Art

The Hits and Misses of Santa Fe’s Much-Anticipated SITE Biennial

Despite curatorial missteps, 2018’s SITE Santa Fe contributes to an ongoing and timely conversation in the Americas about identity, displacement, and colonialism.

installation view, Eric-Paul Riege at SITE Santa Fe (all images courtesy of author for Hyperallergic)

SANTA FE — As the final installment of the SITE Santa Fe’s reimagined biennial model, the art world has awaited SITElines Casa Tomada with bated breath. This year’s festival is curated by Candice Hopkins, who curated the previous two SITE biennials, and has worked on projects for Documenta and the upcoming Toronto Biennial, along with Ruba Katrib of MoMA PS1, and José Luis Blondet of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with curatorial oversight by Naomi Beckwith of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. When planning began for the first edition of SITElines, the theory behind it was to create a biennial that would be structured in a three-part cycle, one that would develop and build on the same themes through different lenses, with the first three centered on art of the Americas.

It’s interesting to view the biennial’s three parts as one large exhibition over time and space. While each show has stood on its own, all have participated in the project of making space for the art of the Americas within the biennial circuit.

Jeffrey Gibson, Like a Hammer from the 2016 edition of SITElines

The 2014 edition, Unsettled Landscapes — the premiere of the new biennial model at SITE — was curated by independent curator Lucía Sanromán, along with Candice Hopkins, then-SITE Curator of Special Projects Janet Dees, and SITE Director and Chief Curator Irene Hofmann. While it felt somewhat disjointed, it was punctuated by extraordinarily strong work, including Kent Monkman’s “Bête Noire” (2014), Charles Stankievech’s, “The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond” (2012), and Melanie Smith’s, “Fordlandia” (2014). SITElines gained strength curatorially in 2016. With five curators (Rocio Arada-Alvarado, Kathleen Ash-Milby, Pip Day, Pablo Léon de la Barra, and Kiki Mazzuchelli), all overseen by Hopkins, it felt more cohesive and narrative-driven, all while remaining provocative and daring. Powerful and pensive works, such as Jeffrey Gibson’s installation Like a Hammer, Sonya Kelliher-Combs’s Remnant series, and Xenobia Bailey’s Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, cultivated an inescapable sense of resonance.

Installation view, Curtis Talwst Santiago, SITElines Casa Tomada, 2018
Curtis Talwst Santiago, Infinity Series, (2008–ongoing), mixed media dioramas in reclaimed jewelry boxes Varying dimensions *detail view

With so much build-up and intrigue, expectations have been high for 2018 and I’m not sure that experience is delivered. Although it is in the newly expanded SITE space at the Railyard in Santa Fe, this year’s iteration seems smaller than the past two. Its name comes from Julio Cortázar’s short story, “Casa Tomada” (1946), in which two elderly bourgeoisie siblings lose control of their home, eventually being forced to live on the sidewalk. Loosely translated as “house taken over,” the title attempts to reference colonial power, migration, settler violence, and displacement. Though there are standouts that engage with the themes, overall the connection points are not strong enough and the show feels disconnected.

Among the highlights is Curtis Talwst Santiago’s installation of 51 small jewelry boxes filled with dioramas of art historical, historical, contemporary, and some seemingly commonplace subjects. The intimacy of their scale and their low installation inside of a glass greenhouse force the viewer to bend over and strain to gain a closer perspective. Across from Santiago’s series is another strong work, “Surviving Active Shooter Custer” (2018) by Edgar Heap of Birds (Hock E Aye Vi), part of his ongoing monotype series. Here the works have been printed at a larger scale than previously and, for the first time, are shown alongside the companion ghost print, creating a kind of mirror — a reflection upon reflecting. The prints have a lyrical and poetic quality that fits well within the narratives of colonialism, historic violence, and the survival of Indigenous bodies.

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (b. 1954 in Wichita, USA; lives in Oklahoma City) “Surviving Active Shooter Custer” (2018), monoprints and ghost prints on buff rag paper48 prints, each 22 x 30 inches, SITE Santa Fe commission

However, not all the strong works received the space, reverence, and prominence they deserve. Melissa Cody, a Diné weaver and textile artist based in Los Angeles, whose work is lauded for its stellar technique, innovation, and commentary, felt, to me, like a curatorial afterthought. Cody was represented by small-scale work. While enjoyable, it’s disappointing that her gorgeous, poignant large-scale weavings are not included. Moreover, her works’ installation in what amounts to a narrow hallway does not do it justice ­­— and borders on curatorial sexism, as larger spaces seem reserved for the male artists in the show. In general, the placement of work by Indigenous women seemed thoughtless, at best.

Another misstep was the treatment of Victoria Mamnguqsualuk’s work. The late Canadian artist, who was a seminal figure in Indigenous North American fine art and daughter of renowned Inuit artist Jessie Oonark, is represented by several colored pencil drawings and prints, as well as two textiles. Despite Mamnguqsualuk’s acclaim as an artist, the way her work is displayed recalls anthropological exhibits. The angled white cases feel disrespectful, portraying the work more as artifacts than fine art. (And, from a technical standpoint, the angle of the glass produces a disruptive glare from the lights overhead, so reading and photographing the work is a challenge.)

Installation view of Melissa Cody’s weavings
Installation view of Victoria Mamnguqsualuk’s drawings

In contrast, a standout piece across from Mamnguqsualuk’s by Eric-Paul Riege, a young Diné artist from Gallup, New Mexico, comes across as powerful, reflective, and performative. Drawing on stories and the continuum of Diné existence and tradition, his installation represents this cultural continuum mobilized through his Indigeneity. The piece, comprised of looms that construct a hogan (a dwelling of the Diné people), containing two figures, dominates the gallery. Riege activated the work in the opening week as he performed his transforming into a sheep and meandered throughout the SITE galleries.

All three of the curators, as well as advisor Naomi Beckwith, have accomplished careers and have curated impactful exhibitions, such as Beckwith’s groundbreaking exhibition 30 seconds of an Itch at the Studio Museum in 2009–10, Katrib’s A Disagreeable Object at the Sculpture Center in 2012, Hopkins’s stellar show An Evening Redness in the West at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art in 2015, and Blondet’s Maria Nordman FILMROOM:SMOKE, 1967– Present at LACMA in 2011. However, as a team, their individual strengths seem to clash.

Cast of Juan de Oñate’s foot

While the decision to curate collaboratively is presumably an attempt to de-privilege any one curatorial vision, the result is a curatorial vision that is hard to tease out. However, one curatorial collaboration was more successful. In 1997, an anonymous activist artist performed an intervention on the statue of Juan de Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico, sawing off the right foot of the man often referred to as the “last conquistador.” Oñate terrorized Puebloan communities, performing acts of rape, violence, and genocide against Indigenous bodies. In one instance, he ordered that the right foot of all men over 25 at Acoma Pueblo be cut off in retaliation for the killing of his nephew during a Spanish raid of Acoma. The SITE curatorial team commissioned a cast of the storied foot. The work is displayed in an alcove as artifact, artwork, and anti-monument to colonial violence in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps this work best illustrates the themes the curators were trying to communicate with the show’s title.

Though some of the work will engage viewers and sparks important dialogues on the state of the collective Americas politically, culturally, and metaphysically, the exhibition fails to fully deliver on its promise. However, if we look at the SITE biennials from 2014 to 2018 as one large, extended exhibition ­­— or even, if we dare say, one large artwork — this is undeniably a significant player in the global contemporary art world. It is also worth noting that these curators took risk. They showed work by emerging artists, instead of adhering to a star-studded lineup, they provided insightful scholarship on their subject matter in the accompanying catalogue, and they have contributed to an ongoing and timely conversation in the Americas about identity, displacement, and colonialism. Those triumphs should be applauded. Curators should continue to take risks, be voices of opposition to stagnant institutional rhetoric, and push boundaries. As such, the 2018 SITE biennial remains a vital forum, placing artists of color, womxn, and urgent dialogues in the public sphere.

SITElines Casa Tomada continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 6, 2019.

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