Technology is a huge time suck. In 2017, the average American spent more than 12 hours a day in front a screen consuming media. For many adults that involves some combination of responding to work related emails, texting sad faces to express our dissatisfaction with American politics, and consuming the latest episodes of Black Mirror. In this context, virtually any use of contemporary technology that’s less dystopian than our everyday experience comes as a treat, and yet is surprisingly hard to find.
Perhaps it’s this reason, then, that the experience of visiting The National Museum of the Native American’s “TRANSFORMER: Native Art in Light and Sound” comes as such a delight. Curated by Kathleen Ash Milby (Diné) and David Garneau (Métis), this exhibition presents 10 installations by 10 artists that use movement to demonstrate how Native American traditions of storytelling, dance, and communing with the land can offer reflective and contemplative experiences when paired with technology.
To the curators’ credit, they ease viewers into this world. Entering the exhibition feels a bit like entering the welcome room of a large spaceship designed by Native Americans. The show’s entrance is dimly lit with a corridor that leads to separate light-based installations that bleed green and blue light. It’s all feels very 21st century until you enter the rooms. Then, time slows down.
In the Raven Chacon (Diné) installation, “Still Life, #3”, for example, the simple decision to have viewers travel the circumference of the room to read the Navajo story of creation challenges how we typically experience technology. Not only does sharing the story on placards affixed to the wall slow down our reading, but unlike most reading we do on a laptop or mobile device, our bodies aren’t stuck in one spot. The room’s mostly empty, it’s large walls towering, while the lighting changes from white (morning) to blue (mid-day) to red (evening) throughout the day. Hanging high above from the ceiling, a line of speakers split the space in two. Several female voices layered upon one another share excerpts from the story in the Diné language, repeating the oral tradition with which these stories were shared. Like his previous works, “Still Life #1”, and “Still Life #2”, the composition suggests a repeating of history and more generally toys with the idea of time as a purely linear event.
There’s a grandioseness to the scale of the installation mimicked in the gestures of these stories. The story consists of four worlds in which different types of light last different amount of times. (In the first world, white morning light, blue midday light, yellow sunset, black/red evening last the same amount of time, in the second blue and black last longer than white and yellow.) Later on, it tells how these bodies made mountains — by crafting them out of materials they brought back from the different worlds, and fastening them to the sky.
Magic realism is a literary genre that springs to mind when thinking about what to relate to the structure of these stories, while the spare quality of the installation aesthetic is almost minimalist in nature. That simplicity continues across the hall in “The Harbinger of Catastophe” by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka’wakw). For her installation, Nicolson uses a glass box with a halogen light in the center, and a shade that uses the traditional forms of a carved bentwood box to cast shadows of beavers, turtles, and other totem forms on the wall. A mechanism raises and lowers the light, the pictographs slowly crawling up the height of the wall as if fleeing a flood that eventually crests and recedes. It’s a hypnotic piece — the shadows make the room’s walls feel monumental in scale — and effectively imparts the sense that nature is fragile and changing. (The mechanism itself also suggests this as it’s a glass box placed on the floor in the center of the room.)
The works by Nicolson and Chacon provide a great introduction to the exhibition, but the strongest works lay deeper within the show. For example, Marcella Ernest (Ojibwe) and Keli Mashburn’s (Osage) two channel video “Ga.Ni.Tha.” creates a vast panoramic landscape that literalizes the duality of the destructive and life-giving power of wildfire in the Oklahoma grasslands. The shots of the landscapes are doubled and lined up so the horizon line meets while the film flits through images like the blinking of an eye. Two black and white shots of flatlands ravaged by fire. Two upside down shots of grass, water and sky. Two landscape shots turned vertical picturing the sky and dried grass. Sky is body. The body is a rorschach. The rorschach is a bird, a horse, a lung. It’s mesmerizing and speaks to the transformative power of the landscape and those that inhabit it.
The soundtrack for this piece reinforces the idea of natural cycles — the repeating chanting sounds of Native American songs cycling with the images. But it’s not the only piece with a strong musical element. Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangaz) uses song and dance in his video “Tsu Heidel Shugaxtutaan” or “We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care,” to explore identity and cultural influence. For this piece, he invites David “Elsewhere” Bernal, a Peruvian American dancer to improvise a traditional Tlingit song and Dan Littlefield, a traditional dancer, to perform a Raven dance to the beat of an electronic song by Elsewhere. Watching the two back to back is a bit like looking at two sides of the same coin. In the case of Bernal, who performs his self styled hip hop against the blank background of a dance studio, his body looks like water, moving through space to the exact beat of the music. With Littlefield, who wears a hawk like mask and a large blanket over his back, the dance and plotting music resemble a bird hunting prey. Behind him a massive screen filled with the fluid drawings of animals create a forest like setting. Both push forward the similar stories by combining shared elements.
Not unlike Western society, the Tlingit consider names, stories, speeches and songs property. Both the title, which suggests opening up wisdom and the free exchange between Bernal and Littlefield seems to tug against this belief. Do we benefit from keeping our knowledge to ourselves, or as these videos suggest, is there more expression and wealth to be generated by opening our resources up to others? Today’s technology gives its own mixed answer that question, with social media inviting us to share pretty much everything — so long as it remains on the proprietary platform to which it was uploaded.
I spent a bit of time trying to decide whether I’d upload an excerpt of Galanin’s video to Instagram while sitting inside Julie Nagam’s (Anishnawbe/Métis/German/Syrian) “Our future is in the land: if we listen to it.” The piece is a meditative installation that offers a moment for reflection by creating a relaxing environment in which silhouettes of trees and animals in the Aspen Parkland Forest light up and darken on screens sized to cover the walls. Sounds of the forest and voices of people telling stories about the park play on overhead speakers. It’s a simple work meant to show highlight regeneration and how everything is interconnected. But it also used technology to give us something city dwellers often lack — a connection to nature and the time and space for contemplation.
The message implicit in the title and work of Nagam’s piece, and the show as a whole, describes a future told not by the phones in our hands, but our ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to the stories that surrounds us. That doesn’t have to mean heading out to a park, or meditating on the cyclical nature of life, but it’s not a bad start.
TRANSFORMER: Native Art in Light and Sound is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian (Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004) until January 6, 2019.