Museums

A Soon-to-Be-Hidden Artwork in NYC Spells Out the Realities of Native American Life

Duane Linklater’s exhibition at 80WSE asks us to consider how knowledge and tradition are transmitted.

Works by Ethel Linklater, the grandmother of Duane Linklater, on loan to 80SWE by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

When Duane Linklater’s exhibition closes next weekend, one of the works will join a growing list of hidden artworks in New York City. These unseen works live on mostly in lore rather than as visible things — they include the hidden Richard Serra at MoMA PS1, the Maurizio Cattelan in the floor of the Whitney Museum, and the REVS diary written on the walls of the city’s subway tunnels. Linklater has spelled out “What Then Remains” in red metal studs embedded in the walls of the galleries at 80WSE. The phrase echoes the words of US Justice Sonya Sotomayor in the case of Dollar General v Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians concerning the abuse of a 13-year-old tribal member by a non-Indian employee at a shop on tribal land. The case highlighted that the sovereignty of American Indian reservations and their lands are often caught up in a byzantine legal system involving different jurisdictions for civil and criminal matters. The words are tragic, pointing out that even the most liberal justices are tools of empire, erasing the first peoples of this continent through violence and the enforcement of laws that benefit the ruling elites.

Linklater often tackles issues of transmission and legacy in his work, especially how things are disseminated and circulate. “What Then Remains” (2017) will become part of the bones of the gallery, hiding out of sight even though it will undoubtedly be there. It’s hard not to see this piece as part of the larger history of Native American culture in the region. For instance, Manhattan’s Broadway is built on the Wickquasgeck Trail (which means “birch-bark country” in the Algonquian language), yet that history is lost on the vast majority of those who travel the avenue daily. The ghost-like presence of Linklater’s work will undoubtedly permeate the space.

A general view of the Linklater show from the first gallery looking into the back

That notion of the heritage of a space, or its history, is further explored through the inclusion of works by other artists in his family. Linklater has invited his son, Tobias Linklater, to show an animation in one of the rooms, and he’s arranged the loan of various wearable art pieces by his grandmother, Ethel Linklater, which are in the collection of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in Northern Ontario. The inclusion of these pieces highlights his interest in seeing how something may be conveyed from one generation to another. Generations of creators in his family have found comfort in different media. Are any of them more “indigenous” because of their work? Are our expectations challenged by seeing how each generation embraces different symbols and media to express their ideas? And how do the economic systems that sustain their practices — whether governmental, academic, or social — influence their production and circulation? It should be mentioned that Ethel Linklater’s works were the most difficult to include, since they are made of restricted materials, including caribou, and required additional paperwork to pass through customs.

Part of the wall work that spells out “What Then Remains” — here you see “HEN” from “THEN” — and will be buried into the walls as a hidden artwork during future exhibitions.

Another work by Linklater, this one a film he created with artist Brian Jungen, Modest Livelihood (2012), was screened by the gallery on Thursday, February 2. Created for dOCUMENTA (13), the film is titled after a court action that took place in Canada and concerned an indigenous man’s rights to fish for eel on his land. The ruling reinforced the man’s rights, but with the shocking stipulation that he could fish so long as it allows him a “moderate livelihood.” In a land where corporations regularly rape the land for natural resources, the term raises questions about who the legal system serves. The artists tweaked the phrase to be more poetic, and the resulting work is a meditation on landscape and tradition. The film challenges the traditions of documentary filmmaking that began with Robert J. Flaherty’s troubling ethnographic film Nanook of the North (1922), which focuses on an Inuk man and is considered the first great film of the genre — even though the true documentary nature of the work is questioned today.

In Modest Livelihood, the artists join Jungen’s uncle and go hunting in the area covered by Treaty 8 in northeastern British Columbia, where Jungen hails from. We follow them on their journey, which lingers on the landscape. The silent film terminates with the killing of a moose and the stripping of its skin and flesh. (Full disclosure: I joined the artist for a public conversation about the film after the screening.)

The stripping of things to their essence is what I most associate with Duane Linklater. He shows us the bones of things — in a sparse, minimal aesthetic — to both reveal and obscure their meaning. Contemplating his work, I can’t help but think of natural history museums, where we are provided with the illusion of proximity to something — whether dinosaurs or other creatures — simply by being presented with their skeletal frames. Art objects can be equally allusive, manufacturing a sense of knowing, even if they often act as containers for ideas from our own culture that we pour into them in our fumbling attempt to understand and control what they might have to say.

The word “REMAINS” is spelled out in the wall of the back gallery with platforms displaying freshly cut flowers and art objects made by Duane Linklater’s grandmother.
A view of the armatures and objects, including fresh cut flowers purchased and placed by the curator of each iteration of the show.
Another view of one of the platforms
A work by Ethel Linklater
Another view of the platform
A platform with works by Duane Linklater’s grandmother, Ethel Linklater, and his son, Tobias Linklater. The accession paper for his grandmother’s work is hanging on the wall.
The accession certificate for Ethel Linklater’s works
Light box images of the artist’s studio, which is in an open storefront in downtown North Bay, Ontario, are enlarged and displayed on Washington Square East.

Duane Linklater’s From Our Hands with Ethel Linklater (Trapper) and Tobias Linklater continues at the 80WSE galleries at NYU (80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) until February 18.

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