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PORTLAND, Ore. — I wasn’t sure what to make of the four street signs I came upon in a gallery at the Portland Biennial. Despite being a visitor from Seattle, the title of this work by Portland-based artist Anthony Hudson — “Alternative Options for Harvey Milk Street” — seemed straightforward. I had known that Southwest Stark Street in downtown Portland had been renamed Harvey Milk Street in 2018, for the gay rights activist and first openly gay California official, though I didn’t know the history behind the change. But Hudson’s palpably emotional signs, whose tenor ranged from bewilderment (“Southwest Where’s Our Street”) to pointed provocation (“Southwest Dead Faggot Street”), resounded like a chorus of voices shouting names into the void, searching for a place that was nowhere to be found. This work of art was clearly specific to Portland, but I couldn’t grasp the Portland it was calling to.
Site-specific work has become a standard trope of many biennials. At its best, it can offer a nuanced, critical perspective, in the vein of Mark Bradford’s Mithra, created in the Lower Ninth Ward for Prospect New Orleans. At its worst, such works fall into the category of “Festival Art,” a term defined by Peter Schejeldahl on the occasion of the 1999 Venice Biennale as “…anything that commands a particular space in a way that is instantly diverting but not too absorbing.” In either case, a biennial’s site-specific work typically leaves little behind among the community it inhabits once the exhibition closes.
Yet, the idea of “site” is treated with notable difference in this year’s Portland Biennial, an exhibition overseen by the Portland Art Museum from 1949 until 2010, when nonprofit Disjecta Contemporary Art Center took on the project. The last iteration ambitiously took place across the state, with 34 artists presented in 25 venues that ranged from traditional galleries to abandoned storefronts and historic buildings. By comparison, Portland2019 is modestly scaled to 18 Oregon-based artists and collaborations situated in Disjecta’s north-Portland space, and a slate of offsite performances.
Curated by Portland locals Yaelle S. Amir and Ashley Stull Meyers along with Seattle’s Elisheba Johnson, Portland2019 focuses on “the nuanced thematics of site, diaspora, and the multifaceted histories of the region.” But rather than realizing this theme through singular “site-specific” works commissioned for the biennial, “site” instead plays a pivotal, multifaceted role, in a way that offers viewers a more complete, complex understanding of the places at the core of the projects on view than one would typically expect to find at a biennial. While some veered into overly didactic territory, those that zeroed in on a particular, often personal sense of place were the most poignant.
Lynn Yarne’s captivating, float-like installation “Okagesadmade” focuses its view of Portland through the lens of the city’s Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities, which the artist interrogates by way of cultural objects, aural histories, photographs, and digital animations. Meanwhile, Sara Siestreem’s installation and Ka’ila Farrell-Smith’s paintings offer urgent meditations on the continued colonialization of the Oregon landscape as they portray the artists’ responses against the Jordan Cove LNG infrastructure project, a 229-mile underground pipeline that threatens to jeopardize ancestral lands and communities and become the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state. These works offer an unfiltered view of the physical state of Oregon at this moment.
But it’s Anthony Hudson’s work that I kept returning to. Perhaps most poignantly, his main project interrogated a site that was no longer there, communicating its absence with the most tangible affectation. In addition to “Alternative Signs for Harvey Milk Street,” Hudson also performed a walking tour through downtown Portland as drag “clown” Carla Rossi, titled “Requiem for Vaseline Alley” — a reference to the name bestowed to the area by the queer community and businesses that resided there since the mid-20th century. Appearing suddenly beneath the Harvey Milk Street Sign, donning a rainbow-striped umbrella hat, neon yellow safety vest, and oversized jewels draped across her neck and wrists, Rossi proclaimed her love for “The City of Portland, the City That Works,” in a tone drenched with sarcasm. This slogan turned out to be one she referenced repeatedly throughout the tour and was selected by government workers in 1995 “to make the city more efficient and customer-service oriented.” Rossi quickly made clear the way such an emphasis pointedly overlooks the history and people that came before it.
We toured around a dozen sites from this formerly vibrant queer neighborhood. Most of the buildings remain vacant or have been overtaken by tourist businesses, including the Ace Hotel that Rossi identified as the beginning of Vaseline Alley’s near-total erasure over a mere five years, from 2007 through 2012. Our group stopped on a stretch of empty sidewalk where “lines and lines and lines of gender-others, of variants of third genders, of fourth genders, of fifth genders” once waited to see the year-long Miss Thing drag competition. One of the few physical landmarks we encountered was a faded orange sign for the nonexistent Fish Grotto — a century-old restaurant that Rossi called the “mayonnaise that brought together this homosexual sandwich.” We stopped at Scandals, the only remaining queer bar, where patrons on the patio reminded us, “Please never forget this is Harvey Milk Street now.” I could sense an underlying disdain for what now appeared an empty naming gesture, given how the history of this neighborhood had already felt forgotten for years.
As we stopped by another hotel that had previously been the site of a bathhouse, Rossi lamented: “I can’t help but wonder how many people met their lovers there. How many people met their lifetime friends there. How many people had a great hour, or even 10 minutes there. How many people came down with the ‘gay plague’ there. How many people had their lives forever altered there. Who cares? Because now, you can get a $15-hummus plate. Keep moving.”
The brash gestures and rapid-fire satire of Rossi’s tour mirrored the speed at which change had pushed through these streets. We ended where we began, beneath the Harvey Milk Street sign, where she briskly walked off without looking back. Though it had lasted only around 30 minutes, the next time I return to the area, I’ll think of the ghosts Rossi extracted on Vaseline Alley, a place that I will forever see in vivid confrontation with the reality that remains.
The Portland2019 Biennial continues at the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center (8371 N Interstate Ave, Portland, Ore.) through November 3. The exhibition was curated by Yaelle S. Amir, Ashley Stull Meyers, and Elisheba Johnson.