CHICAGO — Multidisciplinary artist Marie Watt’s (Seneca Nation of Indians) solo show Sky Dances Light, currently on view at Kavi Gupta, is an immersive installation that pulls the viewer in and invites them to activate the work. Known for her socially driven practice centered around community engagement that engages with textiles, and embroidery, this presentation by the Portland-based artist is fresh and unexpected, yet simultaneously unmistakably Watt.  

As you enter the exhibition through a curtain dripping with tin-cone jingles (metal discs that are rolled into a cone shape), the chimes brush up against one’s body and create a soundscape as you enter the space. The sculptures inside the gallery are also made of jingles, which are commonly used in Indigenous communities dating back to the 1800s, when individuals began cutting out and curling up the lids of circular tobacco containers to make the conical objects. These were used as adornments on regalia to be worn by dancers, both in healing ceremonies and powwow dances.

Marie Watt, “Sky Dances Light: Threshold II” (2023), tin jingles, cotton twill tape, polyester mesh, 106 x 108 inches (photo by Kevin McConnell)

“Something that embodies Indigenous art is that it has sound, that it has a scent, that it is multisensory,” Watt shared while she walked me through the show. “It is making work that embodies the energy of a powwow. I wanted to make sculptures that could be tactile.” 

The work feels organic, despite the high-shine finish of the tin. The biomorphic sculptures suggest a variety of shapes, from fruit-like forms waiting to be plucked, to stalactites stretching down from a cavern’s ceiling; there is a sense of growing, of emerging, of becoming. Beyond its references to Indigenous histories, materials, and biophilia, the work also evokes the late 1960s Italian Arte Povera movement that used humble, domestic objects to break down the boundary between everyday life and art. The sculpture “Untitled (Living Sculpture)” (1966) by Marisa Merz, who is often associated with the movement, has the same sense of taking on a life imbued by the artist, viewer, and environment. 

Installation view of Marie Watt, Sky Dances Light (2023) at Kavi Gupta (photo by Kevin McConnell)

Underneath the gleaming jingles are glimpses of shocking pink mesh, acting as the sculpture’s connective membrane, from which soft blue satin ribbons, which reference Indigenous regalia and fashion, extend down and secure the jingles to the armature of the work. Watt shared that these colors represent her connection to the sky, reflecting on how the changing light dances through the atmosphere at sunrise and sunset, inspiring the show’s title (Sky Dances Light). The installation is suffused with a sense of wonder, dazzling the viewer with a multisensory environment. Touch is at the core of this body of Watt’s work. The artist invites viewers to place their hands on the sculptures, play with them, and activate their sonic qualities through embrace — something that is, more often than not, diametrically at odds with visitor protocols and policies in galleries and museums. Yet, it is through this touch and activation that the works come to life, hold value, and become a resource to the community. The show is playful, beckoning the act of engagement and jubilance, healing and care.

Installation view of Marie Watt, Sky Dances Light (2023) at Kavi Gupta (photo by Kyle Flubacker)

Marie Watt, Sky Dances Light continues at Kavi Gupta (835 W Washington Blvd floors 1-3, Chicago) through September 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery. 

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...

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