got a thing for beauty, despite how heavy-handed it can be.

Detail of a black painting with black ropes bound around it.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden, NEVER LET ME GO / V. irrevocable (detail), 2023.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel

Is beauty something that people might not necessarily think about when they see your work?

Oh, yeah. Sometimes people think I’m trying to make a thriller. [Laughs.] But I have a real investment in trying to present something that’s elegant because I think those spaces are elegant. Even in dungeons—the ones that I have preferred to engage with—there’s something that is functional, orderly, and there has to be something desired there. So I am interested in beauty and elegance and desire in these objects. But sometimes people think I’m just trying to knock their heads off with something blunt. I think I do that with the conceptual framework.

Do you think the context of showing in Basel affects the show’s presentation?

Basel also has a real proximity to the country and a lot of people from the area on farms. I was able to get a real time feedback of people who knew what these head gate devices are.

Yeah, that is such a different audience from, say, the one who that has seen your shows in New York.

Yeah, they didn’t know what the hell it was. It was way more dramatic for New Yorkers because they had never seen a cattle chute, whereas I’m from the South. I grew up seeing it.

Two leather straps with text on them hang on the wall.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden, THRASHER [I-XVI], detail, 2023.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel


The title comes from the [1988] poem “On Subjugation” by Brad Johnson, which I’ve handled for many years. I consider this an extension of that Brad Johnson universe, like how Marvel has the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This comes from my study of that text and wanting to do one more thing that I felt like I could execute. This was always a line that stuck out the most in that text. When I read that, it stood on its own. If I could figure out how to make material make sense in relationship to this language, I would feel successful in my practice. I knew that I wanted to assign that to the head gates because I think the structure and the form of them deal with that strange idea of resorting to “other wiles” to release. There were some literal aspects to it. I allowed that text to push me toward pulling in my own language.

I have language that shows up on these leather straps that hang on the wall in between these head gates. They all come from this original strap, where I imprinted this text, this exact excerpt of this poem in 2017. It’s the original strap that I wear on my chest in the work that’s on view at MoMA now, where I’m suspended by my feet reading. That strap’s original function was for me to be aware of my breathing at all times, and an idea of tension in relationship to the different changes of emotion when you breathe and how that affects your body. So that strap in that language forms the brain for this entire show. When it came back around, I was thrown by the fact that I had a confrontation with my own breathing. That piece still holds a certain weight for me and haunts me. This is me trying to dig a little bit deeper. If there is this complete taken romance that I have with the larger text, this line is the heart of it. This is a citation.

You mentioned that even though the works are new they’re studies for past works in a way, and of course Brad Johnson has been a major influence. Can you explain a little more how they’re related to the past works?

In my 2019 exhibition “Hold on, let me take the safety off” [at Company Gallery in New York], I had The Full Severity of Compassion, which is the full cattle chute in the middle of the room. Most people don’t know that the head is a part that can be detached from the cattle chute. That’s something that’s always modified and changed out because it wears out the quickest on the chute.

What I wanted to pay attention to there is the mechanism that squeezes the side of the cow. My original engagement for that show was entering into this conversation of how that cattle chute becomes a psychological landscape for me in relationship to my ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder. (You can check out my website as a refresher for that 2019 show.) I wrote extensively about what that cattle chute means to me, how it creates a false notion of safety with this fine line of violence. The whole device creates this comforting to calm down the animal so that it can either be inoculated, serviced, or killed. I found that to be a profound statement.

Focusing on the head gate is about control. The head gates all have points of what I would call a bend that suggests a notion of mercy. This bend is just a slight curve that suggests that is where the neck of the animal will be held. This idea of mercy is the only reason the head gates exist in the show because of that bend, or, in one case, the lack of that bend. Each one represents various levels of mercy. That became something for me to think about and talk about what mercy is. Mercy has to be given—you don’t get it yourself. Mercy has to be given by a dominant figure in control. How does mercy exist in these objects? How does mercy exist in these devices—even in this absurd falseness? When you look at them, you can see how big it is. It’s supposed to prompt the person who’s pulling this thing to stop. I found that to be the element that I wanted to zero in on and then figure out how to disperse it in all these different objects.  

An old-school TV shows a video of a person putting leather belts around the torso. Behind on the wall hung two black paintings with ropes bound on them.

What else is part of the exhibition?

To go into the next room, I have the leather paintings with kinbaku or shibari rope bondage ties on them. Those are in conversation directly with the head gates, but go more into a physical, bodily interaction in thinking about our desire to hold something longer than we should. In Japanese rope bondage, you have a timeframe because you’re dealing with a human who cannot stay tied up in things like binds for longer than 30–40 minutes. If they do, they will bruise; you will cut off circulation; you will kill them. My desire for the paintings, in creating the same bind on them, was to make something that is profane hold. The paintings underneath they’re produced to give this element of bruising. There’s this red and blue underneath that you see when you’re in the room to suggest that this has gone beyond it’s time. So, they’re very violent to me. They’re very seductive, and they are about a true human desire. The series is titled “Never Let Me Go,” and each one of them has their own name, whereas the head gates are titled A Mercy I–IV.

Compared with the straps from that original show, these leather straps with the language are me zeroing in and trying to create more of a conversation that lends itself to an action. There’s a video that shows that I’m wrapping these and connecting them to each other around my body, which mediates my own breathing and the ability of how much air I can bring into my body. I wanted to bring that back because the work at MoMA is the last one of these other acts. My only interest in reading Brad Johnson’s work was engaging my body was because of an understanding of that time of poetry, where a lot of poets dealt with their body as the poem, poem as the body. This one is the most direct action that I’ve ever done, where I’m literally putting language on my body and dealing with language that is so constricting and dominating. The embeds on the straps are in all caps. It’s a very brutal language, but also lush and romantic language. This is my delivery of the poem; I don’t say anything but the poem itself is in action.

What’s an example of one of the wordings on one of the new straps?

One of them is “WEEP AT THE MERCY OF DESIRE.” Another one is the title, “THE POETICS OF BEAUTY …” Another is “I AM THE PRESSURE ITSELF.” One that is very significant to me says, “A SINGLE MOMENT OF INATTENTION AND I FORGET TO BREATHE.”

Wow, that definitely hits.

Yeah, it hit too hard, especially with the apnea diagnosis. The last room is a video of me sleeping. It doesn’t even serve as a portrait because it’s me trying to make sense of myself. When I shot it, it was my first time seeing myself struggle to breathe. I had never seen this thing that people had observed me do. I stop breathing seven times per hour at night. The video is 20 minutes, which is how long my doctor has gauged it takes for me to go into deep sleep. My CPAP machine is controlled by my doctor; my doctor has access to control how much air pushes in me when I go to sleep. After I put the mask on and lay down, when it hits about 20 minutes and the machine gauges when I start to fall sleep, it pushes more air in to make sure that I don’t stop breathing. In the video, you can see me have what they call “events” where I stop breathing, and the machine is correcting my breathing.

Installation view of an exhibition showing an air compressor in the center of the room and several wall-hung works.
photo: Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel

In the main room of the exhibition, there’s an air compressor. That device is a foreshadowing. It’s a sound that releases air seven times per hour, so you just hear this air in the space. It fills up on its own, on a timer. The beauty of the Kunsthalle is that the rooms dead end, so you have to go back out the rooms you first saw. I want to try to create this moment where people are reconsidering the sound, reconsidering the scene that I set up for them.  

Earlier, you mentioned the architecture of the Kunsthalle. Is this the only way the show interacts with the building’s architecture?

I was also responding to the natural lighting. All the hand gates are painted by me in natural light in my studio. When I got to the Kunsthalle, I was able to come in and paint it in the space to correct the flow of light on the works. The dyes in that mixture create this illusion of a black but it’s really a dark like bluesy color. I don’t identify as a as a painter, but I do consider this show—equally there’s a sculptural element—about painting. The head gates are paintings, to me. I created this matte, and there’s a way that the tones of the black change. I think painting for me is something that has to do with intimacy. And that’s why I use it almost like sculpturally. The painting does something sculpturally, and how it can soften something that’s very hard.

Adjusting for the lighting definitely shows a care toward the paint, the textures and modalities of color.

I was in there every day because this effect of this tone of light over the course of the day was so cool to figure out. I felt closer to a painter than I’d ever felt because of that gesture of correcting for light. I got it. I understand it now. I wanted to see more of my hand, and I could make it happen in real time.

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