Ramp Project: Without Ground
Installation by Kimowan McLain, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA 2002
Author’s Comment: (Even though this exhibition is long gone, I still really like the artwork and think it deserves more attention).
The Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania turned over exhibition space to installation artist Kimowan McLain in the middle of July. Within a week, he turned an awkward switchback ramp into a work of art he titled Without Ground. McLain, who is Cree Indian, works in contemporary modes, usually in an installation format that takes over an exhibition space entirely. While the content of his work usually makes references to ongoing social, political, cultural, and historical issues relating to Native cultures, his work is still very accessible to non-Natives.
The exhibition space for Without Ground is unusual; it is a long ramp that leads from the lower gallery to the upper gallery. It’s a transitional space, seemingly more suitable for moving people from one gallery to another than for exhibiting art. On the other hand, the ramp is prominently located, occupying much of the front of the building and visible from the street through large glass windows. Any artist designing artwork for this space is faced with an interesting compositional and spatial problem. There is a lot of wall space available, but floor space is quite limited, which means that viewing space is also restricted. There is only one wall that offers a fairly standard viewing situation. The other walls are within arms’ reach of the viewer. The wall of the second rising ramp is visible from the first ramp, but is canted at an unlikely angle, confusing the senses. In spite of these challenges, McLain developed an installation that takes advantage of the peculiarities of the space, turning them into integral aspects of the work.
Without Ground consists of approximately seventy photographic images transferred directly onto the gallery walls. The images are small in scale, ranging from ¼ inch to almost 9 inches tall. All the photographs are of the artist himself, but the small scale, repetition, and organized placement of the photographs counter any temptation to call Without Ground narcissistic. In an interview during the installation, McLain consistently referred to the images in the third-person, often giving them informal descriptive names like “red-shirt guy.” The photographs may be self-portraits, but once the artist began organizing them for the walls of the exhibition, they took on separate identities and function like actors in a developing narrative.
The dominant pattern of traffic through the ramp is from the first floor gallery to the second floor gallery, and McLain’s photographs mirror this movement. The first groupings of figures are shot from the side in walking poses, transitioning to a figure gazing upward, then a pairing of figures holding umbrellas and bending over slightly. At the end of the first ramp, a grouping confronts the viewer head-on, then the figures are again shot from the side as if they also were proceeding up the ramp, albeit at a great distance away. Again, this parallel movement is broken up by an action; walking is interrupted by postures indicating a search going on, followed by figures examining the ground, even crouching down to pick up an invisible object off of the equally invisible ground. McLain’s figures resume walking, but this time they are photographed from the back, as if walking away perpendicular to the path traveled by viewers on the ramp.
McLain’s use of space and perspective in Without Ground is interesting for several reasons. The figures float in the air, apparently ungrounded, but ground is implied by their consistent placement with the eyes along a unifying horizon line. The differences in scale of the figures then provide the illusion that the smaller figures are farther in the distance. In addition to scale, McLain has used thin washes of paint matching the white of the gallery walls to give the impression that the smaller figures are shrouded in fog, decreasing the crispness and color contrasts to simulate the atmospheric effects of viewing an object a great distance away. These subtle manipulations lend a sense of monumental depth to the austere gallery-white walls.
Is it important to know that McLain is Cree Indian? Not necessarily. As an aesthetic and spatial concept, Without Ground is a successful work. McLain’s searching, ungrounded figures allude to a personal search for something within (or outside of) ourselves to provide a sense of identity, a sense of stability, especially in this post-September 11th world. The absence of “ground” in this case can be understood as a direction to search within oneself. Where is the ground? If there is no ground, no external environment at all, what then can he be searching for? Perhaps the search itself is of the most importance, rather than a measurable, objective finding. Without Ground raises questions that most of us can relate to in some sense.
However, knowing something about issues going on in Native communities in the US and Canada provides added layers of meaning to this piece. For instance, the title Without Ground can be understood as a reference to a range of inter-connected issues: land claims, the experiences of urban Indians, the termination of federal recognition for some tribes, efforts to regain federal recognition, and general efforts to protect tribal sovereignty.
Without Ground, an installation work that would not be out of place in any contemporary art museum in the world, might not look particularly “Indian” but it does make a reference to Native artistic practices of the first half of the twentieth century. The lack of ground, or setting, in McLain’s installation is a reference to the depiction of space in paintings associated with the Santa Fe Studio Style promoted (and some say invented) by Santa Fe Indian School teacher Dorothy Dunn. Indian artists working in the Studio Style produced beautiful paintings of Indians in traditional dress, usually engaged in ceremonial and dance activities. The figures usually floated on a blank, landscape-less page. These paintings were popular with non-Natives for many reasons- but the romantic appeal was a main factor. The lack of real three-dimensional space around the dancers made them timeless, authentic, exotic Indians, floating in an ahistorical realm, cleansed of unpleasant references to poverty, racism, and genocide. There’s nothing romantic about Without Ground though. Rather than using images of Indian dancers in traditional garb, McLain chose to depict himself in regular street-clothes. He isn’t wearing cutting-edge fashionable clothing – just your normal everyday “guy” clothing, nothing more exotic than an occasional hat or umbrella. The presence of such accessories in the photographs plays a part in building the subtle narrative of Without Ground.
This is a quiet, contemplative installation with an air of mysteriousness about it. It is appealing in its visual simplicity and conceptual complexity.