Art

Cross-Cultural and Indigenous Themes Dominate SITE Santa Fe’s Biennial

The second edition of the SITElines biennial has a razor-sharp gracefulness that cuts with equal parts beauty and bitterness.

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SITE Santa Fe (all images courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The city was a flurry of activity the week of July 11, with members of the international art world descending upon SITE Santa Fe as it launched the second edition of its biennial series SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas. The sophomore installment, entitled much wider than a line, is a collection of five curators and 35 artists exploring themes of “vernacular strategies, indigenous understandings, and territories.” The exhibition takes its name from Leanne Simpson’s 2011 book Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, using that text as an allegorical lens through which to view the works presented. In the book, Simpson redresses ideas of identity in noncolonial ideologies, allowing for interpretations of sovereignty, representation, and nationalism in a nonlinear, permeable fashion, which echoes throughout the exhibition. As a viewer and a curator, I very much enjoy the incorporation of literature as a curatorial device for an exhibition — it creates an interesting dynamic in the space, being informed by an outside source that is both malleable and contained.

Having been in attendance at and written a review of the inaugural SITElines in 2014, I find this iteration to be an interesting evolution. The exhibition is stronger this time around, with a razor-sharp gracefulness that cuts with equal parts beauty and bitterness. Given all the curators — Rocio Arada-Alvarado, Kathleen Ash-Milby, Pip Day, Pablo Léon de la Barra, and Kiki Mazzuchelli — the possibility of competing visions and ideological approaches could have come to the forefront. However, what was lacking in cohesion in round one of SITElines was amended, for the most part, this year with the inclusion of a managing curator, Candice Hopkins, which helped to create an overall narrative arc for the large-scale exhibition.

Using place and geolocation as a conceptual framework for the exhibition, the artists represent 13 countries and territories. The show is billed by organizers as “an articulation of the interconnectedness of the Americas and various shared experiences such as the recognition of colonial legacies, expressions of the vernacular, the influence of indigenous understandings, and our relationship to the land.” Which it is and it isn’t. It’s hard to concretely articulate or argue that the works and artists herein share an interconnectedness, however there is an acute relational quality to the collection.

"Like a Hammer" Jeffrey Gibson, 2016
Jeffrey Gibson, “Like a Hammer” (2016)

One of the exhibition’s most captivating pieces is Jeffery Gibson’s “Like a Hammer” (2016). The mixed-media installation is comprised of seven drawings, a single-channel video, an intricately beaded robe, and a rawhide drum. Upon entering the gallery, one is immediately aware of the piece’s ominous presence. Surrounded by works by Aaron Dysart, Maria Hupfield, and Lewis DeSoto, “Hammer” looms over the viewer — literally. The robe, which is made of canvas, metal and tin jingles, and massive amounts of beads and nylon fringe, hangs from a wooden stretcher suspended from the ceiling. There is a clear visual allusion to Christ, stretched out on an imaginary crucifix, and an overtone of sacrifice, perhaps indicating that we as a society have sacrificed our culture. The robe itself is incredibly nuanced. While at first you might read it as an Indigenous object — particularly given the artist’s Choctaw/Cherokee heritage — upon closer inspection, the work is in fact a pastiche of popular culture’s appropriation of the “robe” as an ornament for performance, the gendering of objects (such as jingle embellishments and fringe as inherently female), and the notion of mass-produced objects and, obliquely, mass-produced culture. The accompanying video depicts Gibson dancing and painting within the gallery space while wearing the robe; over the duration of his performance, he creates the works that hang in situ.

"Preserve 2" Aaron Dysart, 2015
“Second Growth” Aaron Dysart, 2016

Across from Gibson’s installation is the work of American artist Aaron Dysart, which looks at the negotiation between humanity and nature: two seemingly indivisible categories that are inherently separated by contemporary society and the modalities in which we live our lives. In his work for SITE, Dysart illustrates man’s infatuation with taming nature and “perfecting” it, and how nature invariably rejects this notion and protests any containment or refinement. The piece of Dysart’s that takes center stage is “Second Growth” (2016), which features a piñon tree protruding from the gallery’s actual wall, pushing through the sheetrock, with drywall crumbled onto the floor. It’s a clear statement on nature’s ability to consume whatever it wishes to. There’s an irreverence to Dysart’s work, a playfulness that is witty yet cunning. It confronts the viewer with the absurdity of trying to harness nature against its will, as the natural world maintains its own agenda, regardless of human intent.

Raven Chacon's NACAP installation
Raven Chacon’s NACAP installation

Moving on through the show you encounter work by Diné (Navajo) artist Raven Chacon, whom I wrote about in May. Chacon, who practices as an installation artist and as part of the collective Postcommodity, and also performs as an experimental musician, shows work in the biennial that acts as a retrospective on his ongoing Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project. For this project, Chacon has traveled to the to the Navajo, Hopi, and Salt River Pima Reservations and instructed secondary-school students on composition for strings. By the end of his residency at these schools, the students write 2- to 3-minute compositions to be performed at the Grand Canyon Music Festival over Labor Day weekend. His installation for SITE highlights some of Chacon’s standout pupils during his 12 years of the program, illustrating the art and artistry of these young musicians, many of whom were composing for the first time, as well as the creative outlet this program facilities for them.

much wider than a line is, for the most part, successful. There’s a flow that was missing from the first iteration of SITElines, and a clarity that doesn’t get muddled in excess. Though the exhibition is large, it is still sparse enough for the viewer to have an exclusive communion with each piece, while still allowing the works a conviviality within the space. The show is evocative and eloquent, touching on pressing issues of identity, representation, race, and cross-cultural understanding, while facilitating an aesthetically beautiful, albeit emotionally challenging environment.

much wider than a line continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 8, 2017.

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