SANTA FE — In 1946, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar wrote a short story titled Casa tomada. The story, whose title translates to House Taken Over or House Under the Influence, follows two co-habitating adult siblings who lose access to rooms in their large home due to an unseen force. The siblings do not resist the entity, resigning their claim to the hall and then the kitchen until they are forced from the house entirely. This story is about “dispossession contingent on time,” curator Ruba Katrib told Hyperallergic, and it is the thematic foundation and title for the 2018 biennial SITElines at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico.
The SITElines biennial has existed since 1995, but this year the event enjoyed a newly expanded building, and impressive guest curators José Luis Blondet, Candice Hopkins, Ruba Katrib, and advisor Naomi Beckwith. Like many biennials, an expansive theme prescribed to 23 artists from eight countries can tempt critics to look for missteps as much as triumphs. Ultimately, though, SITElines has been able to carve a conversation about displacement.
At the center of the biennial’s thesis is an exact replica of the bronze foot amputated from the Juan de Oñate monument in Alcalde, a town north of Santa Fe. In 1997, two anonymous people cut off the right foot of a recently erected monument to the conquistador. The action revived the narrative around Oñate’s governance and brutality, which included chopping off the right foot of men from Acoma Pueblo in 1599. The SITE curators gained access to Oñate’s missing foot and cast a clay replica. Many galleries orbit the large boot, not only acknowledging the recent reevaluation of monuments but bringing several artworks into the conversation about whose history we revisit.
Nearby, a classroom whiteboard with text organized into four columns rests quietly. Emerging from areas that have been erased are words such as “Korean War,” “NATO,” “Harlem Renaissance,” and “Little Rock Nine.” In the lower-right corner the word “SUMMER” is written in bubble letters followed by “DJ Party 6/19/15.” Lutz Bacher’s “Whiteboard” (2018) comments on an educational system that mimics imperialism’s reductive record of history, safely locking events into a flat time capsule until they return for an encore.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s “Revindication of Tangible Property” (2018) was especially commissioned for the biennial. Pre-Hispanic spiked vessels dangle on chains beside 19th-century French vases. The neoclassical ornamentations reference Los Altos, the short-lived sixth state of Central America which formed after independence from Spain in 1821. The sixth state distinguished itself from its neighbors through a European aesthetic. There is a strange, lovely ease to Ramírez-Figueroa’s dance of pastel vessels pouring from milagro-like hands.
Several galleries later in the exhibition is a greenhouse occupied by Curtis Talwst Santiago’s Infinity Series (2008-ongoing), in which big dramas play out in tiny dioramas in vintage jewelry boxes. “Deluge VII” (2016) simultaneously grapples with the current migrant crisis and art history’s deluge paintings, which interpret the great flood in the first book of the Bible. The work demands patient observation without surrendering to the grander works in the room, such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s “Neo Totems” (2018) or Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’s commissioned “Surviving Active Shooter Custer” (2018). Heap of Birds’s prints confront the language of “othering,” such as the name of Apache leader, Geronimo, adopted for the operation code name to kill Osama bin Laden. The individual voices in the gallery produce a choir on displacement and replacement.
The success of the exhibition’s first and final rooms prompts questions about that gaps in the middle. With skepticism peaking, I realize the absence of artist Melissa Cody’s work, despite it being listed in the biennial’s literature. Her six large Navajo weavings are not displayed in the heroic manner I expected, instead placed on the backside of a wall made visible when exiting the last room. This registers as a curatorial error, a choice presumably made based on logistical pressures.
With this in mind, I decided to give the middle galleries another chance, and upon my return, I discovered expanded ideas of home that I had initially misinterpreted. Artist Paz Errázuriz documented a Chilean brothel where women adopt the domestic behaviors of a hostess toward her guest. Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá (Spiderwoman) gave Navajo the ability to weave, so artist Eric-Paul Riege constructed her home from looms. Sable Elyse Smith’s film stitches together recordings her father sent from prison with scraps of found footage. Although generated from her personal archive, Smith’s film reminds us that 1% of Americans make a cell their home.
Often, tradition is an act also born from necessity. The style of Cody’s weavings are called Germantown because the yarn is commercially spun and dyed, like they were when they first arrived in the southwest United States from Germantown, Pennsylvania. Before the material transformed the color of Navajo weavings in the late 19th century, the “Long Walk” forcibly marched 10,000 Navajos from their homes in the 1860s to a desolate internment in New Mexico. One-third of the population died from hunger and exposure there. Four years later, survivors were able to return home. Cody, who was raised on the Arizona Navajo reservation, acknowledges home as both a rupture and an affirmation through her beautiful and jarring textiles.
SITElines includes some academic exercises, like a 66-minute film on a Syrian seed bank by Jumana Manna titled, “Wild Relatives” (2018), and Andrea Fraser’s commissioned “2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics” (2018), a visual interpretation of her titular book. Both works make sense theoretically, but in practice make none. What visitor is prepared to spend over an hour watching a film in the midst of an exhibition? Ultimately, these inclusions were for the record; long after this exhibition closes, they will be part of why SITElines is a challenging and experimental interpretation of history and belonging.
SITElines’ conceptual framework of home echoes the porous definitions of a guest, stranger, or family. What tests these definitions? Is it a bloodline or philosophy, an action or space? The biennial offers pivoting but coherent expressions of displacement, where one’s sense of belonging is as subjective as a feeling and as tangible as a refugee’s claim to settle.
Biennials carry the impossible mandate to tackle important themes through many contributors. But this SITElines produced an intelligent conversation about contemporary issues that unite the Americas without reducing any of the complexities.