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In the early seventeenth-century, as Dutch colonizers started claiming land in eastern North America as their own, the neighborhoods that are now the West Village and Meatpacking District in New York City housed a Lenape village called Sapponckanikan. “Sapponckanikan (Tobacco Field)” (2019) is the first work visitors encounter in Alan Michelson’s exhibition Wolf Nation at the Whitney Museum. After downloading the associated augmented reality (AR) app, produced by Michelson with artist Steven Fragale, my cellphone screen opened a portal to the same spot 400 years earlier. The Whitney’s lobby filled with digital renderings of tall tobacco plants cycling through the seasons. The exhibition’s layering of time and space acts as a reminder of the resilience of Indigenous people in North America, asserting “we were here” and “we are still here.”
Wolf Nation continues on the fifth floor, where “Town Destroyer” occupies a long hallway. Like “Sapponckanikan,” “Town Destroyer” is activated by AR. Without it, viewers see a panorama featuring a white bust of George Washington in front of scenic wallpaper at his Mount Vernon estate. When viewed through the app, the image expands into three-dimensional space. Washington’s bust emerges from the wall as colonial maps, site markers, historic documents, and other materials transform his visage into a monument of his devastating legacy. Michelson, a New York–based Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River, chose imagery from the 1779 Sullivan Expedition, in which the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois Confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations) were pressured to fight in the Revolutionary War. To punish those who sided with the British Army, Washington unleashed a campaign of terror.
On May 31, 1779, Washington wrote to Major General John Sullivan:
[T]he expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total distruction [sic] and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.
The next room holds the eponymous “Wolf Nation” (2018), a long horizontal projection in a purple hue; the orientation and color both reference the wampum belts used by the Haudenosaunee in ceremonies and diplomacy. The non-linear narrative, emphasized by the looped and layered soundtrack of wolf calls composed by White Mountain Apache composer and musician Laura Ortman, mirrors the Indigenous concept of manifold temporalities. Contrasting the typical portrayal of wolves as ferocious predators, the film shows webcam footage of critically endangered red wolves socializing with their packs.
Michelson connects the wolves’ precarious existence with that of the Wolf Clan of the Lenape people and other Indigenous communities, as well as animal clans. Large carnivores like wolves, essential actors in a balanced ecosystem, have long suffered at the hands of trigger-happy colonizers. The binary, linear perspective that traditionally defines White, Euro-American ideology erases the complexity needed to support an intersectional, multi-species ecology. The English language’s tendency to solidify concepts as finite, discrete entities further denies us opportunities to escape the artificial constrictions imposed on experience.
During a conversation between Michelson, Anishinaabe curator Wanda Nanibush, and Australian Aboriginal artist Richard Bell, Michelson explained that “Town Destroyer” is an anglicized translation of the original name for Washington, Hanödaga:yas. Michelson and Nanibush noted that names in Indigenous languages are more verb-based, while English names are typically noun-based; Hanödaga:yas literally translates to “He bites the town.” Similarly, Haudenosaunee, usually translated as “People of the Longhouse,” actually means “They build the house.” This linguistic difference provides a poignant insight into the divergent worldviews: our brief existence as individuals is part of a much larger continuum that can’t be conquered. Through multi-sensorial installations, Michelson holds genocidal colonizers accountable and affirms the continued survival of Indigenous people. Further, as descendants of these colonizers steer our species to a disastrous future, Michelson offers Indigenous perspectives as an antidote to such abuse of the planet and its inhabitants.
Alan Michelson: Wolf Nation continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan) through January 12.